The Art of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Art of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is a book that chronicles the art and design production for the movie of the same name. The Lord of the Rings trilogy films are among the most detailed movies ever made artistically. Millions and millions of dollars and many many years of pain-staking work were sacrificed to ensure that the Lord of the Rings would be recreated at faithfully as possible relative to Tolkein’s vision. The production crew didn’t cut any corners, and because of that, the Lord of the Rings movies are the most immersive, believable fictional films ever made.
Peter Jackson hired the talents of John Howe and Alan Lee to help recreate the world of the Lord of the Rings. They began initial story boards and concept sketches in August of 1997, and Peter Jackson, the director, spared no expense when it came to bringing their initial ideas to life. Wedding live motion film on life-size sets, miniatures and computer animation, the best possible choices were made to ensure that LOTR looked its best.
Even the initial story-boarding process was enormous. They started with standard storyboards, but also created miniatures and acted out all the scenes with them and photographed them. The story boards were then re-created yet again using computer animation.
Because Jackson wanted the film to seem as realistic as possible, he would try to use real world locations whenever he could. He hired location scouts during the very beginning of the film to find the exact perfect locations for him to film, regardless of where in New Zealand they were. It didn’t matter how remote the lcoation was, as long as it fit the part.
A good example of this is the city of Edoras. In the books, Edoras is a very specific location, with certain characteristics which make it unique. Jackson found a remote valley that happened to have a hill jutting up in the middle, and then did whatever he had to in able to film there. In order to build the city on the hill, he had to deal with the environmental agency, and actually had to build giant nurseries to house the plant life that had to be removed during the shooting, and then re-planted them afterwards. He also enlisted the help of the New Zealand army to build a road out to the location, and for months and months, while the film was being made elsewhere, a crew did nothing but build Edoras. Every detail was recreated in genuine detail, every pillar was hand carved. There were detailed tapestries made to hang in the background with the symbols of all the other kingdoms of men, so the viewer did not think that this was the only one. Every piece of furniture and splinter of wood was carefully crafted to make sure it fit perfectly with the story, as if the world of LOTR actually existed.
I learned a great deal about designing art assets while reading this book. The men and women that worked on the Lord of the Rings trilogy really knew what they were doing, and shared a lot of very good tips in this book.
One of the first things I picked was architecture design. A good point they made was that in many films there is only one person designing a given set, and so everything fits together very well. It usually ends up looking like it was built by one person. While this may be good for keeping a certain stylistic consistency, it is important to remember that cities were not built all at once by one person, but rather by many peopl over a long period of time, and parts of the city are always being remodeled. I had never really thought about this before, and it made me realize just how true it was. In most films I’ve seen where a city had to be created just for the film, the buildings did have a certain kind of unreal conformity to them. I think this is one of those things that can make a film seem someone strange but in a way that you can never quite put your finger on.
Another thing that this book taught me was attention to detail. Not necessarily in the sense of “small” details, but more in the sense of making sure everything you add makes sense in the context. In LOTR, the design team did a lot of research into what Rohan’s history and mythology might have been, and took all of that into deep consideration when designing the sets. The result of that is sets that feel like they have a history to them, like they’ve been around for longer than the characters have. Creating a set that looks like it has a story behind it is crucial to having a good believable environment.
Doing this also gives you the chance to better understand the story that you are designing for, because there will be even more explanation for why things are the way they are. This makes it even easier to design logical props and sets that fit the story and don’t distract the audience, but rather provide a solid, supporting backdrop for the movie.
In the past I always took into consideration the history and such of the story I was designing for, but the quotes and pictures in this book showed me all kinds of new directions to take it. Everything matters, from the shape and size of the rocks to exactly how the culture worked their mythology into their lives, and what ways might they have incorperated it into their architecture. In LOTR, the nation of Gondor had horses deeply woven into their history, so the art team put horse designs into everything, from clothing to banners to buildings to armor.
I also learned that taking cues from our real history can help make the process of designing a lot easier, because there are great examples of what ceratin social changes will have on civilizations. You don’t have to start from scratch to figure out what kind of things change when a civilzation is conquered and the new rulers “update” it to match their kingdom. You don’t have to guess about the general types of things that change when a government decides it wants to impose it’s sheer power upon the people.
Another interesting part of the book that I learned a bit from is the part about Gollum’s design. In the early days of the film, according to the book, “it seemed like everyone was working on a gollum design”. Gollum was probably the single most important thing that WETA worked on for LOTR, because he interacted to emotionally and physically with the characters. If he didn’t emote properly, or wasn’t someone the audience could be sympathetic for, or anything of the myriad of concerns WETA had, then it wouldn’t work. After tons of pre-production and concept art, they finally nailed down his design. After reading the details of what some of the artists took into consideration for their particular Gollum design, I was immediately flooded with ideas of ways I should change characters I had worked on in the past.
I learned all kinds of reasons for giving characters certain characteristics, so I don’t just throw on random things to see how they look. Now when I design a character, I will be able to make them much more believable, and make them look like they are who they are because they have a history, they weren’t just created right now for this one purpose.
I really enjoyed reading The Art of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and it gave me a lot of good insight into how professional artists’ minds work. I had no idea how hard the production crew for LOTR worked, and this book has given me new respect for the pain-staking effort they put into every aspect of the production of LOTR. I will be working a lot of the tips I read in this book into my future projects, and I think reading this has made me a better artist. Hopefully Peter Jackson has set an example that directors will follow, and maybe we will be able to see more films of this quality in the future.