1:00 PM, Saturday, February 9, 2002. John Howe Guest of Honour hour.
Con guy:: You all know why you're here; this is John Howe, our artistic Guest of Honour hour.
John Howe: Thank you all very much for coming. I don't do this very much, so I'm not terribly sure exactly where to start. So why don't we just dive straight in, if you have any questions, so please feel free to to raise your hands, Otherwise, I can give you a very short, short, short introduction.
I was born in the late '50s in Vancouver. I spent all of my childhood up to the end of high school in British Columbia, where it suddenly seemed a very good idea to go somewhere else. (general laughter) I went to France for a year, that was twenty-five years ago, and I've never really managed to get home to that ever since. We've lived in Switzerland for the last twenty- odd years, and thanks to the wonderful world of faxes, phones and e-mails we've very happily lived in the centre of nowhere. In '98 I had the honour of meeting Alan Lee in New Zealand, and we spent a long time working on a film, designing it from the ground up, which I suppose is one of the reasons I'm here right now. Before doing that, I spent the last two decades illustrating a variety of publications. I've done everything you can think of, from renderings of kitchens to political cartoons to comic strips, and childrens books and magazine illustrations, animated features, and a huge number of things. And now thankfully I'm able to do, more or less, what I like to do, which is largely science fiction.
And that's where things are today, so I don't have slides to how you, I'm terribly sorry I don't have any material to present, but I hope you have 1,001 questions to ask. I'd be more than happy to anwer them. Yeah?
Question: What parts of the production design for (the) Lord of the Rings were you responsible for?
JH: Alan and I had the same job. We were responsible for designing the environments, which means everything to do with the sets, the miniatures, both physical miniatures and computer-generated miniatures, so all the constructions that you see in the Lord of the Rings were designed by either Alan Lee or myself. We were also very much involved with, though it wasn't strictly our job, because we were working in the same studios with the team from WETA Physical, the WETA Workshop being the creature shop in Wellington. We were quite attracted to all the weapons, designing, and the arms and armour, and creatures going on next door, so I got quite heavily involved in that. Arms and armour is a great interest of mine, so it was very satisfying to actually build and contribute. Does that answer your question? Yes? Great.
Q: Do you have formal art training?
JH: (With mock indignation) Of course! (general laughter) The art schools are full of self-taught people. I think an art school is nothing but a collection of self-taught individuals who have the opportunity to spend some time with each other. And the great danger of actually meeting professionals who are trying to teach them something, and I've been offered a numbered of positions in art schools. I get offers a couple of times a year to teach, I've never yet accepted because I'm not really sure that I could do more good than harm. So yes, I had three years of formal training at Vers du Thomas (? Ecole des Arts Dècoratifs de Strasbourg. Ed.), we did not learn any techniques, we did not learn, ah, I don't know what we learned, actually! (general laughter) No, I spent the first year not understanding a thing, because I was trying to learn French at the same time. The second year, I was starting to catch on, but given the cultural gulf that separates someone who's been brought up being English, and people who are actually dealing with the image in French, is so wide, that I didn't really catch very much the second or third year, I was just itching to get out. But it was a very very worthwhile experience, and what I did learn is the necessity to be clear about communicating, because it is a communication business. It is not simply about expressing what you want to express, and to Hell with whoever can pick it up or not. It's not a job that is complete until the person that you have destined it for has actually received it, well or ill, it depends on your abilities.
The other thing that we learned was to treat the "client" if you like, it's a very poor word, with a degree of honesty and respect. So you have to maintain integrity in that area, otherwise there's no point in communicating anything to anybody. So yes, those are the things that I learned, I certainly did not learn technique, which is what many people think they should go to art school for, is to learn how to do it. But you don't, I honestly believe that if you're going to do it anyway, you will learn whether you go to art school or not. But you may save some time. And also, and this is my free advice of the day, for anybody who wants to go to art school, is if you are concentrating on one area, no matter what it is, don't concentrate on it. Take advantage of the curriculum that is offered to try everything. And I wish I had done bookbinding, ironwork, pottery, and any number of things, rather than concentrating on illustration and illustration-related areas. Because once you're out, the opportunity to actually do that again has gone forever. So, my only advice to people who go in who know what they want to do and are not simply searching for something, anything, creative, is to do everything but what you know what you want to do, because you'll do it anyway.
Q: It says in the (con programme) description you've had a lifelong passion to want to illustrate the Lord of the Rings, so when you read it, what were the images that passionately inspired you, that you wanted to recreate or create?
JH: I don't know who wrote that, it's not true. (general laughter) Well, yes and no, I've had a lifelong interest in the Lord of the Rings, I find even more interesting than the Lord of the Rings, the material that Tolkien used to write it. It's unavoidable that anyone who is interested in the genre and interested in illustrating and to whom the book appeals simply produces pictures, it's that simple, basically are drawn out of you by the power of the writing itself. Does that answer your question?
Q: I guess I was looking for specific things that struck you when you were reading any of the materials, that you thought, "This is something I really would like to bring out of the text."
JH: Well, countless times, yeah. All the time. I think there's not a page in the Lord of the Rings you couldn't illustrate with pleasure and interest. It's just too vast a subject to actually say, people ask me continuously, "Who's your favourite character?" That's so hard to say, because I've got two lists, I've got a reader's list of things that appeal to me simply from an emotional point of view, and have a second list, which is an illustrator's list, which are the things that appeal to me from a visual point of view. So, it's very hard to say; some things are easy, some things are hard, which is normal enough. There seems to me to be a form of integrity in every word of this text. It's barely even a work of fiction, it's actually one of these works in the middle, if you imagine a seesaw, right inthe middle is the work that defines one side from the other. And you can look at it from either side. To me it's one of the last epics, in the sense that it was not written as a work of modern fiction, but it's also one of the first works of modern fantasy. And it certainly wasn't written so people could take it to the beach in the Summer; it was written because it had to come out. And it wasn't, you know, because the gentleman had a steady job, he didn't have to worry about making ends meet while he was writing, so it took him over a decade and a half, which means it's simply not a commercial undertaking. He didn't have to worry about "the series," and the follow-ups, and all that, so to me that turns it into a work that's more akin to a world where stories were told and written because they felt they had to appear. And that's what gives it the interest and power that it has, and the interest and power that it has for someone who want to do pictures. Yep?
Q: (little boy) What did you enjoy most about your part in the Lord of the Rings?
JH: Ah, I had great fun, it was a working vacation. It was "Come to Middle Earth, see the sights, see the sounds." I enjoyed the whole thing, what I think I most enjoyed was the people I got to meet, the people I was able to work with, and the friends we made. Because you can go into any wonderful project, and there's intrinsically nothing it it, which means it will work. It can be the most fabulous book in the world, and it can turn into a rotten movie. Or it could be a fairly boring book that turns into a wonderful movie. But I think the thing that is really important in it are the people that you get to call your friends.
Q: Anytime you're taking a work as grand in scale and scope as the Lord of the Rings, and translating it into a movie medium, obviously a lot of it has to be cut, changed to make it fit. How did you feel about how that came out in the movie?
JH: I feel that the choices (that) were made were extremely intelligent ones, and there's no good way to make a bad choice. Obviously, huge amounts of book number one had to go, because there was no time to put them on the screen. So that was, when you're given a choice of cutting branches off a tree, you have to decide which ones you can cut off, doing the least damage. I have enourmous respect for the changes (director) Peter (Jackson) made, this movie script went through an incredible number of drafts. The genesis of it was chaotic, as you all know, but once again, the integrity of the books is such that each successive rewrite, it came back closer and closer to the books themselves. But Peter fantasized at one point about actually shooting a lot of scenes that you wouldn't know would not go in the movie, but they could save for the "ultimate" DVD.(general laughter) Later on, but I don't think that was even possible to envisage. And even as it is, I don't know how you feel about the movie, but I felt I could barely keep up. We saw a projection for journalists so we had no break in the middle, so we all needed to go to the bathroom (chuckles) so it certainly didn't make it seem any longer! I thought the rhythym was phenomenal; it just felt like I had been in the cinema for half an hour. I will say,"in front of God," no, I have enourmous respect for Peter's work, and I think that any choices he made are honestly the most intelligent choices possible. Yeah?
Q: How early in life did you encounter anything by Tolkien?
JH: I read the Hobbit when I was really young in elementary school, I guess about your age actually. But I can't remember any of it. I can remember "the Unexpected Party," and that's it. I read Lord of the Rings in my early teens, but it wasn't the sort of, thundercloud gather and voice of God says, "You just read the greatest book of the century" and all that, it wasn't that at all. I thought it was an interesting book but I also made a very superficial first pass, as you do at 13. So, I can't really answer your question properly, it wasn't a significant book for me. Although it's become a pretty big chunk of what I do, later on. Yeah?
Q: When it came to the production design, considering the rather abortive 1979 Ralph Bakshi version, what sort of things did you actually set out to avoid doing with this one?
JH: My role in the film is actually a very minor one. And although we did read the scripts and we did discuss them with everybody, we did have huge, hours and hours of discussions on the uses of evil and all sorts of things, and the way to present characters and all. You name it, we discussed everything up and down, but I didn't make any decisions. So, officially I haven't seen that crappy movie from 1979. But, I think that Ralph Bakshi was largely hindered by the techniques he used, and by the fact that he had to cut it into two movies, and they made so many strange changes to the actual book. Peter Jackson had the immense luck of having much more freedom. So... I can't remember your question! (general laughter)
Q: What sort of things you set out to avoid doing?
JH: I'm an orthodox integrist when it comes to how things should look on the screen. If we are in the cinema watching a movie and I see knitted chainmail, we get up and we split, because it's just too hard to take. I have a layman's familiarity with a lot of historical arms and armour, and I'm very much attached to actually trying to, this was a job that we set out to do in New Zealand, was to actually try, given the means that you have, which unfortunately means working in fibreglass and things like that to a large extent, to actually recreate a plausible historical look to a fantasy world. And that is something we took very much to heart. We had the immense luck of having an extremely talented blacksmith, sword maker in New Zealand, who ran the forge and the shop, because you can design your heart out as much as you want, and it can turn into a piece of junk in someone else's hands. So we took tremendous care trying to make the swords well-balanced, the right size. The armour to a large extent also.
It's one of my primary concerns working on this project that it not look like the crappy Hollywood weaponry that you generally get. It would have been very disappointing had it gone into that realm of silliness that feeds off itself. Hollywood is a very incestuous place, because when filmmakers want to do something, they do not go outside, look at the real world or look in history, or look at anything else, they go and get all the movies on knights they can find. They want to do a fight scene, they go get all the bloody fight scenes you can find in the cinema from day one. And none of this is real. We all know this is not real in any way, shape, or form. But it feeds off itself. One of the things which much to my regret it was impossible to avoid in the movie, it's a minor thing once again, but it's a perfect example of it, whenever someone whips his sword out of it's scabbard it goes schwing. It can't, it doesn't, a piece of metal on a piece of leather does not go schwing, I'm sorry. (general laughter) But it's become such an expected sound, if you didn't put it in, everyone would sort of scratch their heads and go, "Wait, there's something missing." It was a very small evil to put up with. I think there have been half a dozen movies over the years that have actually done decent costumes and decent weaponry. Which is not bad, you know, considering. So, yeah, that was the big thing I was really interested in, is that it not look like, well, write in the blank space the name of the film you least prefer. Yeah, that was very important.
Q: I had the pleasure of seing the exhibit at Casa Loma, of all the various props and artwork from the Lord of the Rings, in Toronto, this past November. Everything was absolutely gorgeous, beautifully designed, beautifully rendered. All the pieces looked like real authentic works of art as opposed to Hollywood props, so my hat's off to all of you who designed it.
JH: Considering it's for a movie, and not to be shown in a glass case, I think many of the props actually came off quite well. I privately cringe when I see many things which are just too close and too well lit. But in general, the WETA Workshop, Richard Taylor, hats off to Richard Taylor and his wife Tanya, because they were able to put together a team of gifted, New Zealanders for the most part, many of whom have never stepped outside their own country, none of whom actually held anything real in their hands. The gentleman who made the armour, has, I think the only thing he's ever seen is a piece of 17th-century armour in an Auckland museum. He's never had the chance to see the real thing. But, they all understood very quickly what this is all about. I'm very proud to be associated with them because they did some amazing things.
Just for the anecdote, many, many, many of the mail shirts, the chain mail shirts in the movie are made of plastic. But from a yard away you can't tell the difference, they could be made of metal. And the way they did it was, they purchased pressure pipe, fairly small diameter, slit it down the middle lengthwise, developed a vise machine in the shop that would chop off little slices of it, so they had millions and millions of little black plastic rings. And then they hired on a multitude of slaves (general laughter) to actually put these things together, to thread these things in, and they were turning out a fairly sizable chunk per day. And then these would be sent off to Auckland to an electroplating company, and they devised, once again, Kiwis do this automatically, they're something like Canadians, they have a problem, they just build it. (general laughter) And they devised a huge tank, in which there was an apparatus which would shake these shirts that were hanging in the (electroplating) solution, so as the shirt accumulated its little layer of molecules, the rings would weld themelves shut again, but not to each other because they were being shaken. So, you can actually have a shirt which would move exactly like a proper mail shirt. The only difference is, if you let it fall to the ground, it doesn't crumple up as tight, because it's much lighter. But literally, from a yard away you can not tell the difference. And that's just an example of the genius that these people brought to the movie, because once again you can bitch for hours about crappy mail shirts, but you have to find a solution, and these people just simply sit down and say "Well why don't we try that, and howabout this, and maybe we can do that." And there you go, it was intensely gratifying to be dealing with people like that who are not telling you "Oh, we can't do that." They're looking for ways to do it better than you think they can. So it was very, very exciting.
Q: How did the creative decision-making process work in terms of your own team, with the director, producer, etc.?
JH: Yeah, Alan and I were the only heads of departments with no department. (general laughter) Because we had no one working directly under us, but we worked directly with Peter and the Art Director, who is a film architect, a designer, and who would take our illustrations once they were done and turn them into something the builders could actually use. So it's all very fine to do sketches, just to do sketches, but they have to be turned into something that carpenters can read. So Grant Major, who has the title of Art Director, was the man who took all our illustrations and made them workable. They way we would work is that we would have a meeting with Peter - we had all read the scripts, so we knew what was happening- Peter would give us his thoughts on what he wanted and needed for any given environment. And then we'd just sit down and doodle, basically. So, we had the incredible luxury of having the time to actually visit any given place over a period of anything up to a couple of weeks, so rather than just drawing Bag End as you do in the back of an illustration behind some people, who are able to walk in, you know, shut the door, turn around, see what's in the hall, look at the furniture that's there, walk through the back, down the corridor into the living room. "What's that like, where's the fireplace," it was very exciting, it was really a guided tour, except you're drawing it as you go. And that was the incredible luxury that was involved in this project, was to have the time to actually create an illustration into which you could later on walk. And that was really gratifying. Yes?
Q: I noticed the beautiful prints in the art show, so closely match what ends up on film. Were those paintings done as pre-production paintings or were they done prior to the film?
JH: Some are before and some are after. They have nothing to do with the movie project. I'm now faced with an interesting problem, in that the work I did in New Zealand doesn't belong to me, it belongs to the Producer. The things that I designed do not belong to me anymore. Thankfully there were two of us, so the things I didn't design, I've still got a free hand! But I have consciously had to go back since the movie and actually find another solution, which is a little bit contrary to the way I generally approach things. But it makes it much more interesting, I've designed Bag End three times again for different publications. And each time I've had to steer clear of what I did for New Line. On the other hand, there are things that I've done before the movie which found their way into the movie, but those still belong to me, thankfully. (grins, general laughter)
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