Designing Fangorn Forest


squire: Now we come to the very interesting and difficult problem of building an exterior set indoors, in a studio.

No sky, no horizon, all electric lighting, and a very limited footprint of space to fit everything into. How, and why, did the designers end up building a forest inside a large room?


What is the essence of Fangorn Forest? Let’s quickly check the book:

‘Yes, it is all very dim, and stuffy, in here,’ said Pippin. ‘It reminds me, somehow, of the old room in the Great Place of the Tooks... They say the Old Took lived in it year after year, while he and the room got older and shabbier together…But that is nothing to the old feeling of this wood. Look at all those weeping, trailing, beards and whiskers of lichen! And most of the trees seem to be half covered with ragged dry leaves that have never fallen. Untidy.’
     ‘But the Sun at any rate must peep in sometimes.’ said Merry. ‘It does not look or feel at all like Bilbo's description of Mirkwood. That was all dark and black, and the home of dark black things. This is just dim, and frightfully tree-ish.’

Where all had looked so shabby and grey before, the wood now gleamed with rich browns, and with the smooth black-greys of bark like polished leather. The boles of the trees glowed with a soft green like young grass: early spring or a fleeting vision of it was about them. ‘…This shaggy old forest looked so different in the sunlight. I almost felt I liked the place.’(The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 4)

Jackson: We thought we’d be able to find a real forest. You know New Zealand’s got wonderful trees and forests and we hunted all over the country and could never find something that really felt like Fangorn. We decided, and it was a sort of reluctant decision because it was going to create a tremendous number of headaches for us, that, we decided that Fangorn was not going to be shot on location.

squire: I’ve never been to New Zealand, but somehow I believe it’s harder than it seems to find any forest that could stand in for Fangorn.
A. What is it about Fangorn that makes it an unlikely set to shoot on location?

FarFromHome: I've been in lots of English woods, but they certainly aren't virgin forests. And I've been in some magnificent forests in the Pacific North-West, but they're the wrong kind of trees.

weaver: answers to some of your excellent questions... Hmm..maybe any forest that people can actually move around in mean that they then by default can't be that claustrophic, stuffy or undisturbed. I bet there are Fangorn forests like this, but no one can actually get into them. Or they are filled with non-Tolkien trees, like the kind you might find in an Amazon rain forest.

Stanne: as you say I think any forest truly like Fangorn would be too cramped to shoot in and would be protected as a nature reserve from marauding film crews. They had enough trouble leaving 'edoras' in its original state.

Darkstone: Well Dunno. I’d think they could go to South Carolina and film it. Or maybe Red River National Park in New Mexico.

squire: B. What’s the closest you’ve ever come to being in a woods that felt like the book’s description?

FarFromHome: The forest is old very old. Perhaps there are few old-growth forests left that can give the right effect.

weaver: One time when I got lost in the woods. Every tree was scary.

Darkstone: When I stopped off in the Philippines and visited the Luzon rain forest in the Sierra Madre mountains way back in the 1970s. Beautiful old growth forest. Of course, since then loggers chopped down 97% of it. Really tragic. Big scale logging was going on at the fringes even then. I think I remember feeling the sadness of “the end of all forests”.

squire: This set was the masterpiece (in this movie, anyway) of the Greens Department, the division of Props that handles live plants on the set. Usually they plant shrubs and arrange flowers. Meet Brian Massey, the Greens Master.

Ed Mulholland, Construction Supervisor: Brian Massey’s the Tree Man. He’s what I call a tree hugger.

Brian Massey, Greens Master:  I did quite a bit of tree-felling for a long time and then moved into arborism, became a tree surgeon. And even though at times it may be your job to take a tree down, that doesn’t mean you have any less feeling for them.

Bridge built by Brian Massey

Brian Massey: With Fangorn it evokes a definite sort of feeling. It’s not a sinister forest but it’s not exactly friendly either. It’s the sort of forest that minds its own business.
Dan Hennah:
We built Fangorn Forest eight times. Brian was sort of an Ent in his own way. He was, “you mean I get to build Fangorn Forest again! Great! I can make it better!”

squire: C. Is it a little eerie, or a little staged, that Massey comes off as a true Tolkien-type tree nut?

FarFromHome: Massey the Tolkien-type tree nut? Maybe it's a bit staged, but the TTT commentaries were recorded while everyone was still on the geeky high they seem to have lived in while the project was ongoing. You get more of a back-to-reality feel in the ROTK extras, where a few of the crew do talk about the costs of the project on their health, or their families. Still, the fact is that the kind of people who led the production all seem to be uber-geeks in their own way.

weaver: I was just glad to read that the guy in charge here shared Tolkien's sensibilities about trees. I had thought the trees got shortchanged in the films and it was nice to know that at least one person "got it."

Darkstone: Seems pretty normal to me. Course I’m not exactly normal. You ought to hear me talk about my trees: peach, pear, pecan, and pomegranate. Always fussing over them when a frost comes. up. My little peach tree, she sometimes puts out so much fruit I have to go out while they’re green and pick off two for every one I leave on, or else her branches get too heavy and she hurts herself. Silly girl. And don’t even get me started about my pear tree.

Construction: Pick a tree to build. Or design one.

Peter Jackson: Alan Lee had actually done some great paintings of it, looking kind of wonderfully gnarly mangled creepy-looking forest.

Brian Massey: I worked with Alan Lee and John Howe a lot. I would get a brief sketch that gave you the feeling of what you were trying to achieve.

squire: D. What kind of trees are these?

FarFromHome: I don't know what those trees are - very ancient oaks, maybe? There's a tree in Sherwood Forest that's supposed to have been there since Robin Hood's day that has a bit of the same look.

Darkstone: Look like Southern Live Oaks. Though they could pass for especially gnarled Coastal Live Oaks.

How do Lee’s designs (with Jackson’s obvious approval) relate to Tolkien’s descriptions?

Darkstone: Fantastic! They look like they’re ready to pull up their roots and start getting First Age on all things that walk on two legs.

Construction: Start with the trunks.

Brian Massey: There’s no doubt that if you want to build trees you have to be really familiar with the way they’re put together.
Dan Hennah:
Very early on in the piece he had a team of about a dozen people working on tree trunks, making tree trunks.

Lorien. From New Line Pictures: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Brian Massey: During Film One we started basically trying to hone up our skills.

squire: As with the Osgiliath piece’s silence about Minas Tirith, I find it strange that they refuse to mention the Lorien set!
E. Why not admit that many of the sets and design solutions applied to all three movies?

FarFromHome: I don't think they are deliberately not talking about Lothlorien - it's just that they talked about that on the last set of DVDs. In the same way, they'll revisit the styrofoam rock problem for the Stairs of Cirith Ungol for the next movie, without talking again about the Emyn Muil. It would be nice to have a comparison of the approach taken to make an Elven woodland as opposed to an ancient forest like Fangorn. Maybe one day there'll be a more general documentary, taking the three movies as one topic. I don't think the one coming out in the next few months is going to be it, though.

weaver: Each commentary sort of tells it own story. I write grant applications for part of my job. The essence of that is that you say the same thing over and over again and make it sound new each time. I could probably also write DVD commentaries at this point.

Darkstone: Shame? Stupidity? The advice of their lawyers? The fact that they are being interviewed for a TTT documentary and not one for FOTR or ROTK? I know I hate it when interviewees start talking about another film. I shelled out bucks for a TTT documentary and I expect TTT commentary doggone it!!

squire: F. What differences do you see between the Lorien set (FotR) and the Fangorn set (TTT)?

FarFromHome: Lorien is a tended forest, and the trees are more elegant and refined. Fangorn is a shaggy old forest, very gnarled, and as someone says in the feature, "arthritic".

weaver: Lorien is elegant, tidied up and feminine. By comparison, Fangorn looks like the basement of a bachelor pad where no one has brought a girl home for a very long time.

Darkstone: Pretty simple.
Fangorn = Ents.
Lorien = Entwives
I mean, Fangorn reminds me of my study. Lorien reminds me of wifey’s.

Brian Massey: As we were starting to build them, some of them were starting to look a little symmetrical, not quite organic enough.

Ed Mulholland: He just got frustrated with the “chippies” as he called us, and building trees, ‘cause chippies like build, you know, quite straight and square.
Brian Massey:
I tried talking to a few people and made a little bit of progress, but it still wasn’t quite right so I thought I’d put out a pamphlet for them.

Dan Hennah: I’ve got one somewhere. I haven’t got it here now. This piece of paper called The Rules About Trees.

squire: Have you ever tried to scupt or model a realistic tree? Heck, ever tried even to draw one?
G. So, how did it go?

weaver: I've tried to paint one. I hadn't thought about it before, but I think it is hard to keep from making them symmetrical. Might have something to do with how we first draw trees as children -- a trunk and branches that match up pretty evenly is the most common image, isn't it?

Darkstone: Have you ever tried to scupt or model a realistic tree?  Yeah, did some HO train modeling in my younger day. Made my own trees. Spent some time in the woods looking for just the right moss to use as foliage. Heck, ever tried even to draw one? Oh, yeah. The trick is trees aren’t symmetrical, and the branches don’t grow in smooth curves. When you look at them even the straightest branch is gnarly.

So, how did it go?
Darkstone: Didn’t win any prizes.

Are you in Joyce Kilmer’s camp on this question?

weaver: Nothing beats the real thing. The most interesting thing to me was that they didn't just give up at some point and resort to digital.

Darkstone: In more ways than one.


Construction: Continue with branches and roots.

Brian Massey: We used driftwood for the roots of trees, that’s how we started off. And we also used real branches.

Dan Hennah: Every sort of month or so he would take his truck up, the chain saw and a few of his guys and they’d go beachcombing and find all the best shapes.

Grant Major: These trees had character. They needed to feel like old men, arthritic old men. So Brian’s team would begin by very carefully dissecting the tree trunk into various different parts. It’s all numbered so it would fit back together again. And these trunks were taken to the studio and wrapped around big steel frames which our steel crew had made.

squire: H. By using found shapes for roots and branches (a very common practice in building trees), was Massey running the risk of building “generic” trees?

weaver: Hmm..using my experience in writing again to compare, it never works to just lift a paragraph from here and a paragraph from there when you are taking information out of one document and putting it in another that asks you to replicate a lot of the same points. You can always "tell" that it's pieced together. So, maybe the trees don't feel as "genuine" if they are just switched around parts. They lack an organic feel. Hadn't thought of that before!

Darkstone: A one-of-a-kind “Fir-kenstein Monster”. Kind of hard to think of “unique” as “generic”.

Or was he following unspoken rules in his head as he picked and chose among the various available species he found pieces of?

Darkstone: Yeah, artists are intuitive, draftsmen are logical.

squire: I. Major seems to be relating the trees to the Ents. How do the trees in the set relate to the Ent character designs?

weaver: The film Ents to me were far more "treeish" than I had pictured them. But since that was their concept for them, I could see how Fangorn and the Ents would end up having very similar characteristics.

Darkstone: Well, I like how a lot of the trees have exposed roots, like they’re huorn on the verge of pulling themselves out of the ground. Or Ents slowly easing themselves down into a nice spot to grow tree-ish.


Dressing: Toss lightly.

Dan Hennah: We went to the local botanical gardens and asked if we could collect their leaves and they thought we were crazy. We’d fill up all these great big woolsacks full of leaves and take them and cart them away and stash them very carefully.

Brian Massey: The most enjoyable thing was after six weeks of building the forest in the studio on the last night we’d run around putting down the mosses and the lichen and then you’d turn the water on and suddenly it comes to life.

Brian Massey: If you’ve done your job, the crew should forget they’re in a studio. And some of them do. And really it’s a great compliment to see them resting with their back against a tree. They’re actually causing a bit of mayhem but they’re feeling very comfortable there.


squire: A successful set should be subconsciously perceived by the audience as one of the characters in a movie.
J. What was the character of Fangorn Forest as conceived by Lee?

 FarFromHome: Overall, I'm not too convinced by the Fangorn set, which overdoes the gnarliness for my taste. It's the helicopter shots of real forest canopy as Treebeard recites his poetry that sells it for me.

Darkstone: Spooky, threatening.

As built by Massey?

Darkstone: Spooky, threatening.

As conceived and shot by Jackson and Lesnie?

Darkstone: Spooky, threatening.

FUNNY STORY – “Who ate the bread crumbs, Pippin?”

Billy Boyd: It’s something I found: that I could never find the exit from these places. You got used to it being one way and you say, well I know where the exit is. You just go to that big tree and take a left, and that’ll take me out to the canteen. And then they change it and I’m like, Jeez, I don’t know where the door is. And I go, how do you get out of this place?

squire: Stupid cast members. They really are stupid.
K. Should Billy Boyd be arrested for Unnecessary and Excessive Cuteness?

FarFromHome: As for Billy, well, you have to remember that Peter Jackson, knowing he had to keep his actors in character for a year and a half, was careful to choose actors who had the same personality type as their character. And he didn't choose hobbits for their intellectual prowess. Billy is Peregrin Took. Enough said.

weaver: Only if you arrest Viggo, Sean Bean and Karl Urban for Unnecessary and Excessive Attractive Maleness.

Stanne: Loved your reply to the comment about Billy!

Darkstone: Don’t look at me that’s outside my jurisdiction.


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