Making Middle-earth: An Interview with John Howe – Hemisphere’s Magazine

by Jul 2, 2001Lord of the Rings (Movies)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has bee spellbinding readers for decades. Now in the form of a trilogy of feature films, the tale promises to enchant a new generation of fans. Famed Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee served as the conceptual artists for the three films. Howe spoke with Hemispheres about the project.

Q: John, why don’t you start by telling us about your relationship to the movie itself, especially the visual consulting you did.

A: Alan Lee and I were hired as conceptual artists, which means that our mandate basically covered the environments of Middle-earth. So all the things that had to be built — whether as a miniature, as a set, or as a computer miniature or extruder set — we designed. That means the buildings and the castles, Hobbiton, Bag End, Edoras, Minas Tirith, and all of Mordor.

Q: How long before the actual filming of the movie started were you involved?

A: Over a year before. There was an incredibly long lead-up. There was an enormous amount to do, and part of the reason was that Peter [Jackson, director] had this desire to make it all coherent. I suppose, although this is just speculation, that you couldn’t just hand each nation over to a different artist and have anything homogenous come out of it. So Alan and I simply drew and drew and drew and drew, and we split up Middle-earth in a very organic way. Depending on what came up and who was available, we’d each get down to the task of trying to get around it visually.

Q: As each of us reads Tolkien’s books, we see Middle-earth and all these environments in our minds, but the vision of Middle-earth that we will be seeing in the movie is literally yours.

A: There may be recognizable bits, I’m sure. As far as I know, Bag End will be very recognizable; Hobbiton will look very much like Alan’s work; you’ll recognize Rohan from Alan’s previous work …

Q: What I meant was it will be yours and Alan’s vision.

A: Yes, absolutely.

Q: Quite an honor.

A: Oh, it is an honor. I mean it was a terrible responsibility. [laughs] It was a wonderful job. Because there was a lot of expectation riding on the work we were doing. And we did put in 10, 12 hours a day drawing steady, which is quite a lot, you know; quite a lot more than either of us at home.

Q: Did you two have initial discussions with Jackson early on in the process?

A: Yes, we’d run through each environment. We had read the script and we’d run through each environment, and Peter would give us his thoughts on which direction it should go. Occasionally there was already an existing piece of artwork which would serve as a point of departure. And then we had the incredible luxury of having two or three weeks to just get your mind around a full environment—inside out, from the back and the front, from the top … which was really exciting because it was something I hadn’t done before.

Q: Were you and Alan able to collaborate very much?

A: Yes, it was really great. I have nothing but praise and admiration for Alan.

Q: Had you met or worked together before this?

A: No; we met at 30,000 feet in a plane!

Q: I’m sure you were each familiar with the other’s work.

A: Yes, I’m very familiar with his; I have all his books and I’ve been a diligent fan of his forever, ever since I first saw his work. So we got along very well. We’re both Leos, which is quite curious. And born, in fact, the same day, but a few years apart. It’s quite fun because people kept getting us mixed up; they’d call me Alan and him John …

Q: Do you look much alike?

A: We don’t … well, I look more like him than like my own brother. We got along very well.

Q: After the two of you came up with the visuals, the project then moved on to others who were actually responsible for the physical creation of these areas?

A: That’s right. It would go through a first step which was either an architectural rendering by a qualified architect, Grant Major, or, if it was a little more difficult to render (there were many environments which were not very architectural, very hard to render on paper, other than in a three-dimensional sketch), it would go straight into a polystyrene maquette, and then from that, Peter was able to promenade a little lipstick camera inside to see if it would work. And then it would go back to the drawing board and it’d come out in another version that would be better adapted. When everything had been ironed out it would be chopped up into the necessary bits and they would start deciding what had to be a set, what would be done in the computers, and what would be done as a miniature. They had a very sophisticated production scheme running all that; very complicated.

Q: Is there anything you remember that speaks to Peter’s commitment, his vision? Certainly this is a labor of love for him.

A: Absolutely. Half a decade of his life, 24 hours a day, has been invested in these films. I think the most pertinent comment he’s always made is that “It’s just a film,” although it’s something he’s devoted five years of his life to. And you’re not obliged to burn the books when you pick up your movie ticket. He’s always had the most incredible respect and knowledge of the books. I think he knows them back to front; he knows the history of Middle-earth inside-out. He’s read and looked at everything that’s ever been published concerning Middle-earth … and he remembers it all. And he’s taking his visions through all that.

Q: Any time he diverges from the books, it’s deliberate and not because he’s not familiar with the story.

A: Oh, absolutely. We had endless discussions about what really was in the spirit of Middle-earth. It’s very difficult to stay as close to the books as many people would like because it’s just not quite cinematographic. The bits that aren’t directly related to moving the movie forward we dropped out. I’m sure everybody’s heard of Tom Bombadil getting the axe, but then he’s never been in a movie yet. Ralph Bakshi had to chop him out. They do have three films to do it in, but there’s still such an enormous amount to get into three films.

Q: Had you been involved in the capacity you are in this film with any other films?

A: No, I haven’t. But, I’d love to renew the experience. It was an incredible learning experience.

Q: What was the most unexpected thing you encountered during your involvement with the movie? Something you didn’t expect to see them do or attention they gave to something?

A: I’ve heard that the actors — some of whom went to New Zealand for a full year, which is an enormous commitment for actors — all took it very much to heart. No matter what the result, one of the most striking aspects of the whole thing is that everybody has a great respect for the books. And the books kept popping up from behind the script all the time. Anything that wasn’t in the script, people would be going back and poring through the book to find it. And Alan and I would go back to the books when we needed information. So, the books were very much present, although they were being translated through the script.

Q: How do you think the movies are going to be received?

A: I don’t think New Line is actually running too much of a financial risk, although they have put themselves out on a very long limb. I think there will be a huge hew and cry about any tiny change; I get this all the time concerning my illustrations, and they’re fairly orthodox. There are so many people who consider this to be practically a religion and that Tolkien is the gospel, and anything that deviates even a comma away from the original text is heresy. But I think that despite the changes that Peter has had to make, because he’s making a movie and not just filming a book, I think he’s got the strength of character himself to carry that through. Barring the few diehards who can’t see anything good in the whole idea of making a movie in the first place, I think that most people will just be carried away by the sheer drama and the excitement and the suspense as they come out of the first film, sort of wiping their foreheads and being patient for the year to go by so they can see the next one.

Q: Are you prepared for the impact this is going to have on your career?

A: I don’t know if it will really have any impact. I mean, it’s a movie and the actors are the important people, and the emotions they’re going to get across. The guys who do the preparation work are sort of out of the scene by the time it gets to the screen.

Q: Well, of course, then there will be this huge wave of popularity about the story and all of that will result in dramatically increased sales for calendars and books.

A: Absolutely. HarperCollins in London has never sold so many books, as far as I know. Like Peter said, it’s a film; and it’s only going to enhance the books. So I can imagine people who haven’t read the books who’ve gone to see it will run to the bookshop to buy the book. And those who have read the books will go back and read them again, to see what was changed by the time it got to the screen.

Q: If Professor Tolkien were here today, do you think he would be surprised with the global attention that his stories are receiving?

A: I think he would be quite surprised. I mean, I’m sure it’s a source of, well, simultaneously of pride and perhaps a little bit of annoyance, because…

Q: These were personal stories that he was writing that turned into something much bigger.

A: Yes. And now people take them so personally. People have come up to me to say, “I don’t like that.” Or they’ll come up and say, “Gollum is not like that.” And I’ll say, “Well, OK, fine, that’s only the way I drew him.” “He’s not like that at all.” And I’ll say, “Well, what’s he like?” “I don’t know, but he’s not like that!” They are incredibly categorical.

Q: They’re very possessive, aren’t they?

A: Oh, it’s amazing. I don’t do very many signature sessions and that sort of thing, but whenever I do, I run into the most astonishing people who are on the alert for everything.

Q: That seems to be a tribute to Tolkien that he could create a world that would allow people to make such a connection to it.

A: I think he sums up a vast portion of our collective consciousness — you know, those things that unite us all culturally, that we’re not necessarily conscious of at all. And Tolkien has created a world where you can bring your own pantheon of gods and creatures into it and appropriate it for yourself. And of those people to whom the books appeal, I’ve never met two people who see it the same way, you know? It’s an interesting problem because, well, you’ve seen the photos of Elija Wood as Frodo; I can’t imagine him [Frodo] any other way now. Now I’ve got to draw Frodo quite a lot, but I’m having trouble getting around Elija because that’s how I would love to have drawn him. So there are many things that will be fixed for all time by the film.

It’s a difficult process to visualize Tolkien anyway because much of it is very hard to draw. I mean, Ents are a terrifying thing to draw. How do you make them not look like sort of a great walking celery root? What’s the Balrog like? There’s a great debate on the Net right now: “Does he have wings or not?” You’ll have to wait until December to find out if he does. There are these incredible to’s and fros, and people are so passionate about it. Peter is aware that he’s treading on hallowed ground, and he’s got to get all the way to the other side. It’s quite an undertaking; I’m sure he’s terribly conscious of it—of the scope of the books and the impact they’ve had. And, in fact, early this year when New Line redid their Web site with the new trailer, they had 76 million hits in the first week.

What I find quite fun is it all comes down to a core unit of very talented, pragmatic Kiwis, a few foreigners who were flown in, a mix of 2x4s and silicone, and solutions to huge problems that have made it a real ingenious mix of preparatory work.

Q: Were you there at any of the shooting sites?

A: No, no; I missed all that. I was there for 13 or 14 months.

Q: And all in preparation, working with Peter and Alan?

A: That’s right. And the crew from the WETA workshop who did the arms and armor and creatures. I spent a lot of time with them designing armor, designing weapons, contributing to creatures—that sort of thing; that was very exciting. I’ve got a special attraction for anything concerning armor.

Q: Have you taken any souvenirs home with you?

A: Oh, I wish I could’ve. No, no—they were all under lock and key, otherwise I would’ve had a whole bunch in my suitcase! But I hope I can scrape something up when it’s all over. They did some amazing, groundbreaking work in the preproduction. And I think they found solutions to problems that have never been fully addressed by anybody in any film up until now. It was really exciting. And all this was in a sort of run-down old warehouse in the back of a suburb of Wellington. And these guys are doing work which is the equal of whatever is done in the States or in England. It was quite impressive.

Q: Will this experience have an impact on future artwork you will be doing?

A: Oh, yes. The real impact comes from New Zealand itself—the landscape, which is so phenomenally beautiful. There are great chunks of New Zealand in the 2001 [Tolkien] calendar I did. I’ve been putting chunks of New Zealand in many, many things recently.

Q: What else are you up to now?

A: I’ve got a book coming out in November called Myth and Magic. It’ll be half Tolkien and half other work, and that’s with HarperCollins. I was just in London working on the layout. I was selecting the material and all that. It’s a huge, huge job.


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