squire: Welcome to the Movie Board’s ongoing consideration of the Extended Edition of The Two Towers. This week I’ll be leading a discussion of the Special Feature “Designing Middle-earth” which is found in the Appendices on Disk 2.


I will try to keep the discussion readable without assuming that you have viewed this feature recently. As with everything here on Movie, of course, the topic is so much richer if you do have the actual footage fresh in your mind.


A rich topic, yes. Too rich for my limited time these days, as I found out late last week. I’ve had to scale back a bit from my original intentions, but perhaps that’s all to the good. I am by training a professional art director and set designer. I worked in the art departments of stage, TV, and film productions for twenty-five years. I have a deep interest in this aspect of the LotR films. More free time for me might well have led to an obsessively detailed Mother of All Discussions that would really not be appropriate for this forum!


“Designing Middle-earth” begins with an introduction to the major personalities and dynamics of the Art Department during production, then presents about a dozen documentary “chapters” on the various sets that were built for The Two Towers. These are presented in roughly the order in which they appear in the movie. I’m going to rearrange this a bit.


What is the Art Department, by the way? Strictly speaking, they deal only with the “sets” in the movie. Think of sets as designed spaces that are full-scale, so that actors can act within them. In movies, sets are just one aspect of the physical look of the production. There are also locations: real landscapes or buildings that the Art Department often does not work with because no design modifications are called for. And of course, special effects: that wonderful specialty of film that creates backgrounds for the actors or the film via illusion, a vast category that includes miniatures, matte paintings, projections -- and more recently, computer-generated versions of all of the above. The Art Department works very closely with the Location and Special Effects Departments, of course, to achieve a consistent “look” for the final film. But technically, they only have to provide the full-scale sets. Now you know enough to get on with.


One of the first things the Production Designer and the Art Director do when they start on a movie is do a breakdown of the script, deciding (along with the producers) just how each scene will be staged. What scenes require close-ups of the actors? Where will they stand as the cameras roll? Which are exteriors, and which are interiors? What will the Art Department be responsible for providing on the day when each scene is scheduled to be shot?


Should we try to find a location, perhaps modify it a bit, or even build a set right on it? Should we build it in a backlot of the studio, which has space and plenty of sunlight but is still near to all the craft shops? Or should it be built on a precious and expensive sound stage, indoors, where there is total control of lighting, weather, and ambient sound, but an inherent artificiality to any exterior that might have to be shot there? What can or must be done with special effects to save the expense of full-scale construction?


Everything from schedule to travel time to the location scouting results can affect this process, which defines the Art Department’s job for the next year or so. Obviously budget is at the very center of every decision made at this point, before a single designer has lifted a pencil or a mouse.


So let’s follow Grant and Dan’s lead, and break down “Designing Middle-earth” for the week:


Monday: Art Direction as a Process:

Introduction; Concept Design Team; Running an Art Department; Designing Rohan.

Tuesday: Building Landscapes in a Backlot:

The Emyn Muil; The Dead Marshes

Wednesday: Building Sets in a Backlot:


Thursday: Studio Sets:

 Fangorn; The Golden Hall; Henneth Annun.

Friday: Building Sets on Location:

Edoras; Rohan Village; Helm’s Deep.

Saturday: Conclusion and Open Discussion




squire: Some general questions to warm us up:

stanne: Answers from a movie design virgin I'm looking forward to this week's discussions very much. The depth of knowledge of people here never ceases to amaze me. Before watching Lotr behind the scenes features I had very little idea of how films were made. It has really opened my eyes as to what goes into making a movie and been a real education.


Elostirion74: No knowledge whatsoever Such nasty questions, squire:)!


Elf_Maven: Theatrical Design was my major (although the diploma shows the general "Drama"), but my concentration was on costume and makeup, I never could get anywhere with sets and props for some reason. Maybe there were more opportunities for realistic, or at least historical, costume for my literal-minded imagination to pursue. Anyway, on to the questions:


weaver: A couple of questions from the back of the class... *Enters late to Prof. Squire's Art Direction 101 Class*

Thanks for the very clear and easy-to-understand explaining style in this post. I know all those guys' names from the Commentaries, but who does what and why always escaped me. So I appreciate the "who does what" approach you are using, and am looking forward to your discussion!


My questions are these:

 1. Jackson seems to place a lot of trust in Howe and Lee -- how typical is that of directors? Is LOTR an exception, in that the book illustrations preceded the film, and he could use them for the look of it? If you don't have a Lee and Howe running around, how do you pick the "look" of a film?
2. On the Commentaries, I am really overwhelmed by the time I get through one of them, let alone all of them. Are the LOTR commentaries more involved than what you get for other films? (I'm not a big viewer of commentaries, here, so I have no perspective)

aMagpie: my answers, such as they are Being given questions to answer never seems to fit how I think about things so I hope you'll indulge me in just speaking generally about the subject.

Up until a few years ago, I liked a film or didn't. But I probably couldn't have told what I liked or why. Since going back to school for graphic design, I've been paying a lot closer attention to just about everything, especially movies and their 'look'. Plus my son is quite into movies and he will point out things like lighting to me.

Since getting my awareness heightened, I am just amazed and enchanted by particular looks in movies. Sometimes I don't even care if it's a good movie or not. I think a lot of what I'm noticing is not always art direction. Some is costuming or location sets. At the moment, I'm more into noticing than trying to decide what department things fall under. But I feel lucky to have such a knowledgable guide for this discussion. You even brought me out of lurk-ville.

Daughter of Nienna: That is similar. . . to my experience.

I deeply loved movies all my life since I could talk and walk. I love knowing the history of film.

I, too, studied graphic design about eight years ago. and that broadened my taste, or limited it, depending on perspective. I don't have as much patience with bad film, that I call "throw-aways". The multiplexes are full of them and it's getting worse each year.

I now love independent film and the film festivals, Honolulu has two good ones.

I learned why I love film so much studying art. first and foremost, it is a visual medium and it is visceral. Being highly kinesthetic (feel, sense) and visual, this appeals to me.

One of the things that fascinates me after studying art, while watching a film, is the photography itself, how a frame is shot. how does a director and/or cinematographer decide what to include in the frame and the composition of that frame.

Good photography will reveal itself without being intrusive.

My favorite genre/style is Film Noir (around 1946-54), in big part, because of the photography and the mood of the films.

I have gained a new-found appreciation for the costuming as well after watching the DVD extras for the Lord of the Rings.

I find the question thing a tad tedious as well, sometimes. I think it might be the way my artist brain works. It does some types of tasks better than others. This is sometimes just a little too left-brain for me.

squire: A. How much of this technical stuff are you familiar with?

stanne: Here are my answers: None

Elostirion74: Copy stanne's answer

Darkstone: Well Strictly a layman.

Daughter of Nienna: Personally, I know PhotoShop and drawing. Generally as a film fan and artist, I find the "how they did that" part very fascinating. I am only familiar with what I have seen on documentaries, on DVD & TV. I love and collect documentaries on film, anything to do with film history and the background of film.

Elf_Maven: I am familiar only with stage tech stuff. It was seeing some of the tie-in books with photos of scenes (I don't watch TV or "go to the movies" so I never saw a trailer) that captivated me and convinced me that I had to see FOTR.

N.E. Brigand: Exposing my ignorance Not much. For all the film titles, directors and years that I can spout off (though always fewer than Darkstone can) I'm very sketchy on the details of film production. Still, nothing described in this introductory post exceeded my knowledge--it's just that I don't think about it this way, so thanks for the overview.

squire: B. Do you look at the scenes in a movie and try to figure out how they were physically achieved?

stanne: Not on first viewing, I get caught up in the magic of it all.

Elostirion74: add that I usually think more about the visual perspectives (camera angles, from whose perspective do we see the scene) or the pacing of the scenes than how they actually were physically achieved, and you've got me.

Darkstone: Not really. When I do I’m usually wrong anyway. I’m easily fooled by cinema. But then, I guess I want to be. ;)

Daughter of Nienna: No. I want to get lost in magic of the movie, what made me fall in love with film in the first place. After several viewings, the artist in me will start to think about that in some films, anyway.

Elf_Maven: ALWAYS. But now that I've watched the DVD Appendices over and over, I have a much better eye for the various elements that go into creating the visuals.

N.E. Brigand: Rarely. Should we? Other than reminding that films are hard work, what does knowing the hows tell us aesthetically about the finished product? (Well, actually this series of yours answers some of that. And who says that aesthetic criteria are the best ones to approach a film?)

squire:  C. What is the difference between the Conceptual Designer (Alan Lee & John Howe),  the Production Designer (Grant Major),  and the Art Director (Dan Hennah)?

stanne: My guess is that the Conceptual designers come up with the overall look of the set and design things in detail, the Production design team try and realise this in three dimensions, the Art director has the overall job of making sure the Production design team have achieved what the Conceptual designers had in mind and s/he also answers to the Director.

Elostirion74: add my ignorance as to the difference between Dan Hannah and Grant Major's job

Darkstone: Well, the Conceptual (or Lead) Designer works on the overall conceptualization of a movie, the Production Designer takes that and designs the overall visual appearance of a movie, and the Art Director takes that and oversees the building of the sets. I get the impression that the lines were pretty blurred in the LOTR production but instead of causing problems like it would in most ego-heavy Hollywood productions it seemed to have had a synergistic effect. I mean, a Conceptual Designer getting their hands dirty by *painting* a set???

Daughter of Nienna: Conceptual Designer: makes the drawing, comes up with ideas and develops them. to be handed over to others for implementation.
Production Designer : oversees all of the aspects of creating the looks of the film, more or less
Art Director: administrative aspects of the art department. They are responsible for assigning tasks to personnel, keeping track of the art department budget and scheduling, as well as overall quality control.

Elf_Maven: Everyone else has done a great job answering this one.

N.E. Brigand: You get to this in a later post, I believe. Vision vs. Detail?

squire: D. What famous Art Directors have you ever heard of?

stanne: none

Darkstone: A few, like the legendary Cedric Gibbbons, Sergei Eisenstein of course, Anton Grot and his fabulous water effects, Kurosawa’s Yoshiro Muraki, groundbreaker Carmen Joseph Dillon, and the infamous Otto Hunte. Also William Darling because of the (to me) distinctive name and John Hubley because he was blacklisted.

Daughter of Nienna: I'm impressed...by all the Art directors you rattled off to trippling.

now I hasten off to look them up.

btw: I so love Akira Kurosawa's films. I always say: "he paints characters acrose a movie screen as deftly as Picasso applys paint to canvas".

Daughter of Nienna: Cedric Gibbons is the one Art Director I have been most familiar with for the last 35+ years of being a classic film fan.

Cedric Gibbons Wikipedia
Cedric Gibbons The Oscar Site.com
Academy to Commemorate Oscar® Designer Cedric Gibbons
Cedric Gibbons: IMDB — Mini Bio: "…In 1918 he moved to Goldwyn as art director and, in 1924, began his 32 year stint as supervising art director for some 1500 MGM films, with direct responsibility in well over 150 of those. He designed the Oscar itself, winning it 11 of the 37 times he was nominated for it. Some of his designs influenced American interiors, and it has been argued that he was the most important art director in the history of American cinema."

Elf_Maven: Absolutely none. I waited for others to answer so I could see if I at least recognized a name or two but -- nope, nada.

N.E. Brigand: Are there famous art directors? Along with a few hundred directors, I can probably name a few editors, a dozen cinematographers and a score of composers, but no designers (except the costume designer, Edith Head). Writers, however, are the most shamefully overlooked film artists.

squire: The unbearable lightness of being an Art Director Darkstone, fabulously enough, has named a lot of the great Art Directors. I can't say I know more myself, though I did actually take a course in them in grad school. The point of the question is, of course, that Art Directors are pretty anonymous. The essence of the design philosophy in drama (including cinema) is supposed to be: if they're looking at your scenery, you've failed your job. Scenic design is essentially staff work -- supportive work -- meant to back up the actors and the dramatic story being told by them, the director and the writers. You are creating a believable (whether realistic, symbolic, or psychological) environment for the story to take place within.

Most people don't notice their environment in real life, and that's the way it should be in the drama as well.

Where this falls apart is when movies or shows take on the role of being spectacle rather than drama: when the visual "wow" factor becomes important. At that point the Art Director flirts with stardom. Yet, in fact, even when the settings are fabulous and exist to some degree for themselves, and the director and cinematographer give them a star turn or a beauty shot (think Minas Tirith, Edoras, Rivendell, Bag End and the Shire), it's not the whole movie. It's just a moment that adds to the audience's pleasure. The Art Director appears, briefly, takes an invisible bow, and retires again. The audience has forgotten the moment by the time the credits roll, and the Art Director remains anonymous.

squire: E. Have you read the book The Art of The Two Towers? What does it include or leave out in relation to this Special Feature?

stanne: no

Darkstone: Nope.

Elf_Maven: Not yet.

squire: What's interesting about all these books (there are three, one for each of the LotR films) is that they feature the relatively finished sketches and paintings of the design team. There is an emphasis on the work of Howe and Lee, and also of the matte painters and storyboard artists and costume renderers, like Jeremy Bennett, Paul Lasaine, Gus Hunter, Ngila Dickson, Roger Kupelian, Mathieu Raynault, Daniel Falconer, Ben Wootten, Christian Rivers, to name a few of the stars of the book.

In other words, the book's about the studio Art, not the entire process. Design is a process, and the artefacts of the process are often rather ratty: a patched-together model, a crude thumbnail sketch, a soul-less mechanical drawing. The Art of the designer is represented in a way by the renderers and painters of this book, but the designer himself is not present, because he's down in the shop, talking the carpenter or the painter or the sculptor through a particularly tricky point of translation from 2-D to 3-D.

Design in film is a kind of continous multidimensional conversation with the budget, the construction supervisor and his crew, and the script, and there's no time to draw or paint a fancy sketch like the renderers do. But the renderers get their work in a fancy coffee-table book -- while Grant Major, Dan Hennah and his staff of Art Directors get their work preserved only one way: by the camera itself.

squire: F. Have you read the Cinefex, or the American Cinematographer articles on The Two Towers? Again, how do they compare with this Special Feature?

stanne: no

Darkstone: Wonderful pictures. The downside is that articles are full of technical jargon and mysterious acronyms, but I loved the anecdotes, which is the main pleasure I get from the special features. Overall quite a favorable comparison.

Elf_Maven: No.

N.E. Brigand: No to all.

squire: Cinefex is a fabulous magazine, covering the best special-effects films of each year. Its stories tell just a little of how the effects were achieved, and to the degree that the Art Department contributed to the special effects with a full-scale set here and there, the work of the film's designers is covered. But special effects usually just starts with the sets, and takes off from there, with miniatures, mattes, and CGI out the wazoo these days.

So Cinefex does tell you how certain film effects were achieved in the LotR movies. But its emphasis is on the specialty shots, not the regular old full-scale sets where the actors actually delivered lines.

American Cinematographer is an eye-opener to any designer of scenery. The cinematographer of a film is the equivalent in stage design terms of the "lighting designer", since no photographer or cinematographer worth his salt would ever let anyone else light the subject of his photography. So AC is all about the lighting -- as well as the film stock, exposure, timing, and focal depth of all the really interesting scenes in TTT. For a designer of film sets, it's always sobering to be reminded that all your work is going to be "translated" via the camera, and the DP (Director of Photography, old term for the Cinematographer) holds the aces when it comes to how the audience is going to see your sets. Your only chance is to shmooze the director even more than the DP does, and since the DP is on set every day, every shot, with the director, while you the Production Designer are back at the Art Department, thinking about sets that won't shoot for another eight weeks, the odds are not in your favor.

That's where the Art Director/Production Designer split comes in. The Production Designer is rarely seen around the Art Department -- he/she is desperately trying to get a word in edgewise with the Director about how to shoot the sets that very day to their best advantage -- while the Art Director is holding the fort by communicating the Production Designer's visions to the innumerable teams who are working on ahead on sets yet to come.

But I ramble...not that I am bitter...

squire: G. How have the “behind the scenes” documentaries, that now seem to come with every movie’s DVD edition, affected your experience of watching films? Better or worse?  

stanne: Better. I still watch the movie the first time with suspended disbelief, although occasionally I now spot techniques that may have been used. I don't rent/buy many movies so don't have experience of many other behind the scenes explanations. I don't think I would be as interested in other movies in this way, Lotr was a special case with me as I'd loved the book for so long and wanted to see how they had managed to get so close to the feel of M.E.

Thanks for the links.


Darkstone: Well, I think the very first behind the scenes documentary I ever saw was waaaay back in the sixties for "Oliver!" Since then I’ve been fascinated by the moviemaking process. I’m always quite pleased when a dvd has such features.


Daughter of Nienna: For me, it’s always better. The more information I have about film the happier I am. Of course, some movies that Hollywood puts out, I could care less. Some I rent or borrow just to see the extras.

Like Narnia, I didn’t gravitate to it enough to buy it, so I borrowed it from a friend to see the extras. Or, Kingdom of Heaven, the new extended edition, that came out in May 2006, is far superior to the original; I bought it. But, I borrowed the theatrical version to see the extras, which are different the extended. Though not nearly as extensive, The KoH extended edition has about as much extra stuff on the 2 appendix discs as LotR extended editions.
I love learning about the behind scenes film-making and I envy the jobs of many who work on films.

Elf_Maven: I have loved every minute of these documentaries. In almost every case they have increased my appreciation of what I see. The only exception would be the few places where the CG is now painfully obvious to me (crowds of Orcs running from the earthquake after the Downfall of Barad-dur, for instance). BTW, I am dying to see *all* the set dressing they did for Edoras. I get the impression that we saw very little of all that was actually set up, and yet so much effort went into every detail.

N.E. Brigand: I rarely watch them. Not enough time. Shame on me. (Then again, if James Agee didn't need behind-the-scenes explanation, why do we?)

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