Production design of The Lord of the Rings film series
The Lord of the Rings film series began its production design in August 1997. Peter Jackson required complete realism and plausibility in his vision of Middle-earth, and hired Weta Workshop to create the various pieces of armour, weapons, prosthetics and creatures seen in the trilogy, as well as aged costumes and historically influenced sets.
Jackson began storyboarding the trilogy with Christian Rivers in August 1997, effectively creating a rough black and white 2-D version of the film. Jackson showed excerpts of the "animated" storyboards (filmed images with voices and a temporary soundtrack) to allow potential cast a view of the film's style.
To plan his visual effects sequences, Jackson also utilized a lipstick camera for the models of sets and computer animatics (learned from Industrial Light & Magic), planning the battle sequences like a real general and giving a sense of direction. This would often allow room for him to improvise for action sequences, such as the Moria staircase collapse (which was never in any script draft). He also bought 40,000 toy soldiers to play with. Pre-visualisation would continue throughout production, such as the late addition of the Ents attacking Isengard, and the siege of Minas Tirith in February 2003.
The design of the trilogy began in August 1997 with the storyboarding, and in November 1997, famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe joined the project. Up until then, concept artists had primarily been influenced by Dungeons & Dragons in their designs. Jackson himself wanted a gritty realism and historical regard for the fantasy. Some of their famous images of Bag End, Orthanc, Helm's Deep, the Black Gate, and John Howe's Gandalf and the Balrog made it into the film. The last one inspired the opening of The Two Towers. Jackson sometimes replicated some shots from famous Tolkien illustrations as a nod to fans.
Lee worked on designs for architecture, the first being Helm's Deep, as well as the Elven realms, Moria, Edoras, and Minas Tirith, and although Howe primarily designed armour and the forces of evil (see below), he contributed with Bag End, Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol and the Barad-dûr. Lee also applied a personal touch by painted imagery in Rivendell, such as the one of Isildur removing the One Ring from Sauron, as well as tapestries in Edoras. There are real life influences to Middle-earth: Rivendell is "a cross between a Japanese Temple and Frank Lloyd Wright", and Minas Tirith takes influence from Mont Saint-Michel, St Michael's Mount and Palatine Chapel in Aachen. The City of the Dead takes after Petra, Jordan, and the Grey Havens were inspired by the paintings of J. M. W. Turner.
Grant Major was charged with the task of converting Lee and Howe's designs into architecture, creating models of the sets, whilst Dan Hennah worked as art director, scouting locations and organizing the building of sets. The army often helped out too, building Hobbiton almost a year before filming to give the impression of real growth and age, and moved 5000 cubic metres of earth, and creating roads to the Edoras location during six months of building, although there was some controversy over their pay. Sometimes sets would be reshaped: the caverns of Isengard became Shelob's Lair, and Helm's Deep became a Minas Tirith backlot. Sets would also occasionally employ forced perspective to save budget too. Despite a large amount of safety involved, there were still fires on a Rohirrim village location and the Morgul Road set, and Alan Lee fell off a Lothlórien miniature. Also, during Bilbo's speech, the polystyrene birthday cake with 111 (not confirmed if there really were 111) candles was actually on fire, but everyone kept acting while some of the crew tried to put it out. A similar instance of things occurring that weren't in the script was Ian McKellen knocking his head painfully on a beam inside Bag End, but he kept acting through it.
The Art Department was careful to respect nature, considering its importance to Tolkien, such as taking plants from the Edoras location into a nursery. They would sometimes mould shapes from real rocks and bark too, and take branches into a steel structure with polystyrene for more convincing prop trees. Brian Massey led the Greens Department, and even wrote a booklet on tree growth when he complained of the props "being too coney" for Lothlórien when time came to for Fangorn forest. The numerous props within the trilogy are all originally designed at different scales, and many craftsmen were hired, most notably Jens Hansen Gold & Silversmith to create 15 replicas of The One Ring. Statues were sculpted out of polystyrene, although some thrones seen in the trilogy are in fact crafted out of marble, stone and wood as they would be. A former bank worker named Daniel Reeve was hired to write the numerous books, spines, documents, maps, diagrams and even Orc graffiti that appear in the trilogy.
Jackson hired longtime collaborator Richard Taylor to lead Weta Workshop on five major design elements: armour, weapons, prosthetics/make-up, creatures and miniatures. Notable among the concept artists were Daniel Falconer and Warren Mahy, who enjoyed creating the forces of good and evil respectively. Jamie Beswarick and Mike Asquith also helped with the maquettes, as well as Ben Wooten with his extensive zoology knowledge, amongst many others.
John Howe was the supervisor on armour, having studied and worn it. Stu Johnson and Warren Green made 48,000 pieces of armour from the numerous molds of plate steel, as well as a small group who spent 3 years linking plastic chain mail (eventually wearing their thumbprints away). Peter Lyon also forged swords, each taking from three to six days, creating spring steel "hero" swords for close-ups, aluminium fight swords and rubber versions too. Weta also created 10,000 real arrows and 500 bows. Howe even created a less crude type of crossbow for the Uruk-hai (the first army approved), based on a 16th-century manuscript.
Weta created numerous pieces of prosthetics, and would have to monitor them on set too. They created 1800 Orc body suits to go with 10,000 Orc heads, lasting six days and one day respectively. Weta also spent a year creating Hobbit feet that would look like furry feet yet act as shoes for actors. In total, 1800 pairs were used by the four lead actors during production. Actors would also go in for face casts to create pointed ears and false noses. Most extensive was John Rhys-Davies as Gimli, who would spend four-and-a-half hours in the morning to apply Dwarven prosthetics. Gino Acevedo also worked on created realistic skin tones for the actors, such as Bernard Hill's possessed Théoden and a younger Bilbo. Peter(s) King and Owen also led the make-up department in making numerous wigs and creating general dirt on the actors. As well as applying make-up, at the end of the day there was an hour of carefully removing the make-up and prosthetics. As well as the prosthetics, there were also numerous corpses of actors and horses.
Weta's first completed creature was the Cave Troll, and originally wanted to make the Orcs totally animalistic before the switch to prosthetics. They gave specific designs to the Moria Orcs, Uruk-hai and Mordor Orcs so as to give variety to the characters. They also spent time making creatures biologically believable, rooting them sometimes in real creatures: Shelob's body is a funnel web spider, and the Wargs are a bear/hyena/wolf hybrid. Howe lent himself for Beswarick to study when shaping Gollum, and he also took inspiration from Iggy Pop due to his skin-muscle ratio. Whilst most creatures were destined to exist in the computer, Weta did create a 14 feet tall Treebeard puppet (which needed 5 people to operate), a single dead mûmak and later on, a "Phoney Pony" for close-up shots of riding actors. Designing continued throughout production, such as Gollum's redesign in May 2001 and the Great Beasts in early 2003.
Several cultures' backstories had to be shown through only subliminal glimpses on screen, as are the miniatures, and for the Elves and Gondorians, fictional histories had to be presented within the changes of armour. The Elves have an Art Nouveau influence that involves leaves and flowers, whilst the Dwarves have a preoccupation with geometry that is supposed to remind the audience of their digging nature. The Hobbits hark back to 18th century England, the Rohirrim have numerous horse and sun motifs and draw visual inspiration from Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in the Sutton Hoo burial ship, and the Gondorians reflect 16th-century German and Italian armour as well as tree motifs. The evil Haradrim Men take influence from Aztecs and Kiribati after bad feedback from Phillipa Boyens over looking African. Most of the Orc armour is sharp, reflecting secateurs, and have runes written on them to reflect a worship of Sauron.
Several liberties were taken in adapting Tolkien's weaponry and armour to the screen. While plate armour is used in the films, it is unmentioned in any of the author's writings (except for vambraces), where scale and especially mail predominate. Some swords, like the broken royal sword Narsil, are also interpreted as two-handed longswords. These design choices help evoke the Late Medieval and Renaissance periods, whereas Tolkien's original atmosphere is generally more akin to the Early Medieval period. In a private letter he compared Middle-earth clothing and war gear to that of Dark Age Europe and the Bayeux Tapestry. Weta also invented Elvish inscriptions for weapons like the spear Aeglos and the swords Sting and Narsil. In some cases Tolkien writes about runes on sword blades but does not give them in detail. The Elves use curved swords, whereas the author mostly assigns such swords to Orcs and enemy Men (he writes about one Elf bearing a curved sword in very early writings). The designers went so far as to invent new weapons, such as the Elvish sword Hadhafang, used by Arwen; while the design is original the name is derived from Tolkien's "Etymologies" in The Lost Road.
Ngila Dickson was hired on April 1, 1999 to handle the numerous costumes. She and 40 seamstresses worked on over 19,000 costumes. Due to the large shooting schedule, 10 versions of each costume would have to be made, and then 30 more for stunt, scale and other doubles, all in all meaning each design would have 40 versions.
Due to Jackson's requirement of realism, the costumers took great pains to make costumes look "lived in", wearing away colour, stuffing pockets and dirtying costumes for the likes of Gandalf and Aragorn due to their terrain crossing nature. Like armour, there would also be acid etching and some overdyeing of colours. Dickson decided to give the Hobbits shorts due to their bare feet, and specifically worked on long sleeves for the Elves for a gliding impression. Dickson also took great pains to distinguish the Gondorians (silvers and black) and the Rohirrim (brown and green).
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