John Howe Guest of Honour hour.

Transcript page 2

Q: Was there something in the movie you're most happy with, that came out just the way you wanted, do you have a favourite scene?

JH: I think the things that I'm happiest about are the stuff that I had nothing to do with. (general laughter) I'm personally enthralled by the actors, when we met Elijah Wood (Frodo), both my wife and I fell in love with him immediately, he is so beautiful, he is so handsome. He has such amazing eyes, and those are things, I mean, I don't know how you feel about fantasy illustration, but you spend your whole life basically trying to render something that you would like to consider "real" and then suddenly you're faced with the surprise of something like Christopher Lee as Saruman, or Ian McKellen as Gandalf, or Elijah Wood as Frodo, and you think, "Oh my God, I wish I had drawn that, just like that, ten years ago." Those were the best surprises for me, the things that I had no control over at all. And many of them were just an enchantment, and to be honest with you, things I don't like in the film are very, very, very few in number. And they do not show up very much, and I'm exceedingly hard to please, believe me.
I don't know, I'm very pleased with the way the Balrog turned out, for example. I'm very pleased with the lived-in feeling of Bag End, and Hobbiton. I'm blown away by the special effects that they managed to do in the prologue, which I think are absolutely phenomenal; it's practically a film in itself. And the restraint that Peter showed, because at his fingertips he has all these amazing scenes, but he only uses them once, he doesn't sort of give them back to you ten times, just to make sure he's got his money's worth of all the effects. And I love that incidental side to it, everything is there to serve the story, and it's not there to serve itself, and that makes them even more exciting. So those were the pleasant surprises, yeah, absolutely.

Q: Having worked on such a high-profile project, do you have anything in the future that you'd like to work on, or that you have in the works already?

JH: No, I have happily dropped back into total anonymity. (audience laughter) It's much, much, much, much easier to handle. Yes, I've got millons and millions of things I would love to work on. But for the time being it's mostly illustration work right now. When the film came out I didn't think it would take as much time as it had, and I've fallen way behind on my promises and my commissions. So I'm scrambling like a silly person to catch up. Yeah, I've got dozens and dozens of things I would love to do. There is no end, no end to them, but whether they'll come true or not, we'll see. "Is there a life after the Lord of the Rings," that's the question isn't it. (audience laughter) "Will you ever draw anything again?" (more laughter)

Q: Is New Zealand as fabulous a country as on film, as it's been described?

JH: New Zealand is a wonderful place. Has anybody set foot...?

(one woman answers with a description of a hiking trip on the North Island, up Mount Ruapehu)

JH: New Zealand is a fabulous country. It is very, very close to many things we find familiar, but it has the incredible luck of having an incredibly ancient ecosystem, which has been an an island for many millions of years, therefore the actual flora developed in an unusual fashion. It's a much more archaic plantlife, mostly evergreen trees, leaf trees that are deciduous, and the landscape is for the most part empty of human marks. I don't know if you've seen photos of where they built Edoras, it's this amazing, rocky hill on a floodplain surrounded by mountains. And in Europe, you'd find it perhaps in Scotland but there would have been a castle on top for the last couple of thousand years. In the States, I'm sure you could find it but there would be, you know, a hotel (general laughter). In New Zealand, they were able to go in, build Edoras full-size on top, shoot 360° around it, and there was nothing to hide except a very small airstrip, in a field. So, and Peter had the, once again, he is the King of New Zealand, because every door was open for him, and he was able to shoot where he wanted. The only thing New Zealand has which doesn't come in the movie, is the most incredible beaches and coast which unfortunately Tolkien didn't actually include very much in the Lord of the Rings! I can't imagine this film, in retrospect, it certainly couldn't have been done in the States, in Europe it would have been a logistical nightmare, and they would have had a little chunk of England, and a liitle chunk of something else, and a little bit of this, anyone who'd been there would have recognized everywhere. It would have been terribly distracting and disappointing, whereas New Zealand is, almost as if we were able to design the landscape, because anything he (Peter) wanted could be found. Because it is simultaneously familiar, but yet a bit odd it very quickly becomes, to my eyes, Middle Earth. Something the New Zealand Tourist Board has not let go by! (much laughter)

Q: You just mentioned the Edoras set. How many of these remarkable sets were actually built full size, as opposed to, built about seven feet tall, and the rest added by computer later?

JH: Many, many, many sets were built full size, many more sets than is the trend these days, where the trend now is to have a piece of plywood and a railing and a big blue screen, and a bunch of people talking to other actors who will be created digitally. No, Peter is someone who likes to get out in the wind and the rain at midnight with his actors, and have them jump in puddles and over cliffs, stuff like that (general laughter). He's very much a believer, that if you want people to act, you have to give them something in return, which is more than just a soundstage and a blue screen. So there are large chunks of the film which were done in that way, but as much as possible, Peter had great, great, huge sets built, but never, never obviously, Edoras, which looks like a full city on the screen, that's because it's not shot from the back, but they actually did build absolutely huge sets. And even the miniatures, sometimes, were absolutely massive. Barad-Dûr is literally ten metres tall, ten or eleven metres tall, and it's still a miniature.

There's sort of an earnestness and a desire to do more than you're actually paid to do, with the team that worked on this film. It's true that a lot of the cities were also built digitally, but as much as possible, every possible digital maquette comes from something physical, if possible. So that is in keeping with this idea of making it all feel real, and that you shouldn't be able to see the seams, if possible.

Q: Who were the illustrators who have influenced you?

JH: Oh, that's a good question. Have you got a couple of days? (audience laughs) I'm very much attracted to the period in our history when illustration and painting were not separate entities. This separation between what we call fine arts and what we call communication arts or commercial art is a 20th- century, well, 19th-century division. And, I find that sometimes a little bit distressing, so I do honestly admire a huge number of 19th-century illustrators and painters. I also am very much interested and attracted to anything between the 7th and 15th centuries, in any domain, whether it's architecture or art, or objects of any kind. I don't really have any preferred living illustrators, to be honest with you. I admire the work of many, many, many people. I think after growing a little older I've gotten over my boyhood infatuations with a lot of illustrators that I admired when I was in my teens. It's been replaced with a sincere admiration for what they do, and admiration for the fact that they're still able to do it, to keep it up, because it's not always terribly easy to do. Yeah, (chuckles) I've got a huge list, of illustrators and painters whose work I admire.

But I didn't really answer your question, I'm sorry... (audience laughs) It's just not that easy, I just can't reel off a string of names. And I refuse to fall into this crappy trap, that most people fall into, and say, "Yes, I was heavily influenced by, uh, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci-" and I don't see how that can be, I don't see the point. I don't see the point in naming names which are in another firmament, so far beyond anyone alive today that it just seems ludicrous to try and tie your own experience to that. It sounds a little harsh, but I don't really know, I can't really answer your question, having spent five minutes answering it, I can't really answer it. (audience laughs)

Q: It was just delightful to see as they came to a new town or village or domain to see how it had its own feeling. Everything was interactive; the clothing, the architecture, the natural surroundings were different from other scenes.

JH: Everything is interactive, we live in a wonderful age actually, because we live in a world where we have everything. You want to have Ptolemy's "Geography," you can have it on your bookshelf next to the full works of William Blake, paintings by Gabriel Rosetti, you can have next to that the Book of the Dead from Egypt, you can have it all. If you want it, you can find it. On the other hand we live in architecture which is not really a tribute to humanity. We dress ourselves in a way which is pretty plain compared to the way people dressed a few hundred years ago. We seem to have gotten our priorities dispersed to such an extent that it's hard to actually maintain a cohesive image of anything. But this is obviously not true of periods in our past. For example, the fifteenth century is a period where you have a unified European style, with the exception of Italy, because it was quite a different kettle of fish at the time. But you have a unified style which takes you from the top of the cathedral to the sole of your shoes, and all the way through every object you can imagine. And all of these things are coherent, cohesive, and not design-driven, but they are visibly part of a whole. That was one of the things that we felt was very important to convey in the film, is that you do not have, beyond the necessary anachronisms of Hobbiton and the Hobbits, which Tolkien had developed long before he realized what kind of a world he was really setting them in. We were very conscious of actually maintaining some unity of design. That is very important because many, many, many films have the "image bank" attitude, where you just pull out a piece of this and a piece of that and a piece of this, and you just chuck them all in there, and that's cool. And that's not good, because that's not design work that's, I don't know what it is, but it's certainly not design work. So that's something else I feel very strongly about, that if you're trying to create a coherent representation of something, even if it doesn't exist, then you have to think equally coherently about doorknobs as you do about cathedrals. You're not going to be able to focus in the same manner on both. And then you must carry that through to shoes and underwear, it goes with an honesty of approach to a design problem.

Q: Have you done that with your home, made that a coherent thing?

JH: No! (much audience laughter) No, I am deeply suspicious of people who surround themselves in their own worlds. I don't have any of my work on my walls; it's all tucked away where I can't see it, because I see it, frankly, enough when I'm doing it. We have lots of artwork by other people. We have objects that we like, but I haven't done the H.R. Giger trip, where I live in a black room with aliens hanging from the ceiling, and intestines poking out the doors and stuff (audience laughter). There seems to me to be something, I'm intrigued by people who dress in a certain way, and who eliminate so many things from their lives because they are concentrating on one aspect; on the other hand, our attic is full of armour and swords and crap like that, our garage is full of tree roots and shields and you name it, so we have lots of funny stuff at home. But it's not a conscious effort to create an environment that goes along with what I do. I find that a bit creepy to be honest with you.

Q: I have a question regarding the calendars, the 2001 calendar, how many of the pieces in that calendar were created specifically for the calendar?

JH: My intention was to to do twelve, thirteen pieces for that calendar, however, as I was running out of time unfortunately we had to put in a few pieces which I had done previously. But honestly, my intent was to do thirteen new pieces, specifically for the calendar. But as usual, you know, life gets you to waste a month here, a couple of days there, and get stuck. So in an ideal world I would have done thirteen pieces.

Q: Are there any future plans for calendars?

JH: Well, Ted (Nasmith) has the next calendar, he has 2003 done already, and 2004 I think he's starting work on seriously. Because Alan and I were involved in a project, on the movie, there was no question of us doing calendars while the movie is coming out. But yeah, I'd love to have another shot at one, of course. I could happily draw pictures from Tolkien for the rest of my life and not do half the ones I'd like to do. There's so many possibilities, and so many things I saw a certain way five years ago I don't see in the same way now, so I'd be happy to do them again. But for the time being, no.

On the other hand, I'm working on the Sauron expansion for the board game. The Friends and Foes is already out, I don't know if it's appeared in Canada yet or not. In the second expansion for the board game, somebody gets to play Sauron, and hassle all the other players. (audience laughs) so that's quite exciting. Other than that... other Tolkien-related projects, maybe another map, things like that.

Q: Do you have a website?

JH: No. No, I'm sorry I don't, I wish I did, I will. I'm working on getting that set up over the next few months. Yes, it's such a huge job, to get involved in trying to set up a website, that I just couldn't face the whole idea until recently, when a very kind person phoned up and said, "I'd love to do a website for you," and I thought yes, this is the man I want to meet. So we've been working on it recently and will get that going, I think over the next few months.

Q: Regarding the Internet, as you are no doubt aware, several of your pictures have in fact been scanned in and posted up on the Internet, and I'm wondering just how many of these were done with your permission, and how many of them are in fact pirated?

JH: I think everything I've ever done is on the bloody 'Net, somewhere. None of them are there with my permission, but my permission is not required, because we are in an area where if the person who is putting them on the 'Net is not putting money in their pocket directly because of that, then I have nothing to say. Any more than I would for someone who takes a calendar, puts it on his wall, except the wall he is putting it on in this case is a digital wall that you can access from the world over. The only thing I do pursue with great diligence and fury are people who put my work up without crediting it. Occasionally people put my work up and credit it to themselves,"copyright so-and-so." That's interesting. I don't appreciate people who copy my work, put it up on the 'Net, and claim they did it as an original piece. I find that to be a little annoying, actually, I wish I'd brought it down, I just picked up, when I was coming through Stuttgart on the way over, I picked up a book, a German book on Tolkien, with a very familiar Gandalf on the cover, but he's wearing a purple-burgundy cloak much like your shirt - (points to this audience member) - and he's standing in a forest, but I've sure seen that guy somewhere before. So, what do you do? In one sense it's actually quite touching that someone would find the work interesting enough to swipe a piece of it, and use it for themselves, because the rest of us do it too, usually using the art by people who are dead so they can't complain! (audience laughter) It's a big world, and you cannot control that sort of thing. One of the things I can't get is my own name, actually. It's been purchased, it's for sale for fifteen hundred bucks. I refuse to buy my own name back, so johnhowe.com, johnhowe.net, johnhowe.org, they're all gone.

Q: Have you tried your middle initial?

JH: Yeah, it's just too complicated, we're going to put a hyphen in between the two.

Q: That's even more complicated.

JH: Is it?

Q: Yes, I can talk to you about web (unintelligible)

JH: Okay, (laughs) talk to me after class! (general laughter)

Q: Are there web sites in place for your name being taken, or is it a "This domain is being registered by someone?"

JH: Yes, it's some bright lad who's thought, "Oh, that's a good thing to register."

Q: You can't actually go to, I think there's a branch of the United Nations that covers this. You can say, "Sorry, this guy's trying to make money off of me, can you please have him give it back?"

JH: Yes, if you've got ten years to do it, there's a backlog that's considerable. So if you apply now, in five years they'll come to your case. So we've found another solution. Any more questions? Yes?

Q: When you did most of the drawings, what did you use? Conté, pen and ink or, what is the medium that you prefer to work in when you are doing large numbers of sketches?

JH: 3B lead pencils. We ground down literally thousands of pencils. Little bits. The quickest, most efficient way to actually render a concept is in pencil, on paper. I did actually very little colour work, because we were so busy scuttling along to design so many things. This is the advantage of a film like the Lord of the Rings because you're designing and thinking in natural materials; wood, stone, leather, metal. You don't need to necessarily design the colours as you're going along. They oppose themselves in a very natural fashion. The poor girl who was doing the shopping for us would have to buy huge stacks of paper and hundreds of pencils. The way of working was, you'd simply sit down and start anywhere on a page, and you might end up five sheets over, at the other side of it, later on. Because we were also not doing, what I would call "attractive originals," in that sense, it wasn't this whole idea of, "Oh, this is going into-" this is something that I find very intriguing in Hollywood, is when you see the "Art of" books, I can imagine these guys working on a film and saying, "Right, I have to get twelve pages in the 'Art of' book later on, so I'd better jazz up these pictures as well as I can to make sure they look cool when they're in the book." This was something that Alan and I did not do, because that seemed to be contrary to the freedom that you need, to actually stop in the middle of a piece and more or less ruin it by doing something else. So everything that we drew, or everything that I drew, and I think Alan feels the same way, is quite incidental, in that sense. I'm not attached, I'm not fussed about the idea of the originals, as such, and they're simply working tools. It seems to me to be a little bit narcissistic to actually be considering the aspect of publication while you're trying to do concept design. that's not the point. Other questions? Yeah?

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your involvement in the medieval re- enactment societies in Europe?

JH: Yeah, we have a website, that you can check out. We've published a couple of books over the years, there's one called The Medieval Soldier, I don't think anybody's seen it. We work with museums quite a lot - it's a hobby, so we are amateurs, in the sense that we are not being paid to do it. But we try to recreate, within a period of a couple of decades at the end of the fifteenth century, between, say, 1470 and 1490. Beyond that or before that we're not credible for the style of clothing and the accessories we use. So we've re-created a fiction (misspelled?), which is a small artillery company with a couple of very small old-fashioned cannons for the time. And everything that goes around that, and we've just invested a collossal lot of money in tents. There are about 60 or 70 of us, in Italy, Germany, France, England, Switzerland, and Sweden. We get together when we have an engagement to do, an event, generally with a museum or a castle, some sort of organization that can pay all our expenses. We try to be as boring as possible, we try to be the exact equivalent of people you could meet on the corner of the street. So it's all very low key. And it doesn't look at all very exciting, it looks like people, honestly, that just walked (chuckle) in the door. But I find it to be very exciting, because it also nourishes my work, in the sense that you actually have the chance to live in the clothing that you wear. And it's made of 100% wool, and it's made of proper vegetable-tanned leather, and the shoes are properly made, and not some sort of crappy sandals that look like what they're not. It becomes very satisfying, because it's very informative. And we also realize that we don't know anything about the period at all, really. The things that we do not know outweigh a thousandfold things that we do know. We try to stay within the balance of what we think is legitimate. Which is actually quite restricting but it makes it even more fun. Yeah, I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of it.

Q: And practical knowledge.

JH: And practical knowledge, and once again, we also have a network of friends who work in museums. The other day in Stockholm we were to go in and actually pick up a lot of objects from the 14th century that you can only see through glass, generally, and actually turn them over and look underneath them. So it's very exciting, very, very exciting. We do have a website, we do have a litlle newsletter, so I can write out the address later on, if you'd like. Yes, sir?

Q: (little boy) Do you have any scenes that you dislike because of goriness or strangeness?

JH: Yeah, I do, I'm something like you, I guess. I don't like unhealthy things. I don't like things where you doubt the creator's mental health. I don't mind scary things, because that can be interesting and constructive. But I honestly don't like things which I consider to be the domain of the psychiatrist. (general laughter) The domain of the illustrator.

Q: No I mean, like in the Fellowship of the Ring, do you have any specific scenes that you don't like?

JH: No, I like them all. I mean, I find some of them pretty scary, you know the one that scares me the most, is when - you've seen the film, haven't you? Okay, when Bilbo gives Frodo the mithril shirt, and he (Frodo) starts to unbutton his shirt. What they did, they actually put in a couple of frames, a tenth of a second, of Gollum, on Bilbo's face. Wait for the DVD, you can go back and forth over it again! (much laughter) I found that to be really, really scary. That scared me more than the big orcs, you know, the big, creepy creatures. Because that's really frightening, isn't it, because a big nasty creature, you know what it is, but that was suddenly there and it was really scary, yeah. I got the same taste as you. Other questions?

Q: I understand that everybody who saw the inside of the Hobbit holes more or less wanted to grab their stuff and move right in. What happened to the Hobbiton set, is it still existing, or was it all ripped apart and dispersed?

JH: The exteriors were taken down; those were bulldozed. But the actual set itself, such as it is, I'm sure is in a warehouse somewhere. They're not going to throw that out. They actually carted a great chunk of it to the Cannes film festival last year. You know they built two of them; they actually carted one to the film festival, set it up. That was quite exciting to walk into.

Well, thank you very much for coming!

(Thunderous applause)

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