Our anime-insider has brought us this exclusive report from the Warner Bros. panel at Annecy in France that presented an exciting “first look” at The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim.
Be warned: depending on your knowledge of the Helm Hammerhand story and what you’ve been reading of our coverage so far, there may be spoilers below!
Kenji Kamiyama – Japanese director
Philippa Boyens – writer/producer (Philippa shared shoutouts from Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Andy Serkis.)
Joseph Chou – producer and owner of Sola Studios
Jason DeMarco – studio creative exec with WB. (Described as being “made in a lab to make this movie” because he’s an anime and Lord of the Rings nerd.)
Making of the film:
WB raised the idea of an animated film. Philippa felt the question was “Do we want to see familiar characters from the live action films animated?” Her kids love anime, which is her connection to the medium.
She talked about the need for a level of realism, to bridge the gap between live action and animation.
They wanted to tell a complete story that was separate from either of the trilogies, and a story without the direct influence of the Ring or the shadow of Sauron.
Wanted to find a story in Middle-earth that “fit with anime, culturally.”
Kenji Kamiyama is also a writer, so Philippa found it was an easy collaboration — he’s really good at keeping the story together, understanding place and scale, and keeping Philippa on track when she went down rabbit holes.
The writing process began with Will Matthews and Jeffrey Addiss [Editor’s note: they recently won an Emmy for their Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance] who have comedy chops but were not versed in the lore of Middle-earth. And Philippa didn’t want to write it: “I felt too old, honestly.” So she brought in her daughter Phoebe and her partner Arty Papageorgiou. Phoebe literally grew up on the sets and most importantly, she understands the rhythm of Tolkien’s language. Kenji was so excited to have a young female writer onboard.
They collaborated with many people from the live action film. We saw concept art from John Howe, Alan Lee, Richard Taylor, and Mark Wilshire were also involved. They also worked with WETA closely, and literally used their models of Edoras. It fully takes place in the world of the film trilogies and many of the images will look very familiar to fans!
When Kenji was approached with this idea, he thought it was “impossible”.
Adapting the world to animation was a struggle. They worked with Daniel Falkner (sp? Editor’s note: Dan Falconer, I think!) who was an art director on the live action films and “knew where the bodies were buried” — [he] could help them find old assets and consult about the history. They talked about the number of horses — so many! — and how hard horses are to animate. But that’s a huge part of the story. Kenji said they needed to use all their tricks to pull this off. They sent the animation crew to horse barns to film, ride, and “be scared”.
Animation process: they used detailed CG models of the characters and layouts, some from WETA, and assembled a layout in Unreal. They would choose shots and cuts from this and assemble a rough cut. This served as a base for the mocap director who would film actors. Then it all went to the animators, who used that to do the animation. Kenji stressed that this is NOT ROTOSCOPE — it’s an interpretation/translation.
Kenji said that usually, a character animator will take a lot of time to learn a character. They really need to understand them. But this movie had a tight timeline, hence the motion capture.
I don’t think Howard Shore is composing the music, but they are using his score — so cool to hear it!
Philippa said it’s been “a joy” to work on an animated project. She also talked about working with Jason DeMarco, and how he made sure to get some “monster vs. monster” moments in the film.
I talked with Philippa later and she wanted me to share a detail: in Carpenter’s Tolkien biography, when Tolkien first had a room in college he decorated it with Japanese prints. She found that really cool to now be doing this distinctly Japanese take on animation.
While they mostly seem done, Kenji and Joseph have a lot more to do, they’re still deep in the production process. Kenji seemed stressed! “Probably the biggest film he’s ever worked on”. Kenji kept talking about the challenge of it, and was clearly still thinking deeply about “how he’s gonna finish this film.”
Joseph described it as “a huge privilege” to work on this. They want to do Japanese animation proud, and they are very aware of all the fans who are watching and want this to be done right. Also this is the first time he and Kenji met Philippa in person! This was started during Covid.
Joseph jokes about how the crew is going to have to work nights and weekends to finish this movie, which really bummed me out. Can we not normalize the brutal working hours in animation? I expect better tbh.
They ended with saying that they are currently recruiting talent for the film. Presumably in Japan. (Editor’s note: I wonder if that means additional animators … or Japanese voice talent?)
Finally, the movie will be out 4/12/24 in theaters only!
Spoilers below – you have been warned!
There may be “a character or two we recognize” from the live action films. (Editor’s note: Saruman, Saruman, Saruman and Saruman.)
It’s about the failure of Helm Hammerhand, the war that results from it, and the characters who stepped up in the wreckage. Edoras is destroyed at the end of act 1 — we saw some beautiful art of a burned Meduseld — and the rest of the movie as about “the wreckage of war”.
Discussion of the Rohirrim culture as being based by JRRT on the Mercians — a warrior culture with a code. Family-based power structures and struggles, with honor and loyalty being more important than wealth and riches.
Alluded to a “ghost story” and a “surreal story” within this movie — all suited to the medium of animation.
We saw concept art images of Oliphants and orcs (I think — maybe they were wildmen) surrounding Edoras. We saw a rider with long yellow hair and a horn riding in front of an Oliphant. The art style reminds me of some 90s anime. We saw art of Isengard on its own, and surrounded by tents and wildfires. We saw a lot of background art of Meduseld — really beautiful translation in my opinion, and so familiar.
Lots of consultation with experts to figure out what Middle-earth would look like 260 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings.
The movie begins with a voiceover from Éowyn — Mirando Otto herself! She talks about Héra, how she is a rebellious child and how she is not named in the old tales. We got to see a rough cut of this beginning, with a combination of CG models and hand drawn animation. Héra rides across the plains, rides to the top of a bluff, and tosses a huge hunk of meat into the air, where it’s snatched by a giant eagle. She almost touches the eagle — but it flies away before she can.
We saw another scene in Meduseld, where a herald talks to Fréalaf about heraldry, and then Héra comes in to explain the shieldmaiden herald and what it means. She and Fréalaf are cousins i think? Reminiscent of Éomer and Éowyn. Helm comes in, commanding the attention at the room, and sits at the throne.
We saw a still image of Helm frozen in front of the Edoras gates, knee deep in enemies. Again I’m not sure if they’re orcs or Wildmen or both. (Editor’s note: maybe the concept art below? Which is more likely to be the gates of the Hornburg (then called Súthburg), not Edoras)
Héra(VA: Gaia Wise) – female main character. Not named by Tolkien, but Helm’s daughter is mentioned and she was the character they wanted to explore. Wanted to explore a female POV in Middle-earth, but she’s not a warrior princess per-se — she doesn’t become king. For her character, they they drew on the historical figure of Æthelflæd — the Lady of the Mercians, who defended her people.
We saw expression sheets and designs for Hera. She reads very 90s anime girl — kind of reminds me of the Rankin Bass Éowyn. She has red hair in a messy braid, leather armor, and a sword. We also see designs of her in formal dress. They describe her as “vulnerable and wild”, a tomboy type character. She has a growth in the film — maybe tied to needing to lead her people in a time of chaos. Philippa loves that her hair is never perfect.
Wulf(VA: Luke Pasqualino) – the other main character, the main antagonist. I think he’s from the Wildmen? He’s a big muscly dude with long hair, scruffy, an axe and furs and a ragged cloak. A scar over one eye. They solicited “lots of ideas from the female staff” in the studio. The note they got was “he does bad things, so make him beautiful”. And he is.
Helm Hammerhand (VA: Brian Cox) – daddy vibes. he’s got a big beard and a crown, we saw an expression sheet and a polished design. Red and blue clothing with beautiful intricate gold details.
Freca(VA: Shaun Dooley) – He’s the leader of the Wildmen, and he offers his son’s hand in marriage to Héra. That’s the inciting incident of the movie and leads to “Helm’s big mistake”. He’s wide with leather armor, a cloak, and some kind of bearpaw maul on a chain. He has facial tattoos. “Helm doesn’t take him seriously.” He’s trying to take over Rohan with this marriage. He’s strong and tragic, but also a comedic figure. Philippa quoted a line from the movie: “fat and prosperous is when men are at their most dangerous”.
Fréalaf (VA: Laurence Ubong Williams) – I think he’s Héra’s cousin, he “wins everything in the end” and becomes king.
Thank-you WB and Philippa Boyens for all your kindness and generosity. We look forward to seeing The War of the Rohirrim next April.
A week has gone by since we gathered with fellow fans in the belly of the beast for Dragon Con 2022 – a return to pre-Covid type revelry; though with slightly reduced numbers this year.
This year’s convention was a great success – and it has to be said, the reduced numbers make a BIG difference. The event still felt crowded, but it was possible to move around without getting stuck in a crowd and coming to a complete standstill.
For Tolkien fans, there was plenty to love. On Thursday 1st September, staffers deej, Madeye Gamgee and greendragon started us off with a look at what we might expect to see in Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Folks then dispersed to various room parties to watch the first two episodes, as they released that evening.
Very Special Guests
Friday 2nd brought what was for many the most exciting panel of the weekend – a chat with dialect coach Leith McPherson and artist John Howe. Hosted by greendragon, this conversation could have gone on for much longer than an hour. McPherson and Howe are both passionate, insightful and charming – and had much to say! Their love for Tolkien, and their desire to respect his creation whilst bringing something new to the screen in The Rings of Power, was evident. Listening to them speak, noone could doubt the earnest desire of the showrunners to honour and cherish Middle-earth, and all that it means to people, in this new manifestation. (Whether they have succeeded or not remains a matter of opinion and personal taste; but the sincere wish not to break something beautiful, as McPherson put it, cannot be doubted.)
After the panel, DragonCon TV caught up with the two guests:
Friday – An Evening at Bree
That evening, TORn joined the High Fantasy Track to host a long-standing Dragon Con tradition – An Evening at Bree. This year we had three musical acts: The Brobdingnagian Bards, Beth Patterson, and Landloch’d. All had partygoers up on their feet, dancing and swirling. The Elf Choir sang as beautifully as ever, providing a moment of ethereal calm in the revelry.
The highlight of Bree is always the costume contest, and this year was no exception! McPherson and Howe joined us to judge the entries – and were joined by experienced cosplayer Joshua Duart, in full Thranduil regalia! They had their work cut out for them – with 30 entries of a very high standard, it was not easy to choose winners!
On Saturday morning, some hardy souls were up early, to march with the Arms of Middle-earth in the Dragon Con parade! Further Tolkien panels in the High Fantasy Track included a discussion of ‘Underworlds of Middle-earth’ and ‘Gandalf vs Sauron – Angels at War’. We also explored the upcoming anime film The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim – and during that panel, we shared a special video message for fans at the con, from Philippa Boyens and Richard Taylor!
Hobbit Drinking Songs with the Brobdingnagian Bards drew the usual crowd on Sunday night; but we were back at it bright and early Monday morning, for a TORn panel discussing what we had seen in Episodes 1 and 2 of The Rings of Power – and speculating what might be to come…
There was just time for folks to stop by our table and buy a button or shirt before the con drew to a close on Monday afternoon. The Dragon has returned to its lair for another year! But Tolkien fandom is alive and well, and Middle-earth was well represented at Dragon Con 2022.
See you next year!
We must thank Amazon Prime Video for arranging for Leith McPherson and John Howe to join us this year. We hope for more exciting guests next year! Thanks of course to the High Fantasy Track, and Dragon Con in general, for continuing to invite TORn to participate. We look forward to seeing our fellow fans again next year!
DragonCon is upon us! For the first time since 2019, the full Dragon (almost – numbers are slightly limited again this year) is being awakened. And TORn staffers are there to share the fun.
You can find staffers deej and greendragon at TORn’s ‘fan table’ (which we believe will be in our usual spot, in the Hyatt opposite the entrance to the Art Show) throughout the con. We’ll have new button and shirt designs on sale, and all kinds of fun things for fans to look at. You can also sign up at the table for the Evening at Bree costume contest! (Sign up is also available in the High Fantasy Track Room, Marriott L401-403).
Events of interest to Tolkien fans during DragonCon are as follows:
Thursday 1st 7pm TORn’s Rings of Power preview
A last chance to speculate what’s coming in Prime Video’s highly anticipated show, before it becomes available to watch at 9pm ET. Spoiler-free speculation! Marriott room A601-602
Friday 2nd 5.30pm Behind the Scenes of The Rings of Power
TORn staffer greendragon hosts a panel with very special guests artist John Howe and dialect coach Leith McPherson, talking about their work on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – and beyond. Hilton Grand West
Friday 2nd 8.30pm An Evening at Bree
TORn is delighted to join the High Fantasy track again to host a long standing DragonCon tradition. Party like a Hobbit! We have three live bands this year, to get toes (hairy and otherwise) tapping – The Brobdingnagian Bards, Beth Patterson, and Landloch’d. We’ll also have the Elf Choir, and of course the costume contest. If you’d like to enter, please sign up in advance of the evening, at the TORn fan table or the High Fantasy track room. Our panel of judges this year will be cosplayer Joshua Duart, together with very special guests John Howe and Leith McPherson.
Saturday 3rd 1pm War of the Rohirrim
Find out more about this exciting anime film, telling the tale of Helm Hammerhand – coming April 2024. Marriott room L401-403
Monday 5th 10am Rings of Power After Hour
Discuss and reflect on the first two episodes, and what may or may not be to come this season and beyond!
Let the games begin! Please come and say hi if you’re in Atlanta; see you in the belly of the beast!
As September 2nd draws ever closer, we’re seeing more and more glimpses of what is in store in Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Most fans will already have seen the amazing images, and read the interviews, from the latest edition of EMPIRE magazine – including artist John Howe’s incredible snow troll sketch, which features on the cover of the special subscriber’s edition.
Back in early May, when staffers Justin and greendragon were invited by Amazon to join a group in London, to see footage from The Rings of Power and to talk with showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay, John Howe was also part of the gathering. There were gasps of delight from many in the audience when he was introduced; all were thrilled to have a chance to talk with such a legend. It was also reassuring to hear, from his own mouth, that Howe is actively involved in the design and creation of this new Middle-earth adaptation.
That same day, Prime Video also treated us to a closer look at three costumes from the show. Stay tuned for more from greendragon on what we saw and heard that day; we’ll also share posts from other sites, YouTubers, tiktokers and fans who were there. To start us off, here are Justin’s reflections:
[Continuing the high levels of secrecy around this show, there were no phones or recording devices allowed; therefore all quotations are paraphrased from notes & recollections.]
As the lights came up from the very first sneak peek at The Rings of Power footage (some of which we expect in the first proper trailer releasing at SDCC) the nervousness in the air was thick; not only from the thirty or so fans assembled, but also from showrunners Payne and McKay. Will we like them? Are they two of us?
“We were with you all refreshing TheOneRing.net every day for the latest news on Peter Jackson’s films!” McKay told us. These lifelong fans, Ivy League Yale educated, committed to their church, might be closer in disposition to JRR Tolkien than any filmmaker that has come before. They study every book, revision, note, letter, and interview Tolkien ever shared, to understand his motivations and inspirations. It is this thorough knowledge of the context of Tolkien that has inspired confidence from so many Tolkien influencers.
As the showrunners wrapped up the open-ended Q&A, the biggest surprise of the London trip occurred – artist John Howe walked out with a sketchbook in hand. He explained how he got involved, how much work has been put toward The Rings of Power, and took questions from an awestruck group of scholars, fans and podcasters.
“They just kept asking me to sketch things they were considering. There are 40 sketchbooks full of drawings for this show.” Howe then opened up his sketchbook to the original drawing of the ice troll. I find it very curious that our very first leak from the ROP set were photos of an icy mountain set, then leaks of a snow troll (instead of a cave troll), which carried through to the Super Bowl teaser featuring the troll, and now John Howe’s sketch. Did Amazon leak the icy set pics in the first place, as part of a long marketing game? Or is Prime Video responding to uncontrollable leaks and only revealing what’s already been hinted at? Howe did not turn the page to show any more drawings.
When asked how he keeps this new work separate from the award winning (and trademark protected) work with Peter Jackson, John Howe responded with incredible awareness and insight. “We are all professionals here in the room. You all understand running your business. Whether I’m designing for movies, or book covers, or a streaming show, there are creative briefs to respond to. But the people in charge also know what they are getting from all my previous work.” Howe went on to explain that the true creative separation from Jackson’s films is actually INSPIRATION in the new locations this show visits. “We’ve never seen the oceanic areas of Middle-earth, and it is incredibly exciting for me to discover the great seas and areas that haven’t been explored. That is the true departure from what has come before.”
While John Howe had a plane to catch, showrunners Payne and McKay hung around with fans for some social conversations in the lobby, where three actual costumes were on display. The two guys held their own in deep lore conversations with several Ph.D.s, such as ‘The Tolkien Professor’ Corey Olsen and Dr. Una McCormack. At any fan event full of world-leading-expert-podcasters, there is a tendency to weed out inauthentic creators with deep lore questions. Again, Payne and McKay held their own. There is a reason the reaction a few weeks ago was unanimously supportive of the showrunners: they know their Tolkien, and they know the lore.
The Rings of Power showrunner Patrick McKay suddenly confronted me in the lobby, as his conversation circle moved to catch up. Matt (Nerd of the Rings) was shocked at some of the things we talked about – secret things I’m still hesitant to reveal. McKay wanted to know how I felt about the footage. He was extremely interested in my honest opinion. He cares what we think, what our response is to the hard-earned work over the last three years, if we feel he’s doing right by Tolkien and by fans. My direct response was the footage “looked like it should”, as I wrote a few weeks ago. It wasn’t the overwhelming enthusiasm I think he wanted, but that’s the legacy this entire show is up against: the most awarded films in entertainment history make for a high bar set by New Line Cinema.
To close, here’s one exclusive comment I will share today: McKay was adamant that this sword (below) is NOT Narsil, despite our early spy reports from people who have laid eyes on scenes featuring this sword. We will find out what’s true September 2nd; but I can’t help but remember how adamant JJ Abrams was that Cumberbatch was NOT Kahn. The only job these showrunners had in Hollywood was working for JJ Abrams, before landing this dream gig in Middle-earth…
Maybe it’s the time zones, but I really thought that John Howe’s interview with Empire about The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power was coming out tomorrow. Instead, if you’re keen (and an Apple News subscriber), you can read it right now over on Apple News.
The interview expands on the teaser Empire provided the other day, that “this is not the Middle-earth you remember”. Instead, it’s a story of a different time (the Second Age), when Middle-earth was visually and politically a different place.
Howe can’t elaborate on what that tale may be, but does hint that it takes place against a backdrop of “Sauron’s rise to power, the forging of the Rings of Power and the epic tale of [human city] Númenor” — all events with important repercussions for Middle-earth.
“I was convinced the Hobbit trilogy would be the last we’d see of Middle-earth on film,” Howe admits, explaining that it took an exciting new approach to Lord Of The Rings lore to unlock a story worth telling.
Empire’s forthcoming “Summer Preview” issue is set to include an interview with John Howe about his role as concept artist for Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power TV series.
They’ve posted an enticing preview snippet of Howe sharing his thoughts about we ought to expect from the series in which he empahsises just how different Second Age Middle-earth is from the Third Age world that many are more familiar with.
“This isn’t the Middle-earth you remember,” he says.
“This is a world that’s very vibrant. The elves are not hidden away in Mirkwood or lingering in Rivendell. They’re busy constructing kingdoms. The dwarven kingdom of Moria is not an abandoned mine and the Grey Havens is not yet an abandoned city. I loved having the opportunity to explore that unseen history.”
He also talks about how this story is also taking to the seas.
“We’re finally sailing on the oceans of Middle-earth,” teases Howe, promising a set of sea-faring elves. “They’re daunting and enterprising and are almost colonising the world. They were a lot of fun to imagine. It’s something neither Lord Of The Rings nor Hobbit movies went anywhere near.”