Skip to main content

Interview: December 16, 2005

December 16, 2005

Artist and conceptual designer Alan Lee played a major role in bringing Middle Earth to life in Peter Jackson's big screen adaptations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In his latest endeavor, THE LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK, he recounts his experiences on this monumental project and details how his ideas progressed from their original concepts to finished art.'s contributing writer Stephen Hubbard interviewed Lee about his interest in art and architecture, and how he combined his knowledge of these subjects with historical background information and his own imagination in his renderings of Tolkien's famous settings. In looking through your work in THE LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK, there are many architectural designs of various style. Have you studied architecture and applied your knowledge to these designs, or were they merely made up based on a feel for how a particular race would design their cities?

Alan Lee: I learned a little about the history of architecture as part of the art history courses I took at school and art college. It was pretty much limited to European architecture, from classical Greece to Le Corbusier. There wasn't a huge amount of detail, but I remember enjoying the classes, which whetted my appetite and encouraged me to look more carefully at buildings and find out more for myself. I was quite excited by neo-gothic and Arts and Crafts architecture, as well as by the older buildings that I had always found fascinating. I had also enjoyed making castles as a child. When I started work as an illustrator I found that it was necessary to study architecture even more seriously, especially as I seemed to be specializing in historical fiction. When illustrating fantasy or the works of Tolkien, that historical background is a useful starting point because the available technology and the properties of different materials have such an important role to play --- but beyond that, it is all made up.

BRC: During the making of the three films, you and John Howe seemed to be the well from which the inspiration was drawn for much of the look of Middle Earth. Prior to the films, had you ever worked with John before, and what was the process like in working so close with another gifted artist? Did you have clearly defined areas that you each specialized in, or was it more of a combination and reworking of ideas to come up with final products?

AL: I hadn't met John before going to New Zealand, but we had spoken on the phone a couple of times, and I knew and admired his work. We worked alongside each other and the other Weta workshop designers very happily, and had meetings every day in which we would show what we had been doing to Peter, Grant Major, Dan Hennah and Richard Taylor. Peter had the idea that John should be Sauron's architect, and so he did a lot of work on Barad Dur, the Crack of Doom, Minas Morgul and the Black Gate --- but he also did some nice work on Bag End and the Green Dragon. I worked on some evil places too, but concentrated more on the works of Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits. Often we would both start coming up with ideas for the same environments, and then, as one of us seemed to be making more progress, the other would concentrate his efforts on something else. There was never a lack of things to think about. There wasn't any sense of rivalry; our job was to help Peter to get his vision on to paper, and then into the miniatures and sets, etc. After John returned to Switzerland, there were times when I would need to make some modifications to the things he had designed, and I enjoyed adding little Howesque extensions to places like Minas Morgul.

BRC: Tolkien's work inspires great images when you read it on the page. When did you first feel compelled to draw out your interpretations, and do you recall what that first rendition was?

AL: I think the first illustrations were for my book CASTLES, which I did with David Day in 1984. There were drawings of Minas Tirith, Barad-Dur, and Cirith Ungol. I had done some Tolkien-inspired pen and ink drawings as a student; they weren't illustrations for Tolkien's work as such, but there were Dwarves and Elves in a story (long since lost) that I wrote and illustrated shortly after finishing reading THE LORD OF THE RINGS.

BRC: When you settle in to begin a piece of work, what is your first point of focus? Are you more inspired by a physical description from the text or by a feeling that grows from a scene?

AL: I usually come away from reading a particular passage with a strong sense of atmosphere and some idea of the sort of action or composition that I'd like to get into a picture. I don't have a highly detailed picture in my mind --- this will be developed through numerous sketches and I'll often do some small watercolour studies as well.

BRC: Of all the work you have produced in Tolkien's realm, which piece stays with you as your most favorite, or the one you are most satisfied with?

AL: There is a painting of the battle of Helms Deep in the edition of LOTR I had illustrated that I'm pretty pleased with, and I also like the small picture of Amon Hen that I did for the same book. There are some drawings that were done for the films that I also particularly like; though very few of these can be thought of as finished illustrations, they have a nice quality, and they also serve as reminders of an amazing experience.

BRC: Working on the films was a very busy and creative time, and resulted in an extraordinary amount of product. Has that experience changed the way you undertake your daily creative process at all?

AL: One practical result of my experience of working on the Lord of the Rings movies was that I started using Photoshop once I switched over into working on post-production. Since getting back to the UK, I've set myself up with a G5 and now spend a good part of each day working with that. It is not so much an alternative to traditional media --- I still love working in pencil and watercolour --- but it enables me to have more control over how the finished image looks on the page. I scanned the artwork and laid out the pages for THE LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK in Photoshop, and my friend Gary Day-Ellison added the typography in Quark. Before going to New Zealand, I had no experience of working on computers at all.

BRC: I understand that you had a brief appearance in Fellowship of the Ring as one of the Nine Kings of Men in the opening historical montage. What was it like for you to be in front of the camera in one of the most eagerly anticipated films of all time?

AL: It's quite an odd way of spending a day, for someone who has never had any sort of theatrical experience --- somewhere between having a fashion makeover and going into the hospital for a minor operation. The first thing you have to do is get into a dressing gown, then you go through wardrobe and make-up with a number of other jovial characters all comparing notes about their previous roles as extras, before being led into the bright lights of the studio, where you then have to sit and wait for your big moment. I made sure that I had a sketchbook with me so that I could keep on working. As well as being one of the Kings in The Fellowship, Dan Hennah and I were Rohan refugees in the armoury scene at Helms Deep. I overheard our names being mentioned by Peter, followed by laughter, during rushes one night, and next day received a message from casting. I soon found out that we would be required to help illustrate Gimli's line, as he looks with disdain at these wretched refugees --- "some of these men have seen too many winters." You can see me looking, with genuine trepidation, at Legolas as he paints a gloomy picture of our future in his little spat with Aragorn.

BRC: You were selected to do the 1991 Centenary Edition of LORD OF THE RINGS after discussion with Raynor Unwin. How was the decision finally made that you would provide all of the art for that incredibly beautiful one-volume hardcover? Was there ever any moment when you thought maybe you had taken on too much or that it was too big?

AL: There were a few such moments towards the end, as I struggled to meet the deadline. Because it was due to be published to coincide with Tolkien's centenary, there was no possibility of getting more time; the pictures had to be on a flight to the printers in China by a certain time or it would be too late. I think I worked without sleep for at least 48 hours, finishing off four or five pictures on the last night and completing the final one on the train going up to London.

I had been given the job on the basis of work I had done previously, such as CASTLES and THE MABINOGION, as well as sketches that I had done of some of the characters.

BRC: When artwork from Tolkien's world is mentioned, yours is the first name to pop out of the mouths of those involved in the discussion, though there have been several other fine artists who have done work as well. While it must be a point of great pride, is it ever tiresome only to be known for this one thing? Do you ever wish your other work would gain more notice?

AL: It is always pleasing when someone comes up at a signing with copies of some of my earlier and lesser-known work, but I'm very grateful to have had the opportunity to work on Tolkien's books, as well as on the films. Now, I'm thinking more about work that I'm doing at the moment, and future plans, than what I've done over the last 25 years or so.

BRC: Your paintings are quite wonderfully rendered, but your pencil work is outstanding and striking. Do you prefer one medium over the other?

AL: I like to be able to switch from one medium to another. Pencil, charcoal and watercolours are still my favourite methods, though.

BRC: What artists and/or works have been your inspiration over the years?

AL: I've had so many influences: Bosch, Brueghel, Durer, Botticelli, Leonardo, Giovanni Bellini, Van Eyck, the Pre-raphaelites, Edmund Dulac, and other early 20th century illustrators. The artists whom I've found most consisently inspiring, though, are Rembrandt and Turner.

BRC: Rumors abound that THE HOBBIT will be put to film beginning sometime in the next five years or so. Have there been any discussions with you about once again providing concept art for that production, and would you be interested?

AL: I would definitely be interested, but I've had no more information than anyone else about when or if that may happen.

BRC: What is next for Alan Lee? Has there ever been something that you've wanted to get involved in artistically that you feel you are ready to go for now?

AL: There are a number of other projects that I'm keen to get on with, but the next book is a return to another great love of mine --- Classical mythology. I'm doing a retelling of Ovid's great work, "Metamorphoses," for younger readers. These beautiful stories of transformation have been reworked by Adrian Mitchell in a book that will be titled SHAPESHIFTERS.