An Interview with Vance Hartwell – A painter, sculpter and more who worked on LOTR

by Jul 15, 2002Lord of the Rings (Movies)

Thanks to J.W. Braun for this article!


Vance Hartwell has spent nearly 20 years doing behind the scenes work for tv, movies, commercials, and more. With this experience it’s no surprise that he was employed on LOTR where he worked in the areas of painting, sculpting, application, molding, foaming, finishing, hair, contact lenses, puppeteering, and set work. And not only is he talented, he’s been rumored to be a nice guy, too. Today I’m very fortunate to be able to ask him a few questions.

JW: Greetings, Mr. Hartwell. Welcome to my fansite. Did you ever think your work would lead you to some crazed LOTR fan’s little angelfire page?

Vance: Nope. It’s very flattering though.

JW: You were born and raised in California, but now you live in New Zealand. (Or maybe you already knew this?) Is it strange living in a different culture?

Vance: It took about a year to get used to living here. Coming from LA, it was like moving to the farm for us (me and my wife). We didn’t think there’d be any culture shock since it was an English speaking country. Well, there was. The shops closed up around 5:00pm every week night and only a few things were open on Saturdays and then only for a couple of hours. Nothing, except petrol (gas) stations and dairies (like a 7-11) were open on Sundays. People here (New Zealanders are called kiwis, after the bird not the fruit) are more reserved and quiet than most Americans, too. So there was some getting used to each other that took a while.

JW: How did you ever end up doing things like creating a fat suit for Gwyneth Paltrow?

Vance: I was a film major in college. I had always wanted to make movies. Makeup just ended up being the first way “in” to the movies. Once I started working is where I really learned stuff. I’d say 99.9% of what I know I learned on the job.

The Gwyneth job [for “Shallow Hal”] was fun. It’s not everyday you get to add a few hundred pounds to somebody. I especially liked working on the little tail for Jason Alexander.

JW: How did you become involved with LOTR? Did working with Peter on “The Frighteners” open the door?

Vance: Well, I’d been working with Weta since 1993. My first project with them were the five “Hercules” telemovies. We worked on the “Hercules” series, the “Xena” series, did some NZ films and commercials and some other things. Peter and Richard Taylor were/are partners in Weta and so we just always did Peter’s stuff when it came up.

JW: What did you think about LOTR when you became involved with the project? Had you ever read the books?

Vance: I first read the books when I was 12. I fell in love with them. I think I read all three in a two week period. I remember thinking, even then, that they would make a great film/s. When the Bakshi film came out I forced my parents to take me to see it. They were bored stiff, but I loved it.

When Peter told us he was going to make “The Hobbit” I was pretty excited. When he told us that he wasn’t going to do “The Hobbit”, but do “The Lord of the Rings”, I was quite happy. It’s a more difficult story to tell, but it had so much more potential. I remember when we were in turn-around with Miramax on the project that I told Richard that even though the future of the project was uncertain that I was glad Peter was trying to get a studio to pick it up and let him do it right. It was a tough time for us (the shop) as we didn’t know if this job would happen and if it didn’t, what our next job would be. It turned out all right though.

JW: Do you think Peter will ever do “The Hobbit”? Would you like to work on it if he does?

Vance: I don’t know. It’d be nice if he did, but I also think it’d be kind of like going over the same ground again. By the time he finishes with the DVD for “The Return of the King” he’ll have spent about 8 years on this project. I think he’ll be wanting to do something different. Of course, if he does do it I’d like to work on it.

JW: Tell us a little about what you did on the LOTR project.

Vance: Over the course of the project I was involved in most areas of the creature and makeup effects. I was on from the beginning (early 1997) through the end of principle photography (December 2000). I made tons of molds, ran lots of foam latex, painted thousands of items, did some hair work, applied makeup onto the actors, puppeteered and some stuff I can’t even remember now.

JW: You also designed the paint scheme for the Moria orcs. What’s special about this race?

Vance: Originally they were supposed to have very large eyes, since they live underground. The CG guys were going to enlarge all their eyes digitally. They did some tests that were pretty good, but the decision was made to “can” the idea as it would be very time consuming which in digital terms is very expensive. That’s why the goblins have a dark colour around their eyes. It was the area where the eyes would enlarge and it would fill it in. You can see the enlarged eye effect in one of the trailers, I think. I think you also have a pic of it on your site.

JW: Speaking of their eyes, can you tell us a bit about the contact lenses that were used?

Vance: There were two types of lenses for the creatures: soft scleral and hard scleral. A scleral lens covers more than just the iris, it covers the white of the eye, too, called the sclera. I painted all of the hard scleral lenses for the orcs, uruk-hai and goblins. Those lenses were only used in close-up shots, though, as they were not optically pure. In other words, it was like looking through Vaseline.

JW: Oh, so that’s why the orcs were always such lousy shots when the Fellowship was around. It was because of your crummy contact lenses! And here I thought it was just the “stormtrooper rule” (i.e. several battalions of ‘Bad Guys’ firing on a few ‘Good Guys’ will always miss; as opposed to a ‘Good Guy’, who in a drunken stupor being held upside down from a moving vehicle will always hit.)

Vance: I always hated that in films. How a professional soldier, with a machine gun, couldn’t hit a civilian. Of course, the civilian with a hand gun can take out the soldier in one shot. I’d love a film to show the bad guys actually doing their job right for once.

JW: That would make for some very short movies. So the hard contacts impaired vision.

Vance: Apparently, there’s only one or two companies in the world that still make optically pure hard scleral lenses. They’re rarely used anymore, what with the advances in soft contact lenses. Hard lenses gave us the ability to put in a lot of detail though.

The soft scleral lenses were painted by a company in Australia. They didn’t have the detail of the hard ones and were used in more distant shots or where good vision was required, like fight scenes.

Elijah wore his own personal contacts throughout the film. His eyes are blue, but his contacts made them a more intense blue. Frodo’s “sick” eye was designed by Weta and made by a company in England. It was a soft scleral lens, but they did an amazing job of painting it.

JW: Let’s talk about the prosthetics. I heard a lot of complaints from the hobbits about the feet, but I didn’t hear too many complaints about the ears. Did the ears work well?

Vance: I think they did. They were pretty simple items, just slip cast latex. As to the complaints about the feet… I think a lot of what people are hearing is stuff just repeated and exaggerated in the retelling. All four guys were pretty happy with the feet. It was a pain having to wear them because they had to be careful with them when they weren’t shooting. And, at the end of the day, they had to spend about 1/2 hour having them removed and having their (real) feet cleaned when all they wanted to do was go home and sleep. There were some problems that popped up now and then and we did our best to make whatever changes were needed so the feet would be as comfortable as possible for them all.

JW: How many times have you seen FOTR?

Vance: I’ve only seen it once at a cast and crew screening. I’ve never seen it with a “real” audience.

JW: What did you think of it?

Vance: I enjoyed it. The hard thing though is that when I see it I remember all the other stuff that went on. For example, the scenes in the Mines of Moria. It’s an action packed scene with tons to look at and lots of excitement. When I saw it in the cinema I liked it, but the intensity of the scene wasn’t there for me. I was up a 4:00am putting makeup on a lot of those goblins and I was on set when it was shot. I was also there after wrap helping remove some of the makeups. So I’d seen a lot of it many months before it came out and in the watching I couldn’t help but think about all that went on while on set. It usually takes a few years before those memories fade and I can see a film I worked on as other people see it.

Also, it was great seeing my daughter on screen. She plays a hobbit child in the birthday party scene at the beginning of the film. She was on screen for about a second. That was her second film. She was also in “The Frighteners” when she was 1 1/2 years old.

JW: Would it satisfy you to know some poor lady in my theater cried out in fear during the Moria scenes?

Vance: To me, someone crying out is more in response to what Peter has done overall. I’m just a small cog in a very large machine. I get enormous satisfaction when I get compliments from my peers (other makeup artists).

JW: It must also be nice to know that Peter and Richard are pleased with your work and know they can depend on you. (They keep using you, after all!)

Vance: Respect and appreciation from others is great. To me, that’s more important than the money. I’ve always told Richard that.

JW: And you also have the respect of the Academy: congratulations to you and the makeup department on your Oscar.

Vance: Thanks. Richard has the Oscars and Baftas sitting in the office. Even seeing them, though, it still hasn’t “hit me” that I worked on makeups and effects that have won those awards.

JW: What are you looking forward to in The Two Towers?

Vance: I guess just seeing it. I’m not really sure what will be in that film that I worked on. Because we shot all three films at once I was never sure which film I was working on: Fellowship, Two Towers or Return. And I didn’t want to know. It makes it better when I finally see the film if I don’t remember too much about making it.

JW: You’ve worked on many different projects. How was LOTR special?

Vance: Well, I’ve never been on one project for four years before! That alone makes it stand out. Plus, the sheer number of items that were made. Over one of the Christmas breaks I, along with another guy, painted over 100 Uruk-Hai suits that had to be ready to go as soon as the crew came back from their holiday. It was hectic at times, but overall it was fun.


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