Designing The Golden Hall


squire: Well, today we moved indoors onto the soundstage floor, only to find ourselves building difficult-to-pull off exteriors like Fangorn and Henneth Annun.


But now at the end of our day 4, we finally get to go nuts with some good old-fashioned traditional set design, not to mention the phenomenal fun of doing period set dressing with custom props. Let’s look at the good time they all had building and decorating the Golden Hall of the Mark, a full-blown studio interior set.


For once, the book gives us some real meat:

The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof. But here and there bright sunbeams fell in glimmering shafts from the eastern windows, high under the deep eaves. Through the louver in the roof, above the thin wisps of issuing smoke, the sky showed pale and blue. As their eyes changed, the travellers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. They saw now that the pillars were richly carved, gleaming dully with gold and half-seen colours. Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade. (The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 6)


Barahli of Rohan: Oh, so beautiful! I think Alan Lee et al did a fantastic job designing Rohan and the Rohirrim. I was blown away when I saw the props, costumes, weapons etc. at the Boston LotR exhibit a while ago.


weaver: Thank you for this beautiful tour....You're a great guide, squire. Your presentation really helps to deepen my appreciation for this set. Thank you!


Alan Lee: Tolkien in his description of the place set a very high standard and gave us something to aim for.



Grant Major: The Golden Hall interior set was a 360-degree set that filled up our largest stage, Stage A.


Set under construction. Note warehouse roof trusses above


Art department ”white model” in the foreground, set under construction in background.


squire: A. Why a 360-degree set?

Darkstone: Well A filmmaker’s dream, whether you’re a director or director of photography. It’s like total freedom as opposed to being in a straight jacket.

What others are there in the movie?

Darkstone: Bag End, Council of Rivendell, possibly the Prancing Pony. Oh, TTT? Fangorn.

What ones are not, but might seem to be so?

Darkstone: Any of the Helm’s Deep sets, Orthanc.

squire: Almost every sub-department in the Art Department got a chance to really show off on this set. We’ve been seeing a lot of greens work and styrofoam work so far. Now the interiors craftspeople come alive. I don’t have a lot of questions for the next bits – just awed admiration!

Start with the finish carpenters and scenic painters.

Grant Major: Alan’s drawings had a lot of detail and they carved into the big timber posts that went down the hall and of course the throne was at the far end.


These two pictures illustrate the nature of a 360-degree set: you can shoot in any direction.

Alan Lee: Just everything was elaborate and even the tiles, even the paving on the floor formed elaborate patterns as Tolkien described.

squire: Then there are the Props fabricators and metal shop and set dressers:


Alan Lee:  There was pretty ornate furniture . . . .


Alan Lee:  Probably the most important of these was going to be Theoden’s throne because we, we knew that there’d be close-ups of Bernard.

Grant Major: The throne was a really nice prop, so we did a four-armed furniture-making and wood-carving job on that.

squire: Don’t forget the soft goods shop:

Alan Lee: We wanted to try to get the feeling in the banners that there’s not just one Rohan culture but that there are these other divisions and they’re represented by having their banners.

Note the banners are meant to convey different noble houses of Rohan.

Chris Hennah: We had a soft prop workshop. We made banners and cushions and rugs and bedspreads and curtains. You name it, we made it.

Set Dresser: These banners are made from hand-dyed wool, or velvet, and leather bossing. And our head textilist is Lesley Earl-Templeton and she did most of that, the hand work embroidery on this.

squire: B. Do you notice that the scale of the Hall is distorted, so that the banners are low enough on the wall to get into the camera?

Darkstone: Yeah, an optical illusion, like with the columns of the Parthenon.


squire: C. Did you notice the banners and get Lee’s point about them representing different parts of Rohan’s polity?

Darkstone: Seems obvious. The same function as the designs in the floor in the book, IIRC.

squire: Since Tolkien never mentioned anything like this, what ‘houses’ do you think Lee invented to justify his graphic designs?

Darkstone: As Howe always says, Tolkien never said they didn’t look like that.

squire: So far all the fabulous work we’ve seen here made it onto camera, front and center. Hand carving the King’s throne out of wood, and backing the King’s dais with hand-embossed banners makes a lot of sense to me. But now we get to what I think of as a kind of scenic tragedy, an example of design hubris:

Grant Major: We had the idea to do a series of tapestries all the way around the walls of the Golden Hall.


Grant Major: The tapestries were quite a big job. I mean obviously they had to all be illustrated first and very carefully painted on. So we had a team of painters doing this illustrating job essentially onto, onto very heavy canvas.

squire: D. Ummm . . .  Were they ever seen on camera? If not, what on earth were they thinking?

weaver: Design hubris? There's a fun term! Are there really no glimpses at all of those incredible murals in the films?

Elostirion74: what made it to the screen and what didn't  Well, actually I think I saw a glimpse of them, but the way these films were done with the focus on characters and character's faces, often filmed in a way as to give scanty sight of the sideways of the hall, such details would be easy to overlook. Also, forgive my ignorance, but I'm under the impression that they aimed to create sets and costumes that would portray a specific culture or mix of culture and look convincing. They had a vision in mind guiding their work, still some of the things never or hardly made it to the screen in the end. I also believe that a unified look, if not always easily and clearly visible to the audience, can still be appreciated on the subconscious level. To make a comparison I'm sympathetic towards Ngila Dickson (costumes) when she confesses herself disappointed with the amount of work done on a particular dress and then the way they filmed it ensured it wouldn't be seen on screen. I disagreed vehemently with Ian McKellen on this point in the RoTK feature (he thought the details in his cloak a waste if no one would notice it on screen anyway). Ngila Dickson's disappointment certainly was true of others too I guess.

Darkstone: Same thing David O. Selznick was thinking in Gone With the Wind. Detail in set dressing is like subtle seasoning in soup. You can’t tell that it’s there when it’s there, but when it’s not there you can tell something is missing.

Elf_Maven: That tapestry . . .One tapestry showed up in the background, being packed up during the "You have some skill with a blade" scene. In fact, I paused and watched slow-mo when TTT TE was released because I wanted to see what it was.


squire: Fabulous waste of money aside, they’re absolutely perfectly beautiful, of course. And dead-on accurate, unlike the banners.
E. Can you identify the episodes that Alan Lee has illustrated, and name the source where he got them from?

 *rustle of book pages*

squire: The Golden Hall (appropriately) is called a “hero set” or “money set”. Those are the ones you put as much of your budget money into as you possibly can, because they have a lot of character, they show off the star actors, and they’re going to get a lot of camera time. They’re meant to impress everyone from the audience to the actors to (especially) the producers. For instance (speaking from experience) the Diva’s apartment in a soap opera is a money set, every time.

F. Can you name your favorite money set in a movie you like?

weaver: Out of time to comment, except to say I'm glad they chose this as a "money set".

Darkstone: The B-52 in Dr. Strangelove. What's funny is that set became a benchmark for scifi movies like Alien.


squire: G. Can you compare this set to its evil twin, Denethor’s Hall?

Darkstone: I like this one better. But I think we were supposed to.

squire: Is that a money set?

Darkstone: All of Minas Tirith is a money set.

FUNNY MOMENT: “umm… might I have some, you know, mead, please.”

Alan Lee: Actually I found it very hard to keep off the set, I’d keep on wandering down because it felt just like a real Viking or Anglo-Saxon mead hall.

squire: H. Do you think any 9th century Mead Hall in northern Europe was this nice?

 weaver: And you are right, no "real" Mead Hall would be this tidy. But it's still a beautiful set.

Darkstone: Frankly when Mortensen, Hill, or Tyler smiles I can’t help but wonder if 9th century dental hygiene was ever that nice. But I'm very glad they didn't go with the realistic look. Ecchhh!!

squire: Spoiler Message:

"Spoiler: Anyone notice the major photo blooper in this section of the documentary, involving a misidentified set under construction?"

squire: Answer to "major blooper question" All stills in my post were taken from the Two Towers documentary under discussion. So it's a little funny that the "Golden Hall" set pictured with the caption "Set under construction. Note warehouse roof trusses above" is actually Denethor's Hall of Kings in Minas Tirith. You can tell by the design of the columns; but I only noticed it at the very last minute before posting.

Any other bloopers in the documentaries?


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