"The greatest feeling of success has been to watch all these bits and pieces of polystyrene and metal and wood become a world so real you believe these characters live there. We've painted Tolkien's palette as much as possible across the film. "
Until now, Tolkien's Middle-earth has existed only in the imaginations of readers and in the wondrously detailed yet limited illustrations for the novels. But in The Fellowship of The Ring, the hobbit holes of Hobbiton, the sylvan glades of the elf refuge Rivendell, the smoky innards of the Prancing Pony Inn and the networks of underground caverns in the Mines of Moria come physically, palpably to life.
Peter Jackson had one underlying precept for the visual design for The Lord of The Rings trilogy: a transporting brand of realism. But how do you realistically create a complete fantasy? Jackson knew that the answer would lie in an incredible amount of detail. So he immediately engaged the services of WETA Limited, New Zealand's premier physical effects house, under the direction of supervisor Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger - and gave them a mission: to create Middle-earth's physical reality, from the interiors of hobbit holes to the heights of Mount Doom, as if they believed with all their hearts and senses in its existence.
Taylor approached the project like a general going to war. He immediately employed a crew of over 120 technicians divided into six crucial departments:
Makeup and Prosthetics
Armor and Weapons
WETA Digital, a separate arm, also took on the challenge of creating the groundbreaking computer-generated creatures and effects for The Lord of The Rings trilogy.
But before WETA could get to work, the filmmakers needed to turn Tolkien's vividly drawn descriptions into three-dimensional visions. They turned to the two men who knew Tolkien's universe best: conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, who illustrated the Harper Collins editions of The Lord of The Rings. Freed from that format, Lee and Howe sketched madly, producing seminal images of the cultures, creatures, buildings and landscapes that make Hobbiton, Rivendell, Mordor and more feel so alive.
Inspired by their own intimate love of Tolkien's work, Lee and Howe produced hundreds of life-like sketches which later were metamorphosed into storyboards, then scale models of Middle-earth's many landscapes and regions, and sometimes into full-scale sets under the aegis of production designer Grant Major. In addition to full-sized sets, the production widely used miniature sets - models so detailed and artistically rendered that the slightly larger ones became known as "bigatures. "
"As a conceptual artist, it is quite a mine field treading through Tolkien's world, but you somehow have to trust your own judgment and your own vision. Tolkien's descriptions are so beautiful and poetic, yet he has left plenty of room for us to make our own little explorations," said Alan Lee.
Lee was especially excited by Peter Jackson's mandate. "When he said he wanted to be as true to the spirit of the books as he could and try to create very, very real landscapes and as believable a world as possible, I knew I was the right person for the job," he said.
Says production designer Grant Major of Lee and Howe: "Their contribution to the project was absolutely fundamental. They gave us the Industrial Age look and feel of Middle-earth, and they brought the most intimate knowledge of Tolkien lore to their work. "
Lee had always tried to make his illustrations believable, but now he and Howe had a new challenge: producing illustrations so rich they could be turned into miniatures, models and sets. He recalls the magic of seeing Hobbiton evolve from Tolkien's charming descriptions to detailed sketches to life-like sets. "We had drawn so many sketches and had so many conversations and then there was the whole construction process," he recalls. "But, finally it became this absolutely real place where grass grew over the roofs and the chimneys were spouting smoke, and it was like a dream to see it come to life. "
Many of the sets, big and small, were carved out of polystyrene, a material that can look like wood that has aged for thousands of years, as in the Prancing Pony Pub or the stone sculptures at the gates of MinasTirith. WETA made some remarkable innovations, using a polyurethane spraying machine developed for spraying rubber coatings on North Sea oil rigs.
"We were able to do in a week what might have taken months to build in a traditional manner," explains Richard Taylor. "With this machine, we could sculpt anything. We were making a hundred helmets in a day with this machine. It helped us to build many worlds. "
Production designer Grant Major oversaw the creation of such life-sized exterior sets as the intricate and delicate Elvish kingdom of Rivendell, the grassy knolls of Hobbiton, and the underground interior realms of the mines of Moria. He, too, made realism and exquisite detail a priority - but with a fantastical twist, including hobbit-esque earthiness and Escher-like mazes throughout.
The sets for Rivendell, for example, were created to reflect the Elvish culture - which is highly artistic and intimately connected to the forest and nature. It appears as a place of deep serenity, with arching walkways spanning babbling streams and quiet wooden gazebos. "We used a leaf motif throughout the sets, and used a lot of hand-carved statues, pillars and door frames. Even the colors are right out of the forest," Major notes. "We even added Art Nouveau-style influences that reflect their elegant nature. " Major also wanted to lend Rivendell "a sense of mystery," so he designed and built a series of 40-foot-tall towers that shimmer in the background of Rivendell, suggesting more than meets the eye.
Many of Major's sets were built at Peter Jackson's Three Foot Six Wellington Studios. This, for example, is where he created the Mines of Moria, where the Fellowship journeys in The Fellowship of The Ring. Gray granite walls were sprayed constantly by WETA technicians to appear as glistening, dripping, jewel-encrusted caves, a whole network of which spans beneath the dwarf land, Khazad-Dum.
One thing Major always had to consider in the design of his sets was durability. "You had thousands of people trampling through these sets, and sometimes people were hucking axes into the floor, so they had to be built to withstand a lot! Our sets had to withstand 60 pounds per square foot. " Major worked hand-in-hand with WETA Digital, to make sure the sets would accommodate computer-generated images to be added in later.
Major even found himself becoming a fledgling gardener. To create Hobbiton, he had a large greens department team plant 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens a year before filming began. "We started the year before filming because we wanted the look of it to age naturally in the weather," explains Major. "We were always trying to make every set as real in time and place as could be imagined. "
Everyone who entered Hobbiton was transported. Observes Ian McKellen, who plays the hobbit-helping wizard Gandalf: "Hobbiton really wasn't a set at all. It was an actual open-air village with growing crops and flowers actually sprouting in gardens, birds singing, insects. .. Nothing was plastic or fake. It was just totally thrilling to enter another world like that. "
From the Hobbits holes of Bag-End, to the parapets of Helm's Deep and the statues of Rivendell, the art department works around the clock to create Tolkien's world of more than 7,000 years ago. It is a world that until now has only existed in the imaginations of readers and in illustrations.
With realism as their focus, Grant Major and Dan Hennah began designing for The Lord of the Rings almost two years before shooting began. Over 100 locations and permanent sounds stages in Wellington, New Zealand will be used during the making of the movie.
An integral part of bringing The Lord of the Rings history to a three dimensional reality are conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, renown for their Harper Collins Tolkien illustrations. They create conceptual drawings of the story with Peter Jackson. These drawings are storyboarded for each scene and a1/100th scale model of the set is developed. Plans are drawn from the model with the correct dimensions and the set is built.
The miniature production unit staffs a crew of twenty and is guided by Director of Photography, Alex Funke. All of the miniatures are housed and shot within an enormous 24,000 square foot warehouse stage.
To start the process, a scale miniature is built and ranges in size from a few centimeters to several meters, affectionately coined "bigatures". Each model is created to an astonishing level of perfection by an artist at the WETA workshop. The Miniatures crew then lights the model and replicates the environment captured when the live action was shot. Special cameras, cranes and structures are used so that technicians can move smoothly around the entire model creating huge sweeping crane type shots as well as delicate intricate movements.
To create the lava and volcanic eruptions featured on The Lord of the Rings, artists use a series of pumps, hoses and liquid concoctions that, when combined with dramatic lighting, create a realistic environment.
The dialect and creative language coaches have the unusual task in the Lord of the Rings of teaching the actors the Tolkien's Elvish language which has never been spoken before. They train the actors using phonetics, a one-hundred year-old science of writing down speech sounds similar to the alphabet we know.
The language coaches have also created various accents for all of the characters and began training and rehearsing with the actors one month before filming began. Both coaches are on set standing by listening for dialogue and dialect, and also supervise any looping or dialogue recording that takes place after scenes are already shot.
A tremendous number of New Zealand artisans have been tasked with the making of realistic props for The Lord of the Rings. They include glassblowers, ceramists, furniture makers, leather artists and metal workers just to name a few.
The props are created in two scales to serve the variety of characters on the project, from Hobbit to Gandalf size. Everything from furniture in the Prancing Pony to vegetables in Bilbo Baggins' garden are produced in both small and large sizes. No props or set dressing is rented on The Lord of the Rings set, every piece is created from scratch for the project.
From the smoky vistas of Middle-earth to the fiery bowels of Moria, the physical effects team creates realistic environments both on location and inside the studio.
Rain, snow, wind and storms are created using a wide range of equipment including hoses, spray pipes and huge fans which are sometimes as large as a car. Snow is made using polystyrene and can be manipulated to fall gently, swirl around or recreate a huge snowstorm. Atmospheric conditions like mist, steam, fog, haze and smoke are created through the use of special liquids.
The team creates fake rivers and streams running through fake forests by pumping water through manmade ravines. They simulate falling rocks, leaves, debris and landslides as well as fire, torches, Hobbit campfires and explosions. All environments are created with safety for the cast and crew as the first priority.