Supernal Dreams: Tolkien artist Alan Lee on designing middle-earth for “Lord of the Rings”

While watching the extended DVD version of LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING the other night, I was once again enthralled by the magnificence of the production, and thought back to several of the interviews I had done on the movie that never made it into CFQ’s December 2003 issue on the film.

Director Peter Jackson had grown up in New Zealand as an avid reader of CFQ, so I had virtually unlimited access to anyone I wanted to speak with about the making of the picture. Unfortunately, by that time, Cinefantastique founder-publisher-editor Fred Clarke was no longer at the helm of the magazine, so what would have certainly been a deluxe double issue if Fred had been in control, containing comprehensive material on the first fantasy film to ever win a best picture Oscar (and ten others), ended up cut down the  to a mere 15 pages!

So here I present a more detailed look at my interview with conceptual artist Alan Lee, as he talks about all the fabulous design work that went into creating the fantasy worlds on view in THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you first become acquainted with the J. R. R. Tolkien books?

ALAN LEE: I was around 17 years old and just about ready for Tolkien. I had read quite a lot of mythology and folklore as I was growing up, and a friend of mine was reading the trilogy. He said they were wonderful books, and as he finished each volume he passed it on to me. I totally lapped it up and lived in the world of Middle-earth for a few months while I was reading them. It was quite wonderful. I spent quite a lot of time by myself growing up, and from my early childhood, I had always drawn. It was an extension of my playing with toy soldiers or building castles. I would also do a lot of daydreaming, because I didn’t get out a lot.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you start drawing scenes form the book after you first read it?

ALAN LEE: One of the things I did was write a little Tolkien-esque psychological fable, which I illustrated. It had dwarves and Elves in it and I illustrated that, so I probably did more drawing for that, than I actually did for Lord of the Rings.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When Peter Jackson first contacted you, you had done some conceptual drawings for Ridley Scott’s Legend, but you really hadn’t been too deeply involved with the production of a movie, had you?

ALAN LEE: No, I had very little idea of what an actual film production would be like, although I had done some conceptual art for Legend. And originally, on Lord of the Rings we were only supposed to come down to New Zealand for six months, but it was obviously going to be a huge project. But at the time I first became involved, the film was still in a state of flux. It hadn’t really gotten a green light from Miramax. They were backing it on a kind of a week-to-week basis. So nobody knew what would happen, and I don’t think anyone realized how much time, energy and resources would ultimately be involved in making it. But coming onto the project, I must say, you just got swept away by it. Within the first few days of being there, I was thrown straight away into the work. I met with Peter and (production designer) Grant Major, who came on about the same time I did, and they were already working on Rivendell and Helm’s Deep, and were putting together some of the first ideas that weren’t going to be realized for two or three years. In fact, some of those ideas, we’re only just completing now, (in 2003). So it has been a very long process, but it’s been important for me to stick with it, because there are things that were designed as miniatures in a fairly complete way, and then designed as set pieces in only a partial way. There were limitations on how much of the sets we’d actually need to build. We knew there would be CGI extensions for a lot of the environments. So I’m glad to still be here, after 5 years, completing work on the rest of the film. With the city of Minas Tirith, we’ve extended it way beyond the nine or ten meters we actually built as a set. None of the environments that surrounds Minas Tirith actually existed in any one place. The White Mountains, Pelennor Fields, Mordor, and Osgiliath – they were all elements taken from different parts of New Zealand, which we’re trying to make into one comprehensive 3-D environment. It’s a huge challenge, as it will be the most spectacular part of the third film. It serves as the arena for all the amazing battle scenes that take place in The Return of the King.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: So how closely did you work with production designer Grant Major?

ALAN LEE: Well, after our initial period of doing designs at Weta Workshop, the art department was set up at Stone Street studios, and (conceptual artist) John Howe and I went down there. We worked in the same office, and Grant was in the next room, in another office. So after we did our drawings, we’d show them to Peter and Grant to get their feedback. Invariably, cost considerations meant we’d have to reduce certain things by 30% or so to keep it within the budget. But I really enjoyed working with both Grant and (art director) Dan Hennah.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Grant Major was telling me how you tended to gravitate towards the lighter side of Middle-earth, while John Howe tended to do more of the darker designs.

ALAN LEE: Yes, in general it did work out that way, but John did some work on the light side as well. He designed Bag End and the Green Dragon in Hobbition. And I did some work on the dark side, designing Cirith Ungol and Orthanc. But it did seem to broadly suit our different styles—as the two architects of Middle-earth—John with a strong Gothic-spiky esthetic, and me doing a more classical approach. I think it worked out quite well.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Working in such close proximity, did it allow you to play off each other’s ideas to a degree?

ALAN LEE: Yes, and to begin with, we would often work on the same things and then one of us would seem to take a strong lead, and the other person would go on to do something else. But there was always so much to do! It never felt like we were moving forward. I can’t believe how busy it’s kept us over the years. Cirith Ungol is an example of a combination between John Howe’s work and my own, because John had done a lot of designs for Cirith Ungol before leaving, but when we actually went to build the miniature, Peter wanted to have a fresh look at it. So I kind of re-designed it, incorporating some of John’s original architectural elements into it. Also the full-size set was a lot of fun, because there’s a wonderful fight scene between the Orc Captains, Shagrat and Gorbag — where they’re all killing each other off, and it was quite complex, because we needed to create a smallish size set that would allow us to shoot from a lot of different angles, while keeping it quite contained. It was really a stunt man’s paradise, because it had all these ledges for them to fall off of, or stairs for them to roll down and doors for them to crash through. It was really like a big Orc playground.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: I noticed most of your drawings in “The Art of The Lord of the Rings” books were done as pencil sketches.

ALAN LEE: That was partly because it’s quicker, and we were always racing to get the designs approved, so there wasn’t a lot of time to develop drawings into full-scale paintings. John did more than I did; he did a number of full-scale paintings. And (effects art director) Jeremy Bennett has done a huge amount of paintings. That was one of Jeremy’s great strengths, doing the coloring and lighting schemes, which would then be shown to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, as a guide to lighting the sets, so everything would match in the finished composite shots.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Conceptual artist Jeremy Bennett told me he did over 2,000 drawings for the three movies.

ALAN LEE: Yes, and what’s nice for me is that I’m now working on the computer. I’m working directly on the shots, painting in the backgrounds and painting out the blue screens. For example, I’m now working on CGI drawings of Mordor, showing the Gorgorath plain, between the black gates and Barad-dûr. I find it’s a very convenient and quick way of working. It’s also very enjoyable, because it brings you a little bit closer to the finished product, and means we can create more variations to show to Peter. Peter’s whole involvement in the design process has been huge. He’s always coming up with bright new ideas, so it’s a very collaborative process.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: When Peter Jackson first contacted you, I understand he wanted to base some of the designs on different illustrations of yours that had already been done, such as your drawing for Orthanc tower.

ALAN LEE: Yes, and for Orthanc it was just a matter of extending the building that I had already drawn upwards by another 400 feet, and then creating the inside for it in that same sort of style. But for Minas Tirith, although I had done previous drawings of it, they weren’t done in any great detail. So they really had to be expanded on, and working with the wonderful team of model makers at Weta workshop, they have gone on to realize all the environments, by creating the most magnificent and detailed miniatures.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel told me you were very helpful in piecing together the geography of Middle-earth, so people would know where they were in the various landscapes, since the characters go on quite a long journey, from the Shire to Mordor.

ALAN LEE: That largely had to do with finding the appropriate locations. You do get a sense of a change in the landscape over the three films, and that was one of the major things we were concerned with, creating convincing environments, so you can go out and see 360 degrees in every direction. And because of the extent of the distance they traveled, you do want them to feel like they are moving between one region and another. So because Gondor is further south, they are now in a dryer climate and it feels quite different that Hobbition, which is very lush and green. The whole of Rohan was quite wonderful and different, because you had these mountains and this big open countryside, covered with grass which goes on for miles, with these big rocky outcrops.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: One of the nice touches in the Lord of the Rings movies is how you’ll have these little details of architectural ruins, or statues, like the stone trolls, which are just visible in the background, but add tremendously to the atmosphere.

ALAN LEE: Yes, that’s something we felt was going to be important right from the beginning. To put these little details in the background, not so we’d be grandstanding every single thing we did, but just to have it drift in and out of the shot, so it would lend weight to the idea that this is an ancient land, full of the remains of ancient cultures. I quite like the fact that we spent quite a bit of time designing things that you barely see. You just catch a glimpse of it, rather than have it being in center frame, to milk it for all it’s worth. Having those details in the background helps to create the idea that we are in this very rich world and it makes it more believable.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: I imagine there’s a lot of detailing to the sets, like Rivendell, that we don’t even get to see.

ALAN LEE: Yes, quite a lot of Rivendell didn’t even make it into film. Or if it did, it’s just a glimpse of color, or something you see through some trees. I think that really helps make it feel like it’s a real place. Rivendell is kind of an ideal architecture, because it’s living so close to nature. Art Nouveau was an influence on its design, but I didn’t consciously go around and look at other architectural work. I drew more on the dreams and musing of my years wandering in woods and by rivers.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Richard Taylor (head of Weta Workshop) was telling me that a set like Minas Tirith was built so you could shoot it from any angle. So if you were to walk around in it, there was nothing to give away that it was actually a set.

ALAN LEE: That was done because we never quite knew what Peter might want to shoot. There was a huge amount of pre-visualization and storyboarding going on, but basically when Peter arrived on the set, it was all up for grabs. He might want to point the camera in any direction, so the sets had to be ready for any possible angle. Consequently, there were a lot of details in all of the sets that we don’t actually see in the movies.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: John Howe said after watching the finished films, he now has trouble drawing some of the characters differently then the actors who played them, like Christopher Lee’s Saruman.

ALAN LEE: That’s quite an interesting observation, because I’ve always thought that characters who get summoned up by reading a book are always going to be different than any representation that is made of them in a film. And before doing The Lord of the Rings I’d never had the experience of the image from a film being transplanted into the image you get from reading a book. But now I’m finding that when I go back to the book, instead of my old vision of Gandalf appearing, I am seeing Ian McKellan. And that is happening with the other characters, as well. So I think it’s a testimony to what the actors brought to their characterizations. I think the actors really enriched the roles. For me, Gandalf is now a much more interesting character than I experienced from reading the books. It’s really been a dream cast, and all the actors have done a wonderful job. It’s nice that Peter hasn’t gone for big Hollywood names, but for actors who are right for the parts.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Mis-casting is something that can be fatal for a movie. If Tom Cruise were playing Aragorn, for instance, I’m sure the film would be nowhere as good as it is.

ALAN LEE: Probably one of the most exciting things for me is seeing the actors bring Tolkien’s characters to life. Having Christopher Lee come over and do Saruman has been fantastic. He’s such a nice person and he knows everything about the books. It must be extraordinary for him to have been involved in this. He’s read the books more than I have so he certainly knows them better than I do.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Are you a fan—like Peter Jackson is—of Ray Harryhausen’s films?

ALAN LEE: Yes, I saw Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts when I was about 16, and it made quite an impression on me. Seeing that, and other films, like Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad had a very strong effect on me. Actually, I’ve just gotten the DVD of The Thief of Bagdad, and it’s still a very wonderful and magical film.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: The Thief of Bagdad was quite an inspiration for Ray Harryhausen, as well. It had that wonderful art direction by Vincent Korda and William Cameron Menzies, as well as a marvelous score by Miklos Rozsa, who Harryhausen later used for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. As a fan of Jason and the Argonauts, I imagine that might have been influential for you in doing the illustrations for your books on Greek Mythology, Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus.

ALAN LEE: Yes, in fact, I think probably the first mythology books I read as a child where the ones about the Greek myths.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: So you should do an illustrated version of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Jason and the Argonauts.

ALAN LEE: I’ve thought about that from time to time. It would certainly be a lovely book to do.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Who were some of the classical artists that inspired you?

ALAN LEE: I was quite taken with the pre-Raphaelites, but I’ve probably spent more time looking at Rembrandt, Botticelli, Leonardo DaVinci, Giovanni Bellini and the other great Renaissance painters. Bruegel had a very powerful influence. I just love the clarity of his vision, as well as the romance, magic and the elements of mythology in his work. I’ve realized though, that I’ve been more influenced by film and television, because I was more exposed to that while I was growing up. I didn’t really visit any art galleries until I was 16 or 17.

LAWRENCE FRENCH: Any final thoughts?

Conceptual Designer Alan Lee and CG Modeler John ButiuALAN LEE: The Return of the King is definitely the most spectacular and the biggest of the three films. The Two Towers was very successful, but it had this central problem of dealing with these separate groups of characters who never actually get together throughout the film. They start off on separate journeys, and they end up, still separate. It’s very hard to bring any sort of resolution to that, and I think Peter, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens did an amazing job of creating a cohesive film out of The Two Towers, so it works and doesn’t leave you bewildered or disappointed. But The Return of the King is beautifully told; it’s well paced, and constantly exciting and delighting. I think it’s going to be a most fitting climax to the trilogy.

RELATED INTERVIEW: Elijah Wood on “The Two Towers”

About the Author

Lawrence French

LAWRENCE FRENCH celebrated his 20th anniversary as a contributor to Cinefantastique Magazine with his cover story on the making of THE RETURN OF THE KING. As Cinefantastique’s longtime San Francisco correspondent, he has written numerous stories about Pixar and Lucasfilm, and interviewed such genre stalwarts as Vincent Price, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, John Lasseter, Phil Tippett and Ray Bradbury. He is also the editor of the highly regarded website on Orson Welles, His book as editor of Richard Matheson’s Edgar Allan Poe scripts for THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM was published by Gauntlet Press in 2007, with a second volume on TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN due out in the future. For Cinefantastique Online, he currently writes the regular column Supernal Dreams.

One Response to “ Supernal Dreams: Tolkien artist Alan Lee on designing middle-earth for “Lord of the Rings” ”

  1. [...] RELATED ARTICLE: Alan Lee on Designing “Lord of the Rings” [...]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.