Designing Rohan

squire: One of the first things the Art Department does before it hires a large design and construction staff is to commission a lot of research on the “look” of whatever they will be designing sets to represent. It is often a full-time job for months for a small group of specialists.

Whether it’s a period film, takes place abroad, or will be shot right down the street in L.A. or New York where the designers have lived all their life, it is important to have the best possible library of images of all the details of life that make a scene realistic and convincing. The architectural details of interiors and exteriors, the furnishings and props, signage, artwork, fabrics, coloring, lighting: it’s important that it all be as correct as possible, because the film designers will proceed to distort it in all kinds of ways to make the film work, and you want to know just how inaccurate you are being. It’s hugely foolish to wing it if you don’t have to.

Once the research is assembled, all the various departments can refer to it as they make choices about whether to buy or to build, to dress a location or build a set from scratch, and especially where they can cut corners without getting caught on screen.

The big exception: Science fiction and fantasy

With the fantasy-world of Middle-earth, of course, there is no research except Tolkien’s evocative prose. To provide “research”, Howe and Lee led the charge as full-time, experienced and highly knowledgeable concept designers. But essentially anyone who could draw, at Weta, Wardrobe, or the Art Department, was encouraged to contribute ideas to the ongoing development of the look of Middle-earth and its inhabitants. It was ultimately all filtered through the visual and dramatic sensibilities of Peter Jackson.

The sets for The Two Towers follow those of The Fellowship of the Ring in the audience’s minds, though many of the TTT sets were designed early in the process of producing all three films. Most of the second movie takes place in wild country, with few stops at any place of civilization. FotR had the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Moria, Isengard, Lorien and Gondor to be designed. Rohan, Helms Deep, Osgiliath, and The Black Gate, are the only examples of new cultures in TTT.

The documentary chooses to show us a little of the process the Art Department went through in designing the culture of Rohan.


Peter Jackson: The Rohans’ culture always seems to me to be based on Norse, Scandinavian, northern Europe civilizations. And that comes across in the book and we really didn’t want to deviate from that.

Dan Hennah: There was a sort of theory that we should think of them as “Vikings of the Plains”, you know, Vikings without ships but with horses instead.

Alan Lee: Tolkien had based them loosely on slightly kind of Anglo-Saxon Germanic model. We sort of took a cue from that in designing the buildings and the armour.

squire: A. The concept of Rohan: isn’t it obvious?

stanne: Vikings? I'd always seen the Rohirrim as similar to Vikings. I think it is the references to the 'Halls of my Fathers', which reminds me of Valhalla, plus the idea of the glory of death in battle etc. I think the lay-person easily mixes up Anglo-Saxon and Viking cultures (well I do, despite my English education and mixed Viking-Anglo-Saxon heritage) and I also think that the cultures influenced each other. I think that Tolkien, the professor of Anglo-Saxon etc definitely used these cultures (but then I'm no expert!)

Darkstone: Pirates of the Calenardhon A true creative genius sees beyond the obvious.

N.E. Brigand: My scattered thoughts. Well, since Tolkien denied that the Rohirrim were like the Anglo-Saxons, apart from the use of Old English to "translate" their language, I suppose other options could have been considered. But most people think Tolkien was being disingenuous, given the striking similarity passages of "The King of the Golden Hall" have to Beowulf, not to mention Tolkien's use of The Wanderer. The horses are not very Anglo-Saxon, it is said.

squire: What other choices did they have?

Darkstone: Oh, a tribe of wild untamed warrior women in skimpy outfits, with dialogue along the lines of “What is this ‘kiss” you speak of?”

squire: B. Do you agree that the Rohirrim (Rohirrim, Peter! Not Rohans!) are “based on” the Vikings?

Tony: "Vikings"?? I think it's amusing that Dan Hennah brought up the Vikings and John Howe the Anglo-Saxons. As any student of early medieval English history knows, those two cultures didn't like each other very much. : ) It was definitely the Anglo-Saxon culture that was the inspiration, NOT the Vikings.

stanne: see above

Menelwyn: helmets As others have said, Anglo-Saxon is more accurate, rather than Vikings.

Darkstone: Well, the guy at Sutton Hoo was in a boat. You can’t get more Viking than that. Ironically it’s the Gondorians who were really the Vikings, proud tough arrogant mariners traders and navigators. (With a few pirates here and there no doubt.)

Daughter of Nienna: nature of that process No I do not agree that the Rohirrim are "based on" the Vikings. If at all, only in small part, in a round about sort of way. In my limited knowledge of history I understand that both the Vikings and the Anglo Saxon have the same Germanic roots. So, I am not surprised there are similarities in the cultures to start with, enhanced by their close proximity in the north, mutual or un-mutual in nature.

N.E. Brigand: I think "Vikings" is just shorthand for the Northern as opposed to Mediterannean peoples of medieval Europe -- people today have a clearer image of Vikings than of Anglo-Saxons. Viking does make me think of Boromir's horned helmet in Bakshi's LotR film. I cringed when I heard "Rohans" in the film. What a weird mistake.

FarFromHome: A small point "Rohans" is never used in the films - it's just a shorthand that some of the off-screen people (including Jackson himself, apparently) seem to like. I think the quality control in terms of accuracy in Tolkien's names for people and places in the movies themselves is hard to fault. I did notice "Cair Andros" where "Cair" sounds like "care". I'd have expected it to rhyme with "wire". But I'm not aware of any other possible errors. The BBC radio drama has several - including "the men of Haradrim", which always makes me wince a bit - despite having input from the Tolkien estate, if I remember correctly.

squire: "Rohirrim" in the films is used frequently in the script directions, and twice in dialogue. It seems however always to refer just to the armed and mounted men of Rohan (I just checked the scripts).

I wonder if Jackson etc. thus felt the word did not apply to the people of Rohan as a whole, and so called the whole nation the "Rohans"?

N.E. Brigand: So it is used? In the film and not just in the script? Because I haven't seen documentaries about the films, and I remember thinking "What?" when (I thought) I heard "the Rohans" in the film (uttered by Aragorn, if memory serves, somewhere early in TT).

FarFromHome: It's not used in the movie. I just did an electronic search of the transcript to check. Aragorn does say "They do not come to destroy Rohan's crops..." but that is obviously a reference to the country, which is often referred to as Rohan of course. Saruman calls it "the Rohan" on one occasion, and this could perhaps be understood to mean the people rather than the land, although it's not actually specified either way.

I was thinking the same thing as squire though - "Rohirrim" is used to refer to the armed and mounted men, as a kind of collective noun. Individuals are referred to in the script as "man (or woman) of Rohan", "soldier of Rohan" or the "people of Rohan". You can see how this would be cumbersome to use for directing though, and how "I need a few more Rohan extras over here" would quickly turn into "a few more Rohans". I'm sure Tolkien the linguist would have understood that this is how language works in the real world, while in his fantasy he is able to use just "Rohirrim" and to imbue the word with the image of armed and mounted men. In emphasising this image of a collective (and very masculine) culture, Tolkien provides no singular name for a man or woman of Rohan at all.

N.E. Brigand: Weird. Meaning me, of course.

Thank you for that -- and I see I misread squire's post. I think your quote of Aragorn ("to destroy Rohan's crops") is probably what I misunderstood, but it's really odd that I would have mentally inserted a "the" before "Rohan's," especially since, as I noted, I hadn't seen any behind-the-scenes footage (and I saw TT a year before joining TORn, so I couldn't have encountered any "Rohans" references here).

Well, it was always just an oddity for me, not a significant flaw, but it's nice to have it cleared up. Thanks again.

FarFromHome: Actually, I wonder if what you misheard was Saruman's "It will begin with the Rohan..." which is said over a shot of fleeing Rohan peasants (the scene where the village is set on fire, as discussed by squire last week). Actually, I believe Saruman says "It will begin in the Rohan (I just listened to it to check), but the accompanying images do make you think he's referring to the people as "the Rohan" on first listening - I seem to recall having had the same initial impression myself.

weaver: There's also this line... "the land will be stained with the blood of Rohan"

It would be easy to hear that as "Rohans", I think!

squire: C. Note the emphasis on the cultural designs. Did Lee or Howe ever do concept sketches of landscape, from the books, that would have directed the location scout?

stanne: Don't know

Darkstone: I suppose they could have drawn a picture of Edoras and said “This is a hill. Go look for one.”

Daughter of Nienna: I always assumed the location scout did their scouting solely based on the text. I imagine, however that there were already some concept sketches of landscape being done (which were based on the text of course) and that perhaps the locations were looked for with these in mind to a degree.

It is possible, being that almost everyone working on the films was a fan, they may have seen some art of theirs and had the seeds planted. I doubt the scouters had images in mind specifically they were trying to match. . . as in a side-by-side comparison.

The thing about the text, is the descriptions of landscape vivid, I doubt it would matter if anyone had seen images or not. If the landscape matched closely enough to the book. It would match the art, and visa versa. Case in point. Hobbiton…they already had the landscape, and the artists drew Hobbiton and Bag End into the landscape.

N.E. Brigand: I think in a later thread you have a picture of Edoras by one of those artists, which includes some landscape. I don't know how much more they did.

squire: New Zealand is lacking in lush green grassy plains, from what I can tell watching the movie.
D. Should the designers have insisted on doing tall-grass green prairie sets in the backlot, with digital matte work to fill in the endless expanses in the background, rather than accept the scrubby subpar locations they were presented with?

stanne: I must admit that the plains of Rohan were a little disappointing, but I don't think they would have been able to get the wide sweep of the landscapes as well in a back lot. In the end I don't think it mattered much.

Menelwyn: Ok, I grant you that the places that we saw as Rohan in the movie did not match my imagined views of Rohan, which certainly demanded grassy plains. However, I don't think they would have done very well with backlots either--I can't think that such a set, even combined with superb matte paintings, cound convey the vastness I envision. The only way they could have gotten that would have been to travel to some other country. But frankly, I love the vistas of New Zealand that we get to see (I think of the Three Hunters pursuing the Uruk-Hai), and I would have a tough time trading those in for something more "accurate".

Darkstone: Actually it kind of made more sense this way. I mean, Gondor isn’t going to hand over prime land to a bunch of poor relations. Calenardhon is a ‘fixer-upper”. Kind of like the American Great Plains. A lot of rocks to dig up and haul off. Yeah, I did that sort of backbreaking labor before I got a college education and no longer had to *work* for a living.

Elf_Maven: New Zealand *could* have been the East Emnet Once again, our friend from the "arthedain" pages provides input.

"It's now being said by many posters (coming I believe straight from the EE DVD propaganda) that the scenes from 'The Riders of Rohan' were moved to a piece of volcanic terrain more resembling Iceland than the rolling hills and wetlands of East Emnet in the book, because there are no plains in NZ for them to film on. Well, there may not be much that's flattish as compared to the highlands and mountains - but a quick google will find plenty of images of terrain that looks suspiciously like the "green sea" of the fine horse country of the Mark.

For anyone else who winced every time horses were shown running through those awful tufa slopes - here are links to a few examples."

If you'd like to check out the examples he/she found, visit the link: No Rohan in New Zealand

stanne: interesting, thanks for the link.

weaver: To quote Ian McKellan... “Just as you are being reminded of Monty Python, suddenly you get a close up of a massive shot of soldiers, defying you to watch."

This was a comment Sir Ian made in the Actors' Commentary for the Prologue of FOTR, in reference to the shots of the soldiers in the Last Alliance.

I remember a similar kind of comment made on another Commentary when it came to the Party scene in the Shire. The challenge was how do you show happy hobbits feasting and dancing without it looking like a cliche peasant scene?

I do have a point here, and it is that one of the big challenges of the films was to know where the line was when it came to presenting things in Tolkien that smack of things that have been presented in films so often they've now become parodies of themselves and fodder for Monty Python and others to have some fun with.

To me they succeeded in not crossing the line with the Rohirrim and with Rohan, just as they did with the Shire or Last Alliance. They gave us enough reference points to cultures and images we could relate to without making them seem like steretypes that people now mock.

The creation of Edoras seems to also have been the focal point for the Rohirrim, with much attention lavished on it. So, we got the Golden Hall, but not necessarily the green plains.

I guess I'll take the hall over the grasslands if I had to pick one!

And as far as New Zealand goes, it seems to me the green I've seen in photos is more cultivated farmland than wild endless plains. Fits the Shire more than Rohan to me.

Barahli of Rohan: Golden Hall vs. green grass Yes, I agree totally. Edoras was magic. Green, lush grassland I could imagine on my own.

I will take Edoras any time.

N.E. Brigand: On these documentaries, do the interviewees ever admit that something is subpar, and say, "We just had to settle here"? Is the subject of the very un-booklike Rohan ever broached? Did they decide the actors would play better with a real but inadequate landscape than in a studio, for instance?

Peter Jackson: We used a lot of horse-motifs in the design and you know those carved horse-heads on the buildings – the direction of the building. The horse they used as the foundation of their society, really.

squire: Sometimes a designer latches onto a visual image, and overdoes it, to the point where his viewers feel like they’re being hit over the head with it.
E. Did the horse concept work for you?

Tony: It worked wonderfully, I think. Certainly an example of the wonderful creative choices made on the look of the film.

stanne: Yes and no!!

Menelwyn: Absolutely, it worked,

Darkstone: Well, I suppose they could have used that silver silhouette of a naked lady that truckers have on their mud flaps.

squire: Was it over-used?

Menelwyn: and no, it wasn't over-used. In some places it's worked in so subtly that you don't notice it until you've had multiple viewings.

Darkstone: What else are they going to use? Potatoes?

N.E. Brigand: It didn't seem so at the time; but seeing some of the images as stills. I really do need to watch the films again, I guess.

John Howe: We relied very very heavily on whatever archaeological bits we could scrape together to help us. And the archaeologists have the few significant remnants we have on Anglo-Saxon culture which is, a civilization which is lost to us.
And they had this richness of culture which belongs to a relatively primitive people. And for example Theoden’s helmet. It feels like it could go in an exhibit with, with the work from Sutton Hoo.

squire: F. What was Sutton Hoo?

stanne: It is a Saxon burial, in East Anglia in England. The artefacts are impressive and can be seen in the British Museum in London. Someone posted an excellent link some time ago.

Darkstone: Well, long ago in 7 A.D. some really important guy died and his followers stuck his body and all this loot in this ship in preparation for a typical Viking funeral. But apparently at the last minute they got lazy and didn’t feel like dragging the thing all the way down to the river and burning it, so they buried it instead. The tomb remained untouched until graverobbers (i.e., archeologists) found it in 1939.

N.E. Brigand: "Peter Jackson's Anglo-Saxon Historicity: Sutton Hoo and Tolkien Too" was a paper by Lance Weldy presented at the medieval conference in Kalamazoo this spring; it considered this aspect of the film (and book) but only in an approach explicitly "less scholarly and heavy" than many other presenters took. My rough notes: Sutton Hoo means "southern town on a hill" and is the excavation site of one of the best collections of Anglo-Saxon material, including a 90-foot ship found in a barrow; it gave a boost to Anglo-Saxon studies; Tolkien would have known of it; it's generally thought to be the early 7th century grave of an East Anglian king; there are interlaced horses on a shield found there; some researchers have done studies (or even recreations) on how many days it would take to create some of the artifacts found there; this helps to show their value and the power of their owner; the film artisans likewise put much time into their creations (Sutton Hoo based or otherwise) and the film conveys a "wealth of cultural information" through its artefacts. Following the papers in this session, two of which addressed the films, both claiming that little detailed study had yet been made of the films as films (as opposed to studies of the films that merely ennumerate changes made from the book) I strongly urged people to visit the Movie board, but I don't think they took my exhortations to heart.

squire: Was the Art Department right to grasp at fragmentary archaeological finds to design an entire culture?

stanne: Yes, I think it is a suitable inspiration for the Rohirrim.

Darkstone: I can’t blame a drowning artist for grasping at things. I suppose they could have made it all up. Maybe something like ponchos, wide brimmed sombreros and chaps. Oh yeah, I can just see Eowyn in leather chaps…..

squire: G. What has the Art Department (or more likely Weta, which was in charge of Armor) done in its adaptation of the Sutton Hoo helmet to make Theoden’s helmet?

stanne: They've done a great job!

Menelwyn: Honestly, of the various helmets of the Rohirrim, I think Theoden's looks the least like the one you showed in the picture (I assume that's the Sutton Hoo helmet). However, that one looks remarkably like Eowyn's helmet to me, so much so that when I first saw the picture I thought that it was Eowyn's. There is a certain resemblance as well to the helmets of the Royal Guard (or whatever they are) at Edoras. The helmets in the movie have cheek guards, which the Sutton Hoo helmet lacks, but the design around the eyes is very close. The Sutton Hoo helmet and Eowyn's also have similar crests over the top (hers is a horse; I can't tell what this one is). And the Rohirric helmets do not have that extended nose piece. But there are definitely close elements.

Darkstone: Cut the Darth Vader protective mask, shortened the ski cap ear-flaps, and added a white horse tail on top.

N.E. Brigand: The biggest change is they cut away the mask portion to make the actor's face more clearly visible, though they also added some sort of side guard. And the film's helmet looks more ornate than the original. Thanks for showing them both for comparison.

squire: H. Is Howe right that the Rohan props, or buildings, would fit right in to a Sutton Hoo exhibit?

stanne: It's a while since I've seen it but I think so, and John Howe isn't the sort to make an idle boast.

Darkstone: Well, Sutton Hoo is more properly a royal burial site of the East Angles, though I suppose influences from the East Saxons could have crept in. Whether there are influences from the Middle or South Angles, or the East, Middle, West, or South Saxons, or indeed the Britons, is another matter altogether. I won’t even mention the Jutes, Danes, and Frisians. Anyway, the Anglo-Saxon culture is such a hodgepodge of influences I suppose Howe could add Roman short swords and Greek helmets and not be too far off the mark. I mean, “Anglo-Saxon” is anthropology for “mutt”.

Daughter of Nienna: I only heard of it in vague terms, now I will remember it after this thread. I think they were right to do as much as they could to get the Rohan as close to the Anglo Saxons as possible in order to stay true to Tolkien and his great life’s work and extensive knowledge on the subject. Because of this, I would hope that the Rohan culture they built for the films would fit right in to a Sutton Hoo exhibit.

N.E. Brigand: I don't know. Like much good craftsmanship, they deserve (and have received, I think) exhibitions of their own.

squire: I. How would you judge the balance between research and creativity in the design of the Rohan culture in The Two Towers?

stanne: I think it was perfect. They did their research but then let their imaginations run with it. The motifs aren't over used and are in suitable places. (I'm thinking of the beautiful floor of Meduseld and Theoden's throne and his breast plate with the horse design inside. )

Darkstone: Pretty good. About the same as the balance between research and creativity in Anglo-Saxon scholarship.

Daughter of Nienna: All art by necessity requires research. I am sure both Lee & Howe have years of research under their belts. That is a given of an good artist. Once an artist has the research done and a good understanding built of the subject, then the ideas begin to flow naturally out of that research. Balance is achieved by the very nature of that process.

N.E. Brigand: I'm surprised that Jackson apparently hadn't done more of this research himself -- wouldn't someone as keen to adapt the books as he claimed to be have had lots of researched "looks" in mind before even beginning the actual development process? (Maybe he did--I certainly haven't seen any of the DVD commentary.)

Well, two more posts and I'm out of time again. But it's a really interesting series you put together here.

aMagpie: a quite tangential question This got asked recently at another forum. There was a design on the back of the box for each extended edition dvd. On the FOTR box there was the Moria Door design. On the ROTK box there was a (stylized) White Tree. On the back of TTT box is a design that didn't look familiar. Someone speculated that it had something to do with Rohan since that's a focus of TTT and it does have knotwork so that would make sense. I thought perhaps someone who's rewatching the extras might recognize it. There's a link below to an image of it. Link: TTT EE DVD box back (1/07: not working)

Elf-Maven: Isn't this the design for the golden sunburst on the front of Meduseld? We don't really get a good close look at the one they put on the building (that I recall) and what we do see is more of a flat representation, i.e., with the outlines all filled in with gold to make it more stark and bold, more like a simple template than the more detailed design.

aMagpie: I'll have to check that out. Thanks.

 

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