As you know, artist Alan Lee made a public appearance in New York City last night and a crowd of some 100 people braved the current monsoon to gather before him at the Chelsea West Cinema on West 23rd Street in New York’s famous Manhattan. I am sorry the cold, wind and rain kept so many others away – sorry for them, as it was well worth the trek.
I must confess I missed the very start so I did not catch the name of the nice woman who introduced him. I did hear, however, that he had just arrived from New Zealand and that he would return to Wellington in a few short days to continue his artistic input on the remaining Lord of the Rings films before finally making his way back to England. He is here to take part in the promotion of the Two Towers movie and the new boxed set of the illustrated Lord of the Rings, of course featuring the work of Mr. Lee himself.
I will say, for all his prestige, he seemed every bit the soft spoken chap one might happily share a pint with at a corner pub in his native London. He opened his remarks by saying that he was not in the habit of making such public presentations and to let him know if he was boring anyone. He wasn’t. He then gave a very brief overview of his career, how he loved drawing and loved books from a very early age. He said that he read the Lord of the Rings in his mid-teens and commented on how fantastic literature as a genre influenced his work as an artist. He had done illustrations for the book Faeries, but it was the book Castles that brought him to the attention of Tolkien’s British publisher. After providing some sketches for Christopher Tolkien’s approval, he was chosen as the artist for the first-ever illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings. He went on to further projects including illustrating some Greek myths. Some years later he received word from Peter Jackson regarding the Lord of the Rings film project and happily accepted the offer to participate as a member of the artistic design team.
At this point the lights were lowered and Alan Lee took his audience through a larger than life slide show that featured pages from his personal sketch books used during the production phase of the films. The first few slides, however, were of a special prop. This was the book the wizard Sauraman refers to when incanting against the Fellowship on their way to Moria. The opening slide was the cover of the book, made to look like something from the Dark Ages, with a stylized white hand on the cover. The following slides were of pages that the artist Alan Lee prepared for the actor Christopher Lee in case he ended up leafing through the book on his way to the page featured in the film. Although the other pages were never seen, those of in attendance last night were granted a look at such forbidden, wizardly knowledge – all of it from the fertile imagination of the artist. Each page was made up primarily of writing in Elfish script – of course, actual translations of text Lee came up with himself. In addition, each page had illustrations of one size or another. One large illustration featured a kiltered star, splayed out with a spectrum of colors surrounding it, representing the wizard’s theories about white light being broken into multiple hues. Another page showed small sketches of mechanical devices like a wench and pulley, and a third concerned the gestation of Uruks and showed a cross section of a body incased inside a spherical sack or cocoon of some kind.
Lee remarked that he had always admired the notebooks of Leonardo and Sauraman’s book had a similar feel, with each page featuring sketches in the various corners and margins, at various stages of completion, with or without coloring, and were typically made up of geometric patterns or three-dimensional gyroscope-like gadgets. And then there was the page featured in the movie representing the Balrog hidden in flame. All in all it was a very envious task: To influence even a little bit the re-telling of Tolkien’s master work on the big screen.
I regret that I was unable to sneak photos of the slideshow as there was a lot to see and Mr. Lee’s talent as a sketch artist was thus that he could have been presenting drawings for a book on cocker spaniels and the audience would have been just as enthralled. He possesses a rare knack for going beyond simple light and form and representation to infuse the most basic of sketches with genuine mood and emotion. He was clearly suited for the role as someone trying to evoke a world were everything from one’s clothing, steed or shelter equally reflected the orientation of its owner or maker; be they majestic Elf, wholesome Hobbit, or degenerate Orc. His most detailed sketches went even farther to present a face, or even just half a face, or other form that was as lifelike in its expression and unique details as if it were Roman marble carved in the likeness of a living model. There were sketches of Hobbit holes and Elven palaces, armor and weaponry for the use of good or evil – sometimes disembodied, sometimes modeled by one of those enigmatic faces, and preliminary sketches of the actual characters in the film. It is almost too bad his paintings for the book were designed to evoke a mood but remained vague enough to prompt the imagination of the reader, as his sketches for the films were so detailed and truly specified a particular vision. How much that vision matched one’s own was irrelevant, as the skill employed was a marvel in and of itself.
For the most part, his actual job on the films was to work along with fellow illustrator John Howe to come up with conceptual drawings that might further to inspire the design team toward their ultimate presentation of Middle-Earth. So, things like his costumes and character sketches were but one perspective in a collective brainstorm, and really did not directly lead to major wardrobe or character choices. One exception to this was the Elven armor used in the prolog of The Fellowship of the Ring. He showed us a great many sketches of various styles that were being considered; including some that clearly influenced the Art Director’s final choice. He also was proud of the fact that when the design team had difficulty inventing a helm that would go well with Sauron’s suit of voluted armor, it was Lee who came up with a solution.
In among the slides of his sketches were actual photographs featuring members of the design team and various location hunts. He spoke of Peter Jackson’s hands on (or make that feet on) involvement with finding just the right spot regardless of how remote it was. He clearly shared Jackson’s enthusiasm for the pristine landscapes they encountered in New Zealand and it showed in the work he did for the various settings ultimately used in the films. Even those rendered on a back lot, such as the Dead Marshes, were inspired directly from the feeling imbued when Jackson and his team were out in the wilds themselves. His sketches of Hobbiton were shown and he said that John Howe ended up designing Bag End and the actual Hobbit holes. Lee chiefly designed the gardens and exteriors. There was a photograph of a Hobbit hole exterior in the midst of being built, with wheelbarrow and shovels visible amongst the 2 by 4s and muddy gravel, and then photos of happier holes nearing completion. And there was a shot of Alan in the garden of one hole, himself happily applying finishing touches. Having directed plays for some years in New York, I can say there are few things as enjoyable as seeing a designer immersed in the final details of a set; carefully altering the minutiae that will go unnoticed by the audience, but which will collectively bring them and the actors into a fully-realized world.
I should point out that neither Howe or Lee were officially the set designers, rather they worked for and with the Designers and Art Director to realize the Director’s vision. But there were many instances where their concepts were put into practice, at times without any alterations what so ever. In Lee’s case this was most evident in the sets and backdrops.
The audience was treated to sketches related to the village of Bree and after that they were taken to Rivendell. The Rivendell sketches were made up of various statues and archways and eventually fully realized renderings of whole sections of buildings. Since they could never find the exact location that suited Jackson’s ideal they ended up building in a heavily wooded area near Wellington and then supplementing it with mat paintings and digitized waterfalls, etc. These sketches culminated in a wonderful watercolor of the detailed model created by the set design team of the Rivendell complex. As fulfilling as the creation of Rivendell must have been, it was Lothlorien that seemed the most challenging and rewarding for Alan Lee personally.
Lee offered up various sketches of what a flet might look like (these are the structures the Elves of Lorien build in the trees and can range from a simple, wall-less platform to full-fledged, multi-roomed dwellings). They ultimately went with the idea of a simple flet being built in the shape of what they imagined to be a mallorn leaf (from the fictional trees found only in that forest) and the homes of the Elves maintained the same sorts of wispy, Art Nouveau designs seen in Rivendell, only placed high up in the branches and rendered to seem as organic a part of the tree as possible. But it was the designs of Caras Galadon (the capital city of Lorien) and what he referred to as “Galadriel’s glade” that were his chief worry. Although this center of Elvendom in Middle-Earth is a fictional location, that does not make it any less dear to the hearts of literally millions of Tolkien’s devoted readers. I think they knew it could never own up to the imagined hopes of so many, so they simply committed to their own vision and remained as dedicated in that pursuit as possible. Much to his credit, the actual set design of the glade was taken directly from one of Alan’s sketches.
The whole series of Lorien-based sketches were an interesting glimpse into the creative process and how a film will expand upon or even stray from the works of the author as they adapt it to another medium. Whether that serves the material best is always open for speculation. In the film, The Fellowship of the Ring, Lothlorien stands as a visual metaphor and the embodiment of the end of the Elves’ time in Middle-Earth. Its trees and structures are ancient and in a state of decline, showing the effects of centuries beyond count. Whereas in the novel it is described as being the one place in Middle-Earth free of any aging or decay. The power in Galadriel’s ring preserves it as it was in the beginning of time. Tolkien mentions Galadriel’s mirror as set in a private garden at the bottom of a hill of grass; free enough from trees that many stars are visible reflecting in the basin that serves as the mirror. In the film version the mirror is found where a decrepit stone stair empties into a desolate corner, lodged amongst gigantic tree roots, with no garden in sight. The scene that takes place there was among the most controversial in the film, as Sam, the character who, in the novel, represents the Everyman witness to events surrounding the Ring, is entirely absent. Likewise, the moment when Galadriel is offered the Ring of Power by Fordo, and one sees a vision of how she might be transformed by its evil powers, is one of the few in the film where obvious, theatrical visual and sound effects were employed. Her voice was synthesized to sound warped and echoed and, in Mr. Lee’s words, “they put a light show up behind her”. He further remarked that he tends to want the design to inspire the actors but that the “magic in the actor’s performance” is best left to its natural effects. He said he felt that Ms. Blanchett could have pulled off the moment without the aid of special effects, but diplomatically added that Jackson’s ultimate interpretation in the film was highly effective. Many more people seem to agree with the first half of that statement than they might the second. As easy as it is to envy someone who was granted a place on the design team of the Lord of the Rings, it was also a job that could never satisfy all Tolkien readers in all ways at all times. However, the general consensus is that they succeeded most all the time beyond most people’s hopes or expectations.
Another place Alan Lee’s conceptual drawings exerted great influence on the ultimate art direction was in the Mines of Moria. The description of the western doors was another place Tolkien wrote about with great detail and the filmmakers wisely used it as a guide. But the interior of the mines was left very much to the imagination of the reader and Alan Lee and company successfully rose to the challenge. He said it was determined that the architecture of the dwarves would be based on geometric patterns. This was in an effort to distinguish it from the flowing curves of the Elven world. So there were no arches employed in the film version of the halls of Moria. Instead a series of angled cuts were made to wedge out the openings. This made the ultimate design quite different from that presented in Lee’s paintings accompanying the novel. Pillars were squared off at the top and bottom, and decorated with sharp angles and intersecting triangles and pyramids. They were as different from Elven design as Sumerian is from Celtic. The grand hall where Gandalf risks some “real light” was taken almost directly from a masterful sketch Lee had prepared of the event. He also came up with the original images that led to the cavernous stair case scene. He even included the broken section of stairs without a clue that Jackson would seize upon it for a major action sequence in the movie.
Another Middle-Earth location that filmgoers owe primarily to Alan Lee was that of Isengard and at its heart, Sauraman’s enigmatic tower, Orthanc. Jackson was so impressed with Lee’s original painting of Orthanc that they pretty much reproduced it exactly, and Lee was asked to present a series of sketches depicting what the interior might look like. So he did just that. A few of these sketches were then shown, including one picturing Sauraman on a throne-like chair, contemplating his various plots. Because Lee envisioned all this polished, black stone he could not resist adding to the drawing a little Orc diligently swabbing the floor with mop and bucket! Again one saw a glimpse of the evolution of the film’s designs as the table and holder for the Numenorean seeing stone went from a very elaborate device to something more like an organic block made out of the same mysterious rock as the tower itself, and the stone was simply hidden under a silken cloth. The sketches of the caverns peopled with hard working Orcs were also faithfully reproduced in the film.
Then, the audience got to see some detailed views of Edoras, the Golden Hall of Rohan’s King Theoden. This particular hall was based on Lee’s interpretation of Beowulf’s from the Castles book. But it was quite in accord with many people’s vision of Edoras. There was a sketch of the tapestry Tolkien describes as showing Eorl the Young riding out of the North, blowing his legendary horn. Included in this section were several photographs of the actual Edoras location, situated in a remote part of South Island. The pillars on the front of the building itself were covered in ornate designs that Alan Lee had come up with. He said that many local sculptors were involved in the process and took to their jobs with great enthusiasm. These included some traditional, Maori artists, at least one of which was inspired by the job at hand enough to include the new Celtic/Fantasy influence into his own work.
Both the Edoras set and the following sketches of Gondorian statuary, armor and helmets stood as good examples of the design team’s effort to make things as realistic as possible in terms of what might have actually been produced by such cultures as Tolkien invented. For instance, many have envisioned the trim or roof of Edoras, which Tolkien describes as golden and glinting in the sun, as being made at least in part from real gold. But the film will show things as being less lofty or fanciful. The gold will prove to be either painted woodwork or a thatched roof one might have found in medieval times. Similarly the winged helms of the soldiers of Gondor do not possess the elaborate wings seen in so many artist renderings, but rather are very small and barely protrude along the side of the helmets, symbols of wings rather than the real thing and similar to the symbolic decal on an American football helmet. This certainly honors Tolkien’s bare bones description, but also allow for the practicality of a helmet designed for the very serious business of battle, while taking into account the limitations of hand-made armor before the invention of high density steel and spot welding. Some may feel adhering to the skill level of real artisans from our own past detracts from the magic of Middle-Earth’s inhabitants. But on the whole it ads a sense of genuine detail and realism rarely found in such epics, be they of real historic periods or fantasy. I personally feel it also shows a distinction between the skills of the super-human Elven smiths compared to those of mere mortals.
Similarly, the slides concerning Rohan and Gondor helped further the idea that the senior design staff spent great time and effort in making each culture wholly unique – from each other and from any found on Earth. The Elves architecture and design was clearly influenced by the pre-Roman Celts of Briton and Ireland. The Dwarves’ brought to mind that from Mesopotamia. The Riders of Rohan were clearly reminiscent of the Norse, and Gondor of Byzantium, with their more ancient Numenorean works vaguely Assyrian or Babylonian. Yet none of them really looked like their Earthly counterparts, but were very much something onto their own. It was quite an achievement all the way around. As Alan Lee mentioned more than once, the fact so little of the actual sketches, designs and details actually made it into the frame on the screen does not detract from the fact the process so infused its results into the hearts and minds of cast and crew that they could not help but feel they really were creating a complete world, and one that captured the essence of at least one particular Middle-Earth.
There was also a photo tour of the WETA studios where they made the armor, leather goods, prosthetic pieces for the various characters, and the miniatures. One got to see them working on the lower levels of Gondor’s chief city, Minas Tirith and one of the interiors in the Mines of Moria. Many of the artists represented seemed every bit as fascinating as the things they were working on. And toward the end Alan revealed a sketch of Peter Jackson as a Hobbit. I think that alone was worth the price of admission for many of the film’s die hard fans.
After the slide show they screened a short film made to promote The Two Towers. It began and ended with Peter Jackson driving in his car, speaking to the camera about how excited they were about the film. The rest of the film showed tech preparations mixed with footage from the movie itself. The highlights included a section on the actor who is creating the voice of the CG character Gollum, and showed him wearing a motion suit, which allows computers to track his every move. He also took part in all of the scenes with Sam and Frodo, and much of Gollum's ultimate action will be taken directly from the actor’s actual movements. As Jackson put it, Gollum will be the most human-inspired CG creature ever produced. Another highlight was the miniature of Helm’s Deep, where the climactic battle will be fought in The Two Towers. However, this miniature is so large a man can walk (stooping) through the gate of the main wall. This will allow it to not appear like a miniature at all when it is integrated with the live action. This was followed by the original theatrical trailer for the Two Towers, which I had not seen on the big screen. It looks to be easily as good as the Fellowship of the Ring, and likely will be better in many respects.
The event closed with a question and answer session. Efforts to get Mr. Lee to cough up some information about the Ents and Fangorn Forest were deftly answered by him saying it was in fact built, that they will be in the movie and, yes, I was right that not much has leaked out about it and that is exactly as they wish it to be. Oh well.
I went ahead and bought the brand new edition of the three-volume set, supposedly not yet in stores. It weighs a ton. After he signed all three volumes I waited until the line subsided and he was kind enough to do a sketch in my copy of the Fellowship of the Ring. He drew an Orc with a pen in hand and then wrote “The Orc as an Illustrator” next to it. I had met a nice couple who are themselves posters on theonering.net. They had a whole library of books for him to sign and also waited for a sketch. As I was leaving Alan Lee was in middle of sketching Gandalf blowing the smoke ring ship - another one of his ideas that made it onto the big screen
Now my sleeping enthusiasm for the films has returned and I will have to weather both these cold, rainy nights and the long wait for the December 18th opening. But it was well worth it.