Tehanu’s Note: Empowering the Artist

Crafting Narnia bookcoverJune 11 2008
I was going to write a book review of Weta Workshop’s latest publication, The Crafting of Narnia, but attending the booklaunch here in Wellington got me thinking about the broader impact of Richard and Weta and their LOTR partners, Peter Jackson and Wingnut Films.

The booklaunch was at Dymock’s Books in Wellington, which has long had an alliance with the worlds of Weta and Peter Jackson. Since LOTR fever was at its height, you would never walk into this bookshop without finding one of the largest displays of Weta or LOTR -related books, swords and collectibles in the country.

So this winter’s evening we had a small crowd of Narnia fans to greet Richard Taylor, Daniel Falconer and Paul Tobin. A special surprise guest was Shane Rangi, who plays a number of creatures in the Narnia universe including the Minotaur General Otmin. LOTR fans would recognise Shane’s name as one of the leading stuntmen covering many roles in the trilogy.

Fans are different. They dress more individually. They know all about being individuals, which is maybe why they respond to the likes of Richard Taylor, who represents the people who do something with their imagination against all the odds. There’s really nothing in the background or education of Weta or ThreeFootSix’s main players that would have predicted them having the creative careers they have now. They got where they are today by ignoring prevailing opinions and following their imaginations. The prevailing opinion in New Zealand in the Sixties would have suggested that a person who wanted to muck around making imaginary worlds would never amount to anything.

Maybe that’s why things like The Crafting of Narnia or the LOTR production diaries and Making of LOTR book series are so thorough. It’s like they’re urging people to get out there and start making things themselves. And they’re succeeding! At the booklaunch, a young man approached Richard to show him what he’d made – a kind of cyborg vision helmet and his own variation on Dr Grordbort’s Man Melter Ray Guns.

Running TORN all these years, we know how persuasive they’ve been – sometimes hardly a week went by without somebody sending us news of some creative project they’d embarked on due to LOTR. Some of them were straight homages or parodies of the originals, but many were wildly original, offbeat, funny, or just plain beautifully crafted. We saw everything, from the Secret Diaries and the Lord of the Peeps parodies to LOTR-inspired stories, art, furniture, houses, weapons and food. Not to mention the amateur films. It whets the appetite to imagine what that kind of creative engagement will grow into when the making of The Hobbit revives LOTR fandom and collides with the new possibilities of YouTube.

The Crafting of Narnia

So to my book review. The Crafting of Narnia is a big book, packed with concept art including things that are so barely glimpsed in the film that it would be a crime if they were never seen in the detail they appear here. There’s also a lot of design material that was not used in the final cut, so you get a fascinating glimpse of how the “meaning” of an object might have been slanted to identify with one idea rather than another. One example is the box of Turkish Delight used to tempt Edmund. One design revolved around ideas of the forbidden fruit, with an apple-like appearance and a leaf-shaped lid hinged on a snake’s head. Others played with the idea of an oriental magic lantern, or with a sinister dragon’s egg look. The final design was modelled on traditional Turkish Delight box designs, but encrusted with jewels that would attract Edmund’s naivety and greed.

Anyone interested in a design career would enjoy reading about the kind of thinking that went behind some of the designs. As Taylor says, the world of Narnia didn’t just draw on one mythology like LOTR, nor was it backed up by the author’s detailed backhistoryand notes. To design for Narnia, Weta could pick and choose between the mythologies and art histories of many different times and places. Reading about how and why certain design decisions were made me appreciate how much thought and research goes into creating an object.

Many things that we see in the film are at face value beautiful or terrifying or comforting; seeing them in detail we can appreciate the reasons why they work so powerfully. And some of the detail is there just for the love of creating the most believable, complete world possible: For instance, how many people recognise the ash leaf motifs on Susan’s bow? Or know that the ash tree was not only used for bow-making, but had associations of enchantment and protection from evil?

At the booklaunch, Richard Taylor talked about the Hieronymous Bosch triptych that used to hang over his bed when he was a kid. He wondered whether its crazy, twisted images were responsible for the kind of wild fantasies he was always hatching. This book shows how a designer gets from a Bosch-like world of chaotic invention to finished objects that are layered with meaning and fully aware of their historic associations.