John Howe Interview - Lord of the

Cirdan of Der Herr der Ringe was kind enough to provide this English translation of an interview with John Howe conducted by Leo of at Elf Fantasy Faire 2001.

Earlier on this morning during your lecture you mentioned there are some characters you find hard to draw. Can you give us an example?

Ents. Ents are very hard to draw, yeah I find many... I find the Elves very hard to draw as well because they are so beautiful. I like the way Peter Jackson portrayed Legolas, I think he’s great. I mean it’s not at all the way I see him, but I think he looks wonderful. And the other Elves, I’m very surprised by Elrond, the guy from the Matrix, but I think it’s a great choice, he looks really, really good. Maybe half of the things in the movie I don’t see the way as the movie does, but I’m not making the movie. It’s difficult to find men to play Elves you know... Elves should be tall, they should be incredibly beautiful. It’s difficult to find male faces for such parts. As for the Ents, I have not seen the way they are going to show the Ents, I mean, we saw the miniatures they were working on, but I have no idea what it’s going to look like on the big screen.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on the movie?

Working next to Alan Lee, he’s amazing. It’s a shame he couldn’t be here (both John Howe and Alan Lee were invited to the Elf Fantasy Fair, but Lee is currently still working in New Zealand -leo). And the other thing is, you go into a project like this thinking this is the project of a lifetime, it’s a very important project given the fact that they are only going to do this once. I thought there was something intriguely valid in Lord of the Rings that I wanted to do it, but now I realise that what is really interesting about a project like this is the people you get to meet, the people you get to work with, the people you get to know...

What was it like working as a concept artist for the Lord of the Rings movie? How closely did you get to work with the set designers, props designers, costume designers etc. etc.?

Well... it was all very ‘organic’, there were very few lines drawn. I mean there were rules, but generally a good idea was a good idea, no matter who it came from. So there was not really a situation in which everyone else but Peter Jackson could veto an idea. And it was up to us to simply put forward the best we could come up with, and then it went from there. And we were allowed to go in and work on the sets ourselves, and the miniatures... There was a lot of continual feedback going back and forth all the time.

Did it occur that they would shoot some scenes with a specific costume or prop, and that it didn’t quite work out so you’d have to do it all over again?

Umm... I was mostly involved in the enviroments and not so much involved, actually not at all, in the costumes. But occasionally you had to go back and redo everything. It’s all a question of how things work, you know they work on paper, they work as a small model but they don’t always work in full size. Things were being changed all the time.

Are you still involved in post-production, or is all of it done by Alan Lee?

(nods) yeah, it’s something you can’t do at a distance, I’d love to go back to New Zealand for it but appearantly it’s not the order of the day. I’m sure they’ll manage, they are wrapping up this summer, so..

What do you think is the biggest mistake Peter Jackson made while working on the movie?

I really can’t answer that, that’s a question for him... I have enormous respect for Peter of course, I didn’t know anything about him before we went to New Zealand, didn’t have a clue about what he’d done, I’d never seen one of his movies. But the more you get to know him, the more you realize he is really a grand person, he is honestly one of the people that will go down in filmmaking history and not just as the maker of thrillers or horrorfilms. He’s capable of making good, really wonderful drama, so whatever artistic diffirences we might have had are really irrelevant.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the work was divided between you and Alan Lee?

I think you’ll definitely see Alan Lee’s work, but I think noone will know which is his and which is mine exactly, because a lot of things got mixed up. Alan spent twice as much time on the movie so he’ll have a huge ammount of things that look very much like his style. I did Bag End, the interior, and I did a lot of fiddling around with weapons and armoury and I also did a lot to do with Mordor, all that black, terrifying stuff. And Alan Lee basicly did the other stuff, Edoras, Minas Tirith, etc. etc. And there were bits and pieces here and there. They build quite a lot of sets considering ... umm... well, there’s nothing worse then these movies where you have nothing but landscapes, a typical Conan the Barbarian-movie, with all those huge landscapes and then suddenly there’s a city (makes gesture) *klonk*, there’s nothing else around for miles and miles, but there’s a city. And that’s a thing I think Peter Jackson is working hard to improve upon, because it has to look real, it has to look like it’s supposed to be there. I don’t know how much they were able to do, but Middle-earth is a place that is filled with ruins, it’s full of people that disappeared and it only has a fraction of the population it had in the second age. So there should be all these remains lying around, all these ruins and all these civilisations that are slowly declining. The Elves that are getting ready to go to the Grey Havens. And again I don’t know how often you’ll come across these things in the movie but it seems really appropriate, this whole idea that it’s the end of an age and it will never be the same again.

What part of the movie do you think will be ‘big’, will surprise everyone?

I think the battle-scenes will be, you know, never seen before. We will all see when we will go see the movies in december, but I think it will be very fast. I think.. I know all the actors were very good, there was a lot of emotion in them, I think it was a happy movie in that sense, but I think the people will be blown away by the things they least expect, and I can’t tell you what heheh....

Peter Jackson is no fool, he doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who screwed up Lord of the Rings for the second time, so... and he’s fearless, if he wants something you might as well step out of the way because you’ll get strodden flat if he has to get past you to get it. He is an amazing man, he really is an astonhising person, and there’s this amazing set of circumstances before the film ended up in his hands, for no good reason honestly. He’s not the Ridley Scott or the John Boorman or the people you would automatically think of it to do it. When he took it on he made like what, five movies? A young filmmaker, living in New Zealand, wanted to shoot te whole thing in New Zealand, I think initially everybody thought it was a crazy scheme. But when you look, you realise that nowhere else in the world would you have the same landscapes, nowhere else in the world would you have the room to build the sets that you wanted, because where they build Edoras for example; anywhere in Europe there would be a castle on it for the last two thousand years, for as in New Zealand they had 360 degrees of wonderful landscape they could shot. So they could build the whole thing, and I mean you saw the landscape in New Zealand, it is very similar to Europe, but it’s not quite the same, it’s something, something strange, so it really is Middle-earth. And if the sets and the miniatures and all that are convincing, and I’m sure that these Kiwi’s know what they are doing, it may not be Hollywood but it is literally the next best thing and even better, and they just go ahead and did it all. And I can’t imagine now doing it anywhere else, you couldn’t do it in the States or in Europe ‘cause it’d cost ten times this much, and New Zealand turns out to be the best place after all. It was an unique chance, and Peter Jackson is so strong willed, people have been asking him to come to Hollywood for ages but he doesn’t want to, he’s just not interested, he wants to make films in New Zealand.

How do you feel about fantasy-illustrators influencing the vision of people, for instance if you or Alan Lee or Ted Nasmith draw a Balrog with wings you try to convince people it has wings.

Well, that’s a problem really. I don’t know if it had wings either, but I thought wings would be great! I try to make as few decisions I can of that nature, and I spent a lot of time not drawing things when I’m drawing, because I think it’s very important not to close all the doors and to draw things so, so tightly that there’s no room left for speculation. The way I see the Balrog is largely drawn on the way I find them to be in the Silmarillion. Because, well, the Balrog in Lord of the Rings is the last Balrog, so once there was a time that these things wandered around in great, great hords. But that’s just the way I see them, nothing more. But it’s an interesting problem isn’t it? Because you are condamned to drawing a certain number of things. And you know I’ve seen these debates about ‘should there be this in Middle-earth or not?’ And people are so passionate about it, and I find that very hard to understand because it is just a story...

Do you think the movie will have the same effect on people?

Yeah, it’s a funny thing really. Because the way people see the book will never be the same, because I think there will be some spectecular, really breathtaking scenes, and it’s obviously going to influence the vision people have. But then again, like Jackson said himself, it’s just a movie, and you don’t have to burn the book when you go see the movie...

Have you seen the Bakshi Lord of the Rings movie/cartoon?

Yeah... I’ve seen it a few times, I didn’t like it. But basicly the changes in both movies are similar. There are things you have to cut because they only have this much time. I mean Peter is so fortunate to have three movies. And he’s making long movies as far as I know, the cutting he does is the absolute minimum that he has to do. But obviously Tom Bombadil may never make it to the screen because he just doesn’t get the story going.

What’s your favorite scene from the Silmarillion?

That’s a good question... (thinking)... I don’t think I have one. What I like about the Silmarillion is that Tolkien is contnually going back and forth with very large stories. You see sweeping masses of people and time, and then suddenly it comes back into focus on one single person and his story and it broadens back out again. I think that’s fascinating about the Silmarillion, because Tolkien does both very well, not only is he capable of writing epic but he’s also capable of putting that aside, dropping down into the picture and find the tragedy of one person. I don’t have a favorite scene, no, it’s all so grand. I don’t think it would loan itself for a movie.

If you could live in any place in Middle-earth, where would it be?

I don’t know... I’d love to visit, don’t think I’d want to live there...

Do you listen to music when you are drawing?

Err...yeah, but there’s no relation between what I listen to and what I draw. What do I listen to? Quite a lot of movie soundtracks. A lot of... (thinking)... I eally can’t tell you hehe.. How do you come up with these questions? I love the Mechanics, Springsteen, a lot of classical music. I like the radio because it has the news...

Are you familiar with the bands that are inspired by Tolkien’s work? Blind Guardian, Glass Hammer...

Yeah of course.... we got sent tons of music by people. My favorite Tolkien inspired musician is... (damatic pause)... I can’t remember his name, I think he’s dead now. Finlandish (I assume he means Finnish -leo) I think he is, my god what was his name... I can’t remember hehe.. I’ve got a pirate tape at home, it’s very good. I’m looking forward to the movie soundtrack, it should be very good.

Have you been in contact with the Tolkien-estate about your artwork?

Yes, on a professional base. I’ve corresponded with Christopher because he looks very closely at what’s going on on bookcovers and such things. He gets the chance to see the sketches from the bookcovers before the book is released, obviously it’s diffirent for calendars. But when I get commission on a bookcover I draw a sketch, send it to the editor who passes it on to Christopher who gives his opinion, and then I go ahead and do the picture. So if changes are to be made, they are made at the stage where it is still a sketch.

Which artists or artistic movements have influenced you the most?

That’s a very tough question to answer in three words... I mean you have to place your artistic influences in the order that they come. And when I was very young I was influenced by illustrators when in fact I don’t quite see it the same way now, which doesn’t mean I don’t respect their work anymore. I was blown away by Frank Gazetta when I was fifteen, then I discovered people like Bernie.. all american comic or fantasy-illustrators really. And then I slowly came to know other, older illustrators. Turn of the century was my favorite period. And then I slowly became familiar with other artistic movements and all those other wonderful, wonderful artists. But it’s a bit pretentious to make a list of all these people because there is just so much.

Do you sometimes draw on Tolkien’s own art for inspiration?

Well, I draw on his art for information not so much for inspiration. I think the information contained inside J.R.R. Tolkien’s art is very deep, it’s a... what am I trying to say... There is a lot of information directly available inside his pictures, but the style is very, very diffirent from what I’m doing, so it’s not a question of actually drawing any inspiration from him. But it’s a very clear representation of what he thought, so I find that quite usefull some times.

Do you feel that you are typecast as a Tolkien illustrator?

Appearantly yeah hehehe.... I get sold because people always want to put tags on everything. It’s very difficult, in France for instance, it’s especially bad in France, the French like to put labels on people, and a lot of my work gets done in France, and you immediatly get labelled as Tolkien-illustrator. But I suppose since half of my work has to do with Tolkien it’s a label that is perfectly logical.

Okay, thank you very much for this interview.

You are welcome...

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