Running an Art Department


squire: The head of the Art Department is the Production Designer. The title used to be Art Director, but Production Designer sounds more important and that is now the convention. The Production Designer works directly under the Director/Producer, and is nominally responsible for the creation and execution of the entire visual look of the film. He also coordinates his designs with Wardrobe, Special Effects, and the Cinematographer.


The Art Director still exists: he or she is now the “executive officer” of the Production Designer, responsible for supervising all the various crews (drafting, construction, painting, props, greens, etc.) who contribute to the sets’ construction and ensuring that the Designer’s “vision” is consistently and correctly achieved.


In The Lord of the Rings, the Production Designer is Grant Major, and the Art Director is Dan Hennah. Major is nominally Hennah’s superior, but as is almost always the case, the two work so closely together as to be joined at the hip.


Grant Major: The amount of people in the Art Department varied on a day to day basis. We had a ongoing total of about 350 but there were 400 at one point.

squire: Major obviously regards 350-400 as an impressive number of people to work under his direction as head of the Art Department.
A. Is it?

Darkstone: Well... Seems rather low.

squire: How does it compare with other major features of epic scope?

Darkstone: The Matrix Trilogy employed over 400.

weaver: Good questions on the epic film-making process...Here are my best attempts to answer. Hmm..the term "casts of thousands" comes to mind. In the past, I'm guessing, an epic film needed a lot more people on stage for massive crowd scenes, to build huge sets, to physically pull off special effects. Now, we need a huge art crew to make computer images of people, settings and effects. So 400 artists and art production people seems understandable to me once you get into "epicness" in filmmaking, today.

N.E. Brigand: My, how time flies. Plugging away.

Sorry, I have no idea. I work in a theater, producing a season of eight-nine mainstage plays plus some educational fare. Our production staff consists of production manager and assistant production manager, technical director, assistant technical director and five union carpenters, production electrician and three union electricians, props master and two props artisans, charge scenic artist and two painters, and costume shop manager and seven costumers. The department heads and assistants are full time, the others are engaged seasonally. They work with directors and designers (sets, costumes, lights, sound) hired production by production.


squire: Typically every piece of scenery built by a construction crew has some kind of scaled and drafted “blueprint”, produced by the assistant art directors and draftsmen in the Art Department.
B. Does this documentary seem to imply that Howe and Lee did all the drawing?

Darkstone: Considering the drawings they show are usually changed by the time they get to the screen, no.

weaver: All I can say is that the commentaries, to me, seemed to bring in a lot of the behind the scene voices, which I would never have known or thought about or seen, even in the background of some of the footage. So, I guess I think we got some sense that it wasn't just Howe and Lee who were the guys behind it all.

squire: Why not show the drafting department, which must have been substantial?

Darkstone: I'm sure all their mothers are wondering the same thing.

weaver: In the Gollum feature we just discussed, I thought they did a good job of getting more of the average joe animator guys involved in the commentaries, rather than just the "names."

squire: Why not show the talented, handsome, witty, underappreciated, Tolkien-loving, assistant art directors who did all the real work?

Darkstone: Well, you can't show all 350 people. You'd need a lot more dvds. I think being sexy and vivacious helps. Look at stuntwoman Lani Jackson.

stanne: You are talking about yourself aren't you??!!

squire: yes.

stanne: Now are you going to reveal to us that you actually worked on the Lotr set and your real name is......!!!? will have to answer your own questions to edify us all.

Great the use of photos!

N.E. Brigand: I haven't seen the documentary thus can't speak to its implications, but time certainly is a factor in what is shown. Still, a better work might capture more of the depth of talent involved--perhaps the documentarian has a bias in favor of lone artists over collective works.

squire: Art Director Dan Hennah is married to Art Department Manager Chris Hennah. Weta’s Richard Taylor is married to Weta’s manager Tania Rodger. Peter Jackson and Writer/Producer Fran Walsh are sort of married.
C. How would such working conditions over the course of, say five years, affect your marriage or relationship? Should couples try to work together when a job is all-consuming, like filmmaking is?

Darkstone: Well, you'd see more of each other when both work on a film than if just one did. Note that most Hollywood romances born between leading man and lady tend to fall apart when they go on to separate pictures.

weaver: Well, I work with my husband and we have for about 7 years now. I have found it actually brought us closer together, as you can really understand why something makes someone mad or happy or frustrated if you are also working in that same environment. Helps to have totally different areas of focus though. And lots of respect for the other person doing what you can't. If you are working in ways in which you compete, rather than enhance each other, that would be tough.

N.E. Brigand: I imagine it depends on the temperament of the couples--some will be brought together, others fly apart. Flexibility would be a major factor.

Barrie Osbourne: It all centered on Wellington, at our Stone Street studio. And basically, you’re working on sets that are crammed together like houses in Hong Kong. You know it’s like one thing on top of the other. It’s an amazing feat, I mean you’re walking through this maze of sets every day and wondering how they’re going to get the next set on the lot.

Ed Mulholland, Construction Supervisor: Well, we call them studios, but really they’re big old warehouses, trying to baffle out the sound of the rain on the roof, blacking them out to try and make them work as studios.


squire: D. Who is the Construction Supervisor?

Darkstone: They supervise the carpenters and other workmen constructing the sets.

N.E. Brigand: I would guess he's the fellow who keeps the construction staff busy. The Production Designer says we need a wall here, and the Construction Supervisor says that will take four guys times four hours and gets those four to work.

squire: It’s incredibly frustrating to try to shoot a film in a studio without control of outside sound and light.
E. How common is it in world cinema to work under substandard conditions, like unsoundproofed studios?

Darkstone: Not common unless you’re on location Ironically nearby Sydney has excellent production service facilities, often used by Hollywood productions looking for cost savings.

N.E. Brigand: No idea. Probably less common now than in the past. I suppose a poor studio is better than no studio.

squire: A film of this scale had never been shot in New Zealand before.
F. The money went further, but would there have been other savings in efficiency from working within a more developed film industry infrastructure, had they shot in the US or in Europe/the UK?

Darkstone: Well, Jackson had the sneaky hidden agenda of building a lasting infrastructure for the New Zealand film industry on Hollywood’s dollar.


weaver: I remember reading that one of the things that really helped in making these films in New Zealand was that they didn't have the experience or perspective that comes from working in very long established organizations and companies -- that the New Zealand guys were focused on "how" to get something done, more than thinking about all the costs, lawsuit potential, and other reasons why something wouldn't work. If they didn't have something they needed for the films, they just made it up. In a big Hollywood industry studio with lots of levels of bureacracy, I don't know if you have that same level of freedom to just act, or try something. The "innocence" of the crew led them to take risks and approaches a more seasoned crew might have passed by, and those risks by and large seem to have worked.


Merryk: Following the money At the risk of sounding a little too much like I've bought into movie-LotR's self-constructed mythology... I really do doubt that without the Kiwi "Never been done? OK, we'll need till next week then" ethos, we would be looking at a film constructed/recycled from more familiar, established sword/sorcery cinematographic bits.

So, yeah, damn the savings - full speed ahead!

N.E. Brigand: Darkstone's take is fun; still, unless the suits at New Line can't read a budget, shooting in New Zealand must have seemed financially right.

THE FUNNY STORY – “I’ll talk to you later, guys”

Alan Lee: Our design meetings with Peter at this time were quite interesting because he’d invariably be away on location.

Dan Hennah: Peter was incredibly busy, particularly once we started filming, so what we had to do was try and work out where the best part of the day we’d get our best opportunity.
Chris Hennah:
We often used to chase him up mountains and on riverbanks and in the middle of nowhere.
Dan Hennah:
It wasn’t really an ambush. It was more just like setting the stuff up in the pathway of where he’d be going from set A to set B.

Alan Lee: So we’d set them up in a kitchen or, or any little space that we could find and take out all the precious models and see the bits were falling out, and kind of pin them back into place.

Dan Hennah: Some times he was in such a hurry he’d just glance at them and say “I’ll talk to you later, guys.” And you go “Oh God” ‘cause the next time you’d know would be never. So you’d have to pick up the table and chop down the hill.

squire: All I can say is, I been there. The stress is fantastic, trying to get the director to focus on, and sign off on, designs for sets with shoot dates weeks or months away, when he or she is thinking about a shot that is being set up right then. The Art Department lives “in the future” compared to the Camera Crew, because of the lead time between design and execution.
G. Have you ever been in the position of trying to get the busy CEO’s attention for your little part of the enterprise?

weaver: Shoot, who hasn't, if you've ever worked for a company that employs more than you. It even happens in a family growing up. The biggest thing I think about Jackson's style is that he seems to me to be the most focused on the beginning and ends of a scene or part of a scene the most -- he gets the big picture, and loves the adrenalin rush when it all comes together; those are the places where his strengths really shine, to me. In between, when things have to be done in a more systematic way is not where he likes to be as much, though he certainly understands the need for this and respects those who provide services in this stage of film making. That's typical of many creative souls I know, and so I don't think he's that much of an exception. He seems to trust a lot to people underneath him doing a lot of the heavy lifting for making his vision work, however, and in some cases he never even got around to signing off on something. (The editing of Boromir's death, I think, is one of those times.)

I've quoted this before, but one of Brian Rosebury's points about LOTR is that it's just "too big" for one director to pull off, because to really do it right the cast and crew need to be vested in the story themselves, because there's no way that one guy could direct every detail of everything that would have to go into a film of the tale. Rosebury said that the fact that there are legions of fans now working in the film industry was one of the reasons that the films could only be made now.

The whole process reminds me of the building of Gothic Cathedral, somehow. I remember from back in my art and architecture classes how artisans would work their hearts out to create things that would end up on the very top of the cathedral, where only God would ever see them. It was the uniting vision they had of their faith that led them to be able to build those cathedrals. Tolkien the man was certainly multi-gifted, to be able to do so many elements of story so well -- to be able to do the languages, describe the settings, draw from such a thorough base of academic knowledge, and to have the ability to tell a compelling story on top of that is rare to find in one person. For the films, it took a lot more.


Elf_Maven: What I want to know Just as a matter of curiousity, is which scene is that they're setting up for Peter to look at? We glimpse this in the ROTK feature too, so they've repeated the shots as part of that DVD (the more I watch these, the more I recognize the reuse of footage and of actual dialogue as well).

N.E. Brigand: We're not that big a company.



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