You may not know John Howe, but you have probably visited his worlds.
Howe is among the best-known illustrators of J.R.R. Tolkien's works. Since the 1990s, Howe has helped visualize Middle-earth by creating art for various bound editions of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and other works. He also provided artwork for more obscure Tolkienania, such as calendars, posters, postcards, jacket art for the covers of audio editions and games and trading cards. Not only that, he's the man behind the pen for a variety of other fantasy art projects: Beowulf board games, Anne McCaffery book jackets, Magic: The Gathering cards, children's books, and folk tales such as Rip Van Winkle and Jack and the Beanstalk. Howe has also illustrated books on dragons, knights and "how to" instructional manuals for how to draw your own fantasy art.
But Howe's stature as a fantasy artist catapulted to new heights when Peter Jackson tapped him and Alan Lee, another prominent Tolkien illustrator, to serve as conceptual designers for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Jackson has said that even before he hired Howe, the illustrations that Howe drew of Gandalf (see banner image above), Bag End, the Balrog and the Nazgûl's flying beasts helped guide his vision for Middle-earth.
Today, given the millions who have seen Jackson's films, Howe can be credited with irrevocably shaping how we see Tolkien's world on the screen, and in our imaginations. Someone had to design every dwarf axe, evil tower, hobbit mug, and orc prosthetic, and Howe had his hand in nearly every decision about Middle-earth's "look and feel."
Plus, thanks to the seemingly infinite production documentaries found in the Rings trilogy's Extended Edition DVDs, Howe has become somewhat of a celebrity—at least among the ranks of those who care about the behind-the-scene scribblers, sword-forgers and model makers who work for the special effects house Weta Workshop and Jackson's fantasy empire down in Wellington, New Zealand. (Howe actually works for 3 Foot 7 Ltd., the New Zealand production company created by Warner Bros.) With his colleagues, Howe has brought new levels of fastidiousness to movie production design.
"John is highly productive," said Alan Lee about his office mate and artistic collaborator, "producing brilliant drawings in the brief periods when his turbo-charged metabolism allows him to sit still."
The tag-team of Howe and Lee moved back to Wellington when Jackson decided to adapt The Hobbit trilogy. The first installment, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, came out Christmas of 2012; film two, The Desolation of Smaug, hit theaters a year after that. When the "Extended Edition" of An Unexpected Journey was released last year, fans got an extra taste of Howe's magic touch. Expect the same sneak peeks into Howe's process when the extra dance mix version of film two comes likely comes out in October or November. Of course, there's also the final installment of the trilogy, now with the new title The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which arrives just over half a year from now, in December.
How Howe got into this field of fantasy is not the most surprising story. Born in 1957 in Vancouver, he grew up in British Columbia, and at a young age, began steeling himself to the artistic temperament. On his website, Howe recalls "bursting into tears of frustration" when he "failed to draw a cow the way I wanted."
Then, as a teen in the late 60s and early 70s, he discovered The Lord of the Rings and began devouring paperback fantasy novels, collecting them "for the covers." He was drawn to artists like Frank Frazetta ("demigod status"), Barry Smith (Conan) and Bemi Wrightson (Swamp Thing). Curiously, his seeing the Hildebrandt Tolkien calendars (1976-1978) showed Howe that Middle-earth "could be illustrated." He analyzed the calendars, drawing his own versions of the same scenes the Hildebrandt brothers had done. In 1976, Howe moved to France to attend art school in Strasbourg. He then moved to Switzerland and has been there ever since.
Over his career, his art has taken on many forms—political cartoons, magazine illustrations, comic books, advertisements and animated films. He exhibits his art extensively. He's also made the transition from charcoal and graphite to the digital pen. Today, when he's not in New Zealand working on a film—and get this, he spent two years total working on Rings and, thus far, nearly four and a half years on The Hobbit—Howe lives in Neuchâtel, working as a freelance illustrator.
I had a chance to interview John on two occasions. I first spoke with him via Skype from his home in Switzerland, in January, 2013, just after The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was released. Then things got busy, and he was back in New Zealand to continue work on the next two Hobbit movies. John and I reconnected in July of last year to complete the interview. (The gap in the interview is noted below.) We also caught up over email several times over the interceding months.
I found Howe to be smart and articulate, as well as gentle and patient, and reflective about his life. In our conversations, we talked about the differences between working on Rings versus The Hobbit, how evolving digital technology has impacted his art career, and whether he ever burns out on Tolkien, among other topics.
"A concept artist’s work is never done"
Ethan: Thank you so much for agreeing to talk with me. It’s so funny, I feel like—and you probably get this line a lot—but I feel like I sort of already know you because I’ve seen so much video of you on the various "making of" DVDs.
John: I’m sure I’ve talked my head off. I’ve never listened to them though.
Ethan: So you’re back in Switzerland, right?
John: That’s right. Yes, I just got back yesterday, actually.
Ethan: How long had you been in New Zealand, or have you been going back and forth relatively recently?
John: A good deal of back and forth, but never more than three weeks or a month here for the last three and a half years. Most of my time has been spent down in New Zealand.
Ethan: So you must have a home down there, you spend so much time there.
John: Well, it’s not quite a home away from home! We live in a furnished house, so I’m trying to resist my natural inclination to keep buying books and to try and keep our presence there as light as we can – not always successfully – it’s become kind of a long term temporary arrangement. Home is definitely back here.
Ethan: And will you be heading back? I know the principal photography in the first film was done but there’s probably more work for you to do, back in New Zealand.
John: There seems to be more work right until the last shots are delivered. It’s quite a change, actually, from back in the day when you’d do concept art and they’d move into production, and you weren’t really even needed after that. Now it seems to be right down until the very end. A concept artist’s work is never done, it seems.
Ethan: It was a bit unclear to me at the point when plan was announced back in July to make The Hobbit three films, whether that meant envisioning new stuff and coming up with new material for the third film, or was it simply shifting what had already been shot and conceptualized into three films? Or do you have quite a bit more to be putting together, particularly for that last film?
John: We don’t really know yet. I believe it’s more of a question of having a little more time to develop the same episodes that were going to be in two films anyway. Therefore, it doesn’t really change a huge amount for us as far as I can tell. Unless, of course, Peter and his co-writers are busily writing new material that they hadn’t been able to include New episodes and new locations might need well new artwork, and possibly we might have spent a bit more time developing more detailed views of the environments we’ll be going to, but I don’t think it will change a huge amount.
Ethan: So there could be some surprises, and it sounds like some of the actors will have to come back to do some more pick up shooting?
John: Well, until everything is delivered, Peter is capable of all kinds of surprises! It’s only when the film has been torn from his hands to be delivered, to come out, he can’t do anything anymore. He has this amazing capacity to keep everything developing and changing as he goes, and some kind of miraculous grasp of the movie as a whole that lets him achieve these changes.
Ethan: To me it sounds like an amazing process, and I wondered if you and Alan Lee felt at any point—because you’ve been visualizing Tolkien’s works for so long, both independently in the movies and since the movies—do you at some point just sort of throw your hands up and say, “Enough Tolkien! I need to, well, maybe not draw anything at all, but if I’m going to draw something, I’m going to draw something in the 21st century?”
John: Well that’s the odd part about it. We were actually talking about that the other day, that it’s actually quite a surprise that we haven’t become jaded and tired of it all, but it seems that everything we draw is just another opportunity to explore something else. And I don’t think that we’ll get to the end of it with these movies, or to the end of our enthusiasm and interest, as conventional as that sounds. I think that the amount of work required in pure illustrative terms to flesh out a universe like that in 3D, in the way that Peter likes to develop his scenes, just means that you keep facing new—I shouldn’t say challenges—but just new things to do all the time. So it never really is a question of, “Oh, here we go again.” It’s really, “Oh my goodness, how about that. Of course, let’s have a shot at that.” So it remains as much fun as it did right in the beginning, although the actual use of the work is now very different because we’re working to shot and filling in holes and replacing green screens, completing things that we’d sketched out literally a couple of years ago.
Visualizing The Hobbit vs. The Lord of the Rings
Ethan: I know that there are many new characters and places in The Hobbit, but the basic elements and locations are already there. I can imagine that because the bigger work—the general parameters of the visual look of this world, Middle-earth—were established in Lord of the Rings—you’re not going to go and redesign Hobbiton or go redesign the Rivendell. You build to it, maybe.
John: But once we’ve left Rivendell, it’s brand new territory and a very different part of Middle-earth than we’ve visited before, much father north and much farther to the east. So there’s an element of exoticism in there that’s very, very different. It’s kind of like heading toward St. Petersburg rather than heading to Rome, if you like. Although it’s a very, very different universe, but nonetheless it still needs to feel like it would plausibly sit with all the rest. That’s something that was very instinctive with us. We don’t get out spreadsheets and checklists. It’s just really a question of how it feels.
Ethan: And knowing that The Hobbit itself is a different tale in the sense of its tone and its scope, is it in some ways harder to visualize because Tolkien doesn’t have as much description of what things look like? Or do you not feel that’s the case?
John: No, I don’t feel that’s a constraint. I think the feel of Tolkien’s Middle-earth is very, very strong, and instinctively that provides guidelines for what feels “right” and what doesn’t. I know that’s a very hard thing to qualify and to quantify, but it’s very instinctive, and you quickly reach a point where you feel “That’s not quite right.” Beyond that point you don’t even pursue because it simply doesn’t feel like it fits. On the other hand, we always seem to know how things should look (that’s another exercise that is quite hard to explain). When we need to draw the architectural style of Dale, we don’t rush out and research right and left and copy-paste a patchwork of diverse elements together. Building on Peter’s brief, and using knowledge of architectural history, combined with the materials we imagine being used, and working up those design traits that define an architectural style, albeit a fictitious one in this instance, you quite quickly settle on a “feel” for a place. Everyone who visited the Dale set, for example, said that it reminded them of somewhere they had visited, but no two people gave the same location.
Ethan: Right. I was thinking of the more whimsical touches. And having seen the film, my sense is that Peter and screenwriters Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh didn’t make it a jolly children’s tale so much as really connecting the themes that are in The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings. There’s some dark material there for sure. It wasn’t as if suddenly you arrive at, let’s just say, a new place we haven’t seen yet, a wild, surreal place in The Hobbit, and you’re suddenly going to have a circus-like atmosphere that’s not in keeping with the way things already look. How does Beorn’s house differ from Edoras, let’s say? They would be related in some way. Barn structures and so on and so forth, are not made out of gingerbread in The Hobbit, simply because it's more whimsical in tone.
John: No, no I think that was quite an early decision on everyone’s part to actually try and weave these two universes into one. I think that treating The Hobbit as a different universe, a lighter, more whimsical children’s book kind of universe, would have actually been to stray from what Tolkien might have intended had he not written The Hobbit first. Because when he wrote the book, he was sort of feeling his way in something that was brand new at the time. And the inclusion of all the fairy tale elements was what he carried into his first stroll in Middle-earth if you like, and I’m not sure that those would’ve actually been kept had he had the opportunity or even the desire to go back and revisit The Hobbit. He might have wished for something less storybook like, something that was more in keeping with what he came to write for The Lord of the Rings. Of course, it’s obviously making an assumption that you can’t make, but to treat that first foray, which was quite a naïve storybook version into this world, as something totally different, I think wouldn’t have really made sense in the long term. That was a pretty roundabout way of saying that I think it just makes better storytelling to actually fit it all into the same universe. His elves, for example, gathered depth and gravitas as Middle-earth evolved. The Hobbit offers us a child’s-eye view of the world, complete with merry, almost fairy-like elves. People would have been quite dismayed to go to Rivendell and see the elves as Tolkien described them in The Hobbit.
Ethan: Right, right. Singing songs and that kind of thing.
John: Indeed, I think it made perfect sense without even really, really considering it very, very, very deeply to want to expand that universe of The Lord of the Rings into The Hobbit and not the opposite.
Ethan: And knowing how Tolkien worked over time, one gets the impression that, could he have lived another fifty years, he would have spent the rest of those fifty years going back and continually tinkering with the entire work, to make them all match – to make The Silmarillion match with The Hobbit match with The Lord of the Rings.
John: The style of The Hobbit is like a bright dust jacket on a solemn book. The Hobbit is full of serious themes. It’s not a cheery fairy-tale world, even if whimsy and light fantasy are present, at least nominally. There’s nothing particularly whimsical about Beorn, who goes directly back to Viking themes. One of the ancestors of Smaug is possibly the dragon in Beowulf, and that’s a very serious tale. Thranduil and his elves, although they’re presented in quite a lighthearted way, are nonetheless the elves that decided not to leave Middle-earth. And that’s actually quite a deep question that’s raised as to why they don’t; who are these elves, and what are their relations with the other ones. And the whole back story with the dwarves, which is only lightly touched upon in The Hobbit, appears in the appendices to Lord of the Rings as far more serious material than just a bedtime story for grandchildren. So everything is there, but when told in that grandfatherly way, makes it seem like a very different story. It’s hard to avoid mistaking narration for content at times.
Ethan: I was particularly impressed with the prologue in the film of the dwarf story and the battle and what the dwarf city looks like. I’m getting the name wrong, Erebor, right? The Lonely Mountain? I had to go back to The Hobbit recently to see how many words Tolkien uses to describe what that city was like, but it sounds like it wasn’t a lot. And from that you and Alan extrapolated this whole space and kingdom that certainly has echoes of Mines of Moria, but also is its own thing.
John: Tolkien describes Erebor as the greatest kingdom in Middle-earth. (Or at least that’s what it is in the script; I haven’t been back to read The Hobbit for a long time.) One of the challenges was to make Erebor something once again reminiscent of Moria, to make it akin yet different. We both had our hands in that, although Alan spent, I think, three months working on the prologue doing dozens of pieces of artwork while I was underneath the Misty Mountains with the goblins trying to draw my way, along with the dwarves out the other side. It was a pretty busy time. We have often joked about being in a tight spot as concept artists, but when you’ve drawn yourself into a corner, you can just draw a door in the wall, open it and go through.
Digital effects: "Now pretty much anything is possible"
Ethan: Did you feel like the volume and pace of the art, and design, and what you needed to produce for The Hobbit was on par with Lord of the Rings, or was the time shorter and did you have to produce more?
John: The whole nature of what you can do has changed so profoundly now. Ten years ago, digital effects were good but they weren’t anywhere near what they are now. And now pretty much anything is possible. So there were shots that were being created a month before the film was due to come out, fully digital shots or shots that had only a small portion of a plate remaining in them with the rest being green screen. This requires a huge amount of what is intrinsically concept art, but in post-production. The whole nature of production has changed, largely blurring the lines between pre- production, production and post-production. Of course, production still means when actors are present, sets dressed and lit and cameras rolling, but the rest is in a permanent state of creativity. It seems pre-production continues right up until the film is delivered.
Ethan: Which probably is exciting. But I can imagine that the opportunity to change things at the last minute could be frustrating.
John: Not really. It’s honestly quite exciting because obviously when you get down to a rough cut you’re working to shot cameras, you’re establishing new scenes which have to really fit with others which have already been shot and at least partially finalized. It’s quite a juggling act to make it all function from every angle. But it’s true, there’s a fair amount of pressure involved, mainly because you’re painfully conscious that the artwork you’re doing today is going to give work to a few hundred people over the next couple of weeks. You really need to be very focused to get that artwork out and to provide them with the information they require to carry on with the scene. So it means thinking ahead in terms of the lighting, the 3D space, the animation and all the rest, so yes, it’s quite exciting, and good fun.
Ethan: Does it seem with the way technology is progressing—to take an example like the Rivendell set—that less and less will have to be created as a full scale set for the actors to walk around on? A set could have just a few "real" signposts to give it a sense of three dimensionality, and the rest of the set, a single piece of art, could be projected or inserted digitally on the green screen later.
John: Well, theoretically you could do the whole thing just with actors wandering around in a green set, but I don’t think it would be very satisfying for them. I know it’s incredibly hard for them to imagine their roles in an environment that is a non-environment. So I think that actually building sets is not going to change. There will be possibly a more expert division between the sets and the digital extensions because the whole nature of what can be done digitally is changing so fast. Nevertheless, the actors remain the focus of the movie, and I think that they’re needed more than ever even if they don’t always appear on the screen. And it’s quite striking how much of each actor who plays a digital character is clearly discernible, even when he’s been totally changed physically. Gollum, for example, is so much Andy Serkis that it would be impossible to imagine Gollum without him. It’s kind of a question of deciding at the outset how far the digital needs to intrude into the environment that the actors require. Set building is going to change radically in the near future, I’m sure. The physical presence of the movie’s particular world is primordial, to actually be in a convincing set and to actually be able to act in a believable environment. But on the other hand, the scope of things now is so grand that it makes no sense to do it other than digitally, so there’s a lot of creative thinking on the part of the actors who are peering at a great big flat wall of green and saying how beautiful the sunset is.
Ethan: Right, right. It has to affect how they approach the art of acting.
John: I’m sure it’s quite hard for them at times, but then again, they are consummate professionals so they can do it if required, but it’s true that the whole scene comes together in a much more complicated fashion now than it did a decade or two ago.
Ethan: I got the impression from one of the many interviews that was published that Ian McKellen ("Gandalf") was somewhat frustrated, maybe less by the green screen itself, but by the new way "scale" problems—that a hobbit needs to be shorter than a human—were solved. Peter Jackson was directing two different sets simultaneously, and the actors did not directly interact with each other. McKellen was talking to nobody and Martin Freeman ("Bilbo Baggins") was talking to nobody in another room, and the two performances were later merged together, digtially.
John: Yes, that must be very hard for the actors to accomplish. It’s all about line of sight and all of these wonderful things that happen between two people when they’re doing a scene together, which must be very difficult to reproduce when you’re staring at a green ball the size of somebody’s head in a totally green set just right next door to where the other actors are. And once again, it’s tribute to the talent of people like Ian McKellen to actually pull that off convincingly. It must be terribly hard. But then again, it’s probably the best way of actually doing those scenes because the scale problem is quite a crucial one. We watched the crew shooting that scene where they’re running down the hillside before they get cornered in the pine trees, and the dwarves are running down the set and Ian McKellen was running down a green incline just facing that set, and on the screen you could see them all together in real time. It was extraordinary. It was still quite rough, it was still a bit messy with the silhouettes and all, but it does allow Peter to actually direct everybody at once. And they’re doing the same with the motion capture. You used to have to do the motion capture separately, but this time around they were actually able to do the "mocap" of Gollum (Andy Serkis) on the set, with Martin Freeman acting in front of him, although how Andy ever acts with a camera fixed to his face, which is covered in white dots, I don’t know. But they’re capable of quite extraordinary things. And everything is done to help the actors through it because it’s not an easy job.
Ethan: And what about for you, for your process? I did see on one of the production videos, it was either you or Alan, drawing on a digital tablet, and I assumed that artwork was going directly into some animator’s hard drive and then he or she would work on it from there. How has digital technology changed the process of making art for you? Are you doing less drawing with a pencil on a piece of paper, now that so much of this is getting converted to digital material later?
John: It really depends to a large degree on at what stage we find ourselves. Quite often, initial concept art is more efficiently done with pencil and paper in order to quickly convey the idea. And then as it goes farther down in production, farther down the line, more information is required and eventually it’s necessary, or rather it’s more efficient and much more productive, to produce full color artwork with the textures and lighting and all the rest. Although, once again, Weta Digital is full of very talented people, and there are times when we provided a really quick pencil sketch and some layout artist has gone away and come back a day later with a full 3D environment blocked out. So it’s really a question of the information that’s required, so we try and work in relation to that. So that does mean a lot of digital work, a lot of Photoshop, because it’s the quickest way to actually get the maximum amount of information to the next stage in production.
Ethan: Have you become comfortable with these digital tools? Or, given a choice, would you always want to use a pencil?
John: The tools really don’t matter, honestly. They’re really there to help you produce the best piece of work for the purpose that it’s needed for. And it certainly is quick—to actually physically paint the things that take you a day or a day and a half in Photoshop would take you literally weeks to do with a brush, at least to the level that’s needed for a movie. I started using Photoshop about a year and a half ago. I’d never really used it before—or certainly not to paint with. But, once again, the programs are so well geared towards instinctive use that even people like me can catch on quite quickly.
John Howe vs. Alan Lee: "You’d think we’d be drawing blades at every turn"
Ethan: What are the areas of Tolkien's world that you were mostly responsible for, versus what Alan Lee did? Did that change since designing Lord of the Rings?
John: We did inherit a certain amount of environments from The Lord of the Rings. I fleshed out Bag End and did a few extra hobbit holes for Hobbiton. Alan reworked Rivendell, and then from that point on everything was really pretty much up for grabs. And we both contributed to some degree in pretty much every environment, although we ended up, because of time constraints, taking over certain ones. Dale was something that I had a huge part in designing, but Alan finished it up for the prologue. The same went for Erebor. He and I both worked on the Goblin Kingdom, but I ended up taking that to its final form. Radagast’s house was probably mostly my work, but Alan had a big hand in the development of it. (In fact, I think we must have done several versions of Radagast’s before finding just the right one. Beorn’s house was very much the same, though of course we halted work on that when two films became three and it was moved from film one to film two.) It can be quite hard to decide in the end who exactly did what.
Ethan: Did you guys ever fight over who should do what? Did you two have territory issues?
John: Curiously enough, you’d think we’d be drawing blades at every turn. Initially we would both do concept work for all of the environments, and Peter would choose what he liked out of that. And then once we’d found our theme it was really more of a question of who was available to work on what, because there was such a lot to do. So we were quite rational in how we ended up finalizing everything. And I think all told, we’ve probably done between five and six thousand pieces of artwork. That may seem like quite a lot, though it did vary from quick sketches done in a quarter of an hour to completely rendered full-color final artwork.
Ethan: How do you organize all that? I’d imagine that after a while it’s hard to keep track of what you created. “Jeez, I’ve drawn 100 goblin. Which is the goblin I really liked and where is it?”
John: Absolutely! You go back through the server and you look at your work and you think, “Oh my god, where’d that come from?” Is it something you actually drew, and you’d just totally forgotten about it? Everything is quite well organized thanks to the servers and diligent coordinators, so we’re able to access artwork quite easily. All of the physical artwork has been photographed and digitalized so it’s all at our fingertips (if we can just remember in which category it’s been put).
Ethan: I’m curious a little bit about your relationship with Alan and how it’s developed. Obviously, you must like each other since you’ve spent, from what I can tell, quite a bit of time together working together. How many years has it been now total, between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit?
John: I guess about over five years, yes.
Ethan: And you didn’t know him all that well before this whole thing started, right?
John: No I didn’t. We actually met on the airplane between Singapore and Auckland.
Ethan: Oh, right. I remember that story.
John: Yeah, we’d been in touch before, very vaguely. And we were in touch just before when the whole project started. But I’ve always admired his work. So we knew each other’s work fairly well but we hadn’t really ever met. But I don’t think it’d be satisfying to work with somebody whose work you didn’t appreciate. And although it is quite a challenge to think that the other designer is coming up with brilliant ideas all the time, it’s far, far better to have that then to work with somebody whose work you don’t appreciate. There was a huge degree of mutual respect and the knowledge that if you didn’t get the concept nailed down yourself, somebody else has done it just as well and probably even better. In the end, the important thing is the collective look of the movie, and the fact that we’re able to function as a tandem in that environment is essential. And people will come into the office and say, “Which of you did this drawing?” And although our color work is quite different, a lot of the pencil work can be actually quite similar. It’s a very, very harmonious working relationship.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug sets: "I think there’ll be a lot of surprises"
Ethan: Have there been any major creative breakthroughs this time around or something in particular that you’re proud of for your work on The Hobbit?
John: Indeed! It’s always the same story, you’re always hoping for a really novel idea to appear. We were very very happy with the sets that were done for Dol Guldur, for example, and Beorn’s, which was my favorite set; neither of which you’ve seen much of yet.
Ethan: That’s right. I can't wait to see them.
John: Just got a little taste of it in the first movie, but we were happy with how those came together. I was very, very pleased with Radagast’s house, inside and out, although we didn’t see too much of it on the screen. It was the first set built which was not somewhere already visited during The Lord of the Rings. (The sets built prior to that were Hobbiton, Bag End and Rivendell.) Radagast’s house was the first step into brand new territory, but it’s not even in the book. Curiously enough, it felt very, very, VERY Hobbit-like, as opposed to Lord of the Rings. It felt whimsical and light, a bit odd and a bit strange, with an odd shamanistic quality to it. Radagast is very much a shamanistic figure himself, so that environment ended up reflecting his quirky personality. And then we moved on. For Goblin world, Peter was very intent to make it something other than just a black hole in the ground with creepy goblins scuttling about. That’s were the idea of having everything jerry-rigged out on these platforms appeared, creating a really much more interesting universe than something at the bottom of a cave. And we just went on in that light.
Ethan: What's it like finally seeing the movie after all these years of work?
John: I found it hard. We saw the movie at the world premiere in Wellington, but I’m waiting for a few weeks to go by before I go back and see it again. It was so close I couldn’t tell how it all was. I kept asking other people, “What did you think of the movie?” of people who hadn’t really been involved. It would just be such a treat to become briefly amnesiac for two and a half hours and go see this movie as if I’d never seen even a trailer before. So I’m a little bit envious of the people who haven’t worked on it. I hope that the public when they go see it will feel themselves in a place that they know very well, but suddenly heading off in a bit of an adventure to other parts of Middle-earth that they haven’t seen yet.
Ethan: And it's been nearly 10 years since audiences saw the The Return of the King, which came out in 2003.
John: Yeah, I’m really anticipating this film finally coming out; I really want it to be a big hit. Fingers crossed. But I think, once again, it’s everybody who came back ten years on to head back into Middle-earth did so with their enthusiasm very, very much intact. Although it’s a bit of a different proposition to be doing the 48 frames per second, and the 3D, it’s still all about trying to translate a really well loved book into hopefully what will become a classic of fantasy cinema. We all worked extremely diligently to make all that happen. So fingers crossed, and we’ll see how it goes.
"The entire nature of post-production has changed"
Ethan: Six months have passed since I last spoke with you in January. Are you still in New Zealand?
John: Yes, still in the Antipodes, busily working! In fact, it's never been busier.
Ethan: How is the atmosphere in the production offices these days? Are you and Alan still working on films two and three?
John: We have switched over to Weta Digital, to work principally in post-production, something I'm enjoying very much. "Digi," as it's called, is quite a marvelous place, full of talented people from literally the world over, all putting in long busy hours. I regret not being closer to the pick-ups. Although Stone Street Studios is only a stone's throw away, it seems there's so much to do, it's impossible to go hang around set. But they are VERY focused and incredibly busy, so they hardly need tourists loitering about! I do go and try to make a tour of the sets to take photos I know will be useful later on in blog post, but it's best to do that during lunch break.
Ethan: What have you been mostly working on?
John: While filming is drawing to a close very soon, post-production has been in full swing for months, with of course the delivery dates fast approaching. It can be quite demanding remaining creative, knowing that there is little time to waste. Basically, though, we are still doing exactly the same thing we've been doing since the beginning, though now it is very much more focused on the cut.
Ethan: Describe how your job as a conceptual designer changes now that films are in post-production and pick-up shooting phase.
John: I really enjoy taking sequences and working to the shots, creating the backdrop around the action as a series of sketches that captures the look and feel of the environment. It then does off into the digital pipeline (of which I have only really a layman's grasp) and gets built, in much the same way as the sets, although this time, the sky's the limit, rather than the sound stage grid. It's quite exciting, and I think I've learned a lot more about the whole process in the last year than in the three preceding. The entire nature of post-production has changed in the last few years, so it's been an admittedly steep learning curve.
Ethan: Did the mixed critical and fan reception to the first Hobbit movie affect any new approach or change to the second and third films—in terms of focus or emphasis or changed design on any particular aspect? I wonder if Peter Jackson ever said, "Well, people seemed to think there was too much action in An Unexpected Journey, so give me something different for the barrel sequence or Elvenking hall footage," or anything lie that. How did the decision to make what was originally two films into three affect you?
John: We're still basically doing the same job we've done for the past four (four?!) years: bringing the visuals Peter is searching for to life. We are following the design leads we developed in pre-production through production, and augmenting those as we go. We've also been designing sets for the pick-ups, though that was part of a big push a few months ago, as well as developing, as best we can with all the other work, ideas for new sequences and scenes. As I'm sure you can imagine, Peter and this co-writers have been busy remodeling the scripts for films two and three, so while the story still goes from A to B, or rather There and Back Again, they have more latitude to work with.
Ethan: What can you tell us about film number two, The Desolation of Smaug, in terms of your work on the screen, and new environments?
John: You’ll have to wait for the film, too, to see Beorn’s, but once again, I think we found something with that set which was very different. And then on to Mirkwood, Thranduil’s woodland realm and everything else. I think there’ll be a lot of surprises. I think that the spectators will find themselves in the universe they expect but bound for somewhere they just haven’t imagined.
Ethan: Do you ever have time for other projects?
John: I confess I'm eager to get back to my natural habitat. I really do wonder if anyone will remember me! We've been so busy working, I haven't worked in ages on what I normally do. Additionally, as everything is digital, with the (unbeatable) exception of pencils and sketchbooks, it remains to be seen if I can actually recall how to paint for real. I've not managed to do much work outside the film work, but do have a few projects slowly progressing, but they are really advancing at a snail's pace.
Ethan: Well, it's been a pleasure, and from a geeky, Tolkien, Peter Jackson nerd’s perspective, just personally very exciting to finally meet you in this way. Just a personal thrill to finally chat with you, as a big fan of your work. Perhaps some day our paths will cross. I was actually at the Neuchâtel Fantastic Film Festival two summers ago. I was a guest there to talk about my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. So I figured I might’ve run into you there, or you probably attended before. Are you actually in the main part of Neuchâtel,?
John: We are, just on the edge of town. It’s a very lovely city, relaxed and quite small and attractive. But two summers ago I would’ve been in New Zealand.
Ethan: Yeah, probably working hard on The Hobbit.
[Note: This interview has been edited. Thanks to Cathleen Miles for her transcription help.]
Published 5:00 am Mon, May 26, 2014
About the Author
Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, critic, poet, teacher and 17th level geek. He wrote the award-winning travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms. Gilsdorf's articles, essays, op-eds and reviews on the arts, pop culture, film, books, gaming, geek culture and travel regularly appear in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Salon.com, BoingBoing.net, PsychologyToday.com, GeekDad, Washington Post and wired.com and dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide. As an expert on geek culture, Gilsdorf frequently speaks in public, and appears on TV, radio, Internet media and in documentary films. He is a lover of ELO and a hater of littering. Sometimes he wears a tunic and chainmail, or these grampy pants. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. More info at ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter.