Designing Edoras



squire: One of the best parts of The Two Towers is when Eowyn races out onto the Terrace, with that gorgeous white dress flying out in the wind, and we finally see the Golden Hall and the entire town of Edoras sitting on a fortified hill overlooking a grassy plain surrounded by snowcapped mountains. If it isn’t just like Tolkien, it’s close enough for me!


Today we’ll leave the safe and secure drafting tables of the Art Department, the warm and comfy donut tables of the sound stage, and the proximity and ample power supply of the backlot, and learn about the blood, sweat and tears involved in putting up this massive set “on location”.


Going on location is the most stressful form of filmmaking, because you do not have the kind of control over the shooting environment that a studio or backlot gives. All equipment and personnel have to be transported and housed and fed, often at some distance from the film’s headquarters. The camera crew puts up with this all the time in modern filmmaking, of course. But usually, when shooting on location the Art Department has little or no work to do – after all, that’s why locations are used, to save the cost of building and/or simulating an authentic environment.


Sometimes, however, the Art Department has to re-dress or build an entire set on location, usually to put a building or buildings in a physically distinct place. This was the case with Edoras, which is one of the central settings of the entire film (and is also seen in The Return of the King).

With location work, it’s all about the scouting. The set can only be as good as the locations you’re given, and a good location scout must know all about what it is and isn’t possible for the Art Department to do.


Peter Jackson: Tolkien describes Edoras very vividly in the books and artists like John Howe and Alan Lee illustrated Edoras in the past.

Edoras by John Howe

Peter Jackson: So the situation was really, try to find a hill, a solitary hill that sits in front of mountains. Now you know it’s not that easy because hills don’t just pop out of the ground like that.

squire: A.  Is Jackson right? Do hills not just pop out of the ground?

Darkstone: Edoras as Athens Sometimes the ground around them drops or erodes. Tol Brandir for example .

squire: What was Tolkien thinking, then?

Darkstone: I’m thinking something like the Parthenon, a stronghold built on a foothill of the Mendeli and Parnitha mountain ranges.

squire: What is the underlying problem here? (Arquen, are you there?)

arquen: Popping Hills Thanks for covering one of my favorite locations in the movie.  I think the choice of location was perfect.  Particularly because the valley is glacial, which is consonant with the book-Edoras location, including the hanging valley for Dunharrow.

Back to popping hills:  In regions with a lot of strike-slip faulting, California and New Zealand come to mind, there are hills called 'push-ups' that are basically areas of hard rock squeezed up between two sub-parallel strands of a fault.  A slight curve in the fault is all it takes to create the compression that squeezes up the hill.  Another geologic environment is a little ways out from mountains that are growing on a low-angle thrust fault--splays of the main fault sometimes break out and create a whole line of low hills that parallel the main range front, but are about 10 miles or so out.  The Verdugo Mountains in the Los Angeles basin are one example.  Either way, they aren't that common. 

That being said, I'm not sure about Mount Sunday.  Maybe later in the week I can check out Google Earth at work and take a look and see what its story is.

squire: Making a foothill out of a molehill. Thanks for weighing in. I wasn't so much interested in whatever Mt Sunday is (I think I read it was a volcanic plug), as I was in interpreting Tolkien's vision of the foothills of the White Mountains.

That is, I've always felt he saw the White Mountains between Gondor and Rohan as the kind of mountains that have "foothills" at their feet, smaller rises and peaks that represent the first elevation from the adjacent plains.

Tolkien's mountain ranges seem usually to have foothills: cf. "There was a beaten way, north-westward along the foot-hills of the White Mountains, and this they followed, up and down in a green country, crossing small swift streams by many fords." (TTT, Book III, Chapter 7) and "...they came to a dale. It opened southward, leaning back into the slope of round Dol Baran, the last hill of the northern ranges, greenfooted, crowned with heather." (TTT, Book III, Chap. 11)

What I wondered was whether the mountains of New Zealand even have foothills as Tolkien imagined them. Are they perhaps too new geologically to have worn down their front range like that? Jackson's comment on the difficulty of finding a proper location for the hill of Edoras, which is surely a "foothill" of the Mountains, not one surrounded by flat plain in a valley as Mt Sunday is, seems to suggest this is so. Jackson doesn't think hills "pop up" as needed at the foot of mountains because in his land, they don't.

Luckily, the exigencies of the location work solved the problem of Mt Sunday's weird isolation from the surrounding mountains. The back side of the hill was where the access road and support base was located. Naturally, the film never shot that side of the hill! So the movie audience only saw the hill from one side, and was allowed to imagine that it was closer the "White Mountains" behind it than in fact it really was.

Ataahua: The mountains I'm familiar with are in the North Island:

[Jan 08 note: Ataahua's pictures are no longer on Photobucket. I have substituted web source pictures of the mountains she names. If Ataahua is able to point me to the ones she used, I will be glad to put up in their original places of honor. - squire]

Mount Taranaki/Egmont

Mounts Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruahoe

(And just because I think it's a cool photo...) [Again, this shot of Ngauruahoe is not the "cool" photo that Ataahua posted - squire]

But yes, these seem to 'pop' out of comparatively flat ring plains rather than be surrounded by foothills comprising smaller peaks. I'm not sure why NZ would have this formation as opposed to mountain ranges in other countries. Is our land's overall elevation lower than that of older countries? Have the older countries had more land pushed up from the sea over a longer period of time, essentially 'squishing' the land into high foothills around established mountains?

Side question: Has Everest ever erupted? Or is it solely the result of tectonic activity pushing the land incrementally higher?

BTW when I first saw Eowyn on the steps to the Golden Hall with the mountains behind her, I thought the mountains were obvious matt paintings - too near vertical at the point they meet plains, and too flat in their colouring, to possibly be real. Shows how much I know about my own country.

stanne: Everest is due to continental plates colliding and ground being pushed up...IIRC there are fossils of sea creatures found at the top of the Himalayas. No volcanic activity that I know of.

Darkstone: Trying to find a site for a typical acropolis (high city) that hadn’t already been built on.

Barrie Osbourne: We contracted a location scout named Dave Comb very early on and after a long long search, lo and behold Dave came back with these photographs of Mt. Sunday.

Peter Jackson: He just happened to luck on to this place in the middle of the valley. Sure enough there’s this hill that just rises up. You know it was perfect, but I knew I had a hard job selling it to the studio. Because this was going to be expensive. We were going to actually build Edoras on this location.

Peter Jackson: So I then got Alan Lee to put a piece of tracing paper and to actually draw a version of what the wall and the building would look like so you could look at it and see what the potential was.

squire: Here Jackson actually refers to budget issues, and the control the studio seems to have had over some of his choices. But really, the Edoras location on Mt. Sunday couldn’t have been a very hard sell, if all it took was a tracing paper overlay sketch. Unless he’s not telling the whole story here…

B. Are you curious about the nuts and bolts of the LotR production at this level, one stop above the Art Department, so to speak?

stanne: some answers I find all the details fascinating.

Darkstone: That’s why I watch the documentaries.

squire: Are there any “tell-all” books out yet on this subject?

Darkstone: Well, apparently Jackson had a few more plans for scenes for the set, including a night warg attack.  And the discovery of the dangers of the high winds led to the canceling of any further helicopter shots.  So I don’t think Jackson got to use the set as much as he wanted.  I wonder if he knew then what he knew now he would have built it at all.

Peter Jackson: And we just sort of walked around this hill and looked around and thought, “My God how on earth are we going to build something on this?”
Barrie Osbourne: You could create some of it digitally but you know a set gives it a reality you couldn’t capture digitally.

squire: C. Do you understand while watching this documentary that the Art Department is only going to build the Hall, the stables, a few other buildings nearby, at the very top of the hill; and lower down, just the part of the wall with the gate? That the rest of the town and wall, seen in long shots, will be done digitally?

Elostirion74: I didn't think of these things Well, I think it sounds reasonable, but I didn't understand that or focus on it when I watched the feature. The digital shots are much more apparent to me in battle scenes, in other types of landscape scenes etc.

Darkstone: Well, yes.  They’re the only sets used with the actors.  In the past stock library footage would have been used for such.  Now it’s digital.  I kinda like the new way better.

Scout 1: Ah it’s fairly breezy up here today.
Scout 2: Yeah about 15 knots.
Peter Jackson: We then discovered that this valley’s like a wind tunnel, and hugely strong winds just blast down this place. They did a weather check and there were like three days in the year with no wind. And the rest of those 250 days had like 100-mile an hour winds. Well this doesn’t sound too good.

Dan Hennah: And Peter said, “Well, I really like it. It really works for me, you know.” We could certainly build something. It would be difficult, but we could do it.
Peter Jackson: Dan Hennah, Grant Major and our Art Department were heroes, really. They just said “No, no, we can do it, we can do it.”

squire: So here are the difficulties so far: 1. Legally protected parkland. 2. Extremely limited access from the plain below. 3. Extremely steep and rugged terrain for staging the construction. 4. Extremely high winds all the time. 5. Winter weather during the build.
D. What were the Art Department’s options at that point?

Darkstone: Propose a viable alternative.

squire: Could they have said no?

stanne: I think when you read a book and picture a scene a particular way as a director you probably want to recreate the scene that was in your mind and anything else would be disappointing. I think the art department would have said no if they had thought they couldn't achieve a satisfactory result. As it is they did a great job. In the movie I never noticed where the real set ended and the digital set began.

Darkstone: Some artists see things that are difficult and say “no”.  Others see things that are impossible and say “Why not?”  From what I see the department prefers to think of alternatives rather than just say “no”.  A good philosophy.

squire: Did anyone ever tell Peter Jackson no?

Darkstone: Bob Shaye, Barrie Osbourne, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Daniel Day Lewis, Sean Connery, Kate Winslet, Uma Thurman, and I’m sure his mother.

squire: There are legendary tales of difficult location sets becoming vast money pits that literally sank their movies. Locations tend to breed horror stories that only become funny war stories long afterwards.
E. It worked out, as far as we know (no one ever talks about the budget battles) but were Major and Hennah being foolish?

Darkstone: Well, if you lavish on one aspect of the project you skimp on another.  Like I said, Jackson really couldn’t end up doing all he initially wanted with the set, so maybe they were right.

squire: Or does the documentary overstate the difficulties because it is a such a good and dramatic story of artistic triumph over the odds?

Darkstone: Well, documentaries tend to be boring enough as it is.  I’d hate to pay money for a couple of extra dvds with nothing but “No problems.  Everything went well.  Nothing to talk about. The end.”


Here are some of the war stories:

Matt Cooper, Location Administrator: This is all the construction that we’re doing at the top here on Mt. Stanley. This is probably one of the more complicated of our locations.
Peter Jackson: The Conservation Department said that they’d give us permission to do this building but we had to leave it exactly as we found it.
Brian Massey, Greensmaster: We actually removed all the native tussocks and vegetation anywhere there was going to be a car park or a road. The tussocks were carefully lifted up. We had to build a nursery to house these plants for about 18 months. They were sort of tended with loving care.

Greenhouse protecting the native plants during the shoot.


Matt Cooper: We’re going to have a look at some of those aerial photographs. Basically we’re going to put in a 4-wheel-drive track.
Peter Jackson: We got the New Zealand Army to help us. We had roads built onto this hill.
Barrie Osbourne: There was a one-way road so you had traffic control. So if a truck was coming up the hill then nothing was coming down the hill.
Dan Hennah: We ended up building all through the winter. We had to take about 70 guys there for six months.


Ed Mulholland, Construction Supervisor: The Golden Hall had to be a steel structure. We had to take a 15-ton crane up there. Because it was Park land we couldn’t go in there and destroy the place. The buildings had to be designed and built to fit what was actually there rather than . . .

squire: Wow! What an epic! Custom greenhouses, the Army, a 15-ton crane, 70 men camping on a hill through the winter…
F. As before, one wonders: But was this really any more unusually difficult than most epic feature films?

Darkstone: Well, I’m thinking dragging a huge honking cannon up and down the Spanish mountains in The Pride and the Passion (1957) is comparable.  I think they mean it’s unparalleled in New Zealand filmmaking.  No similar challenges in Hercules or Xena I would wager.


squire: There’s relatively little talk about the actual design of the Golden Hall exterior. The book pulls the usual cryptic business about why it is called “the Golden Hall”:

there stood like sentinel a lonely height. About its feet there flowed, as a thread of silver, the stream that issued from the dale; upon its brow they caught, still far away, a glint in the rising sun, a glimmer of gold.  [Legolas:]…there stands aloft a great hall of Men. And it seems to my eyes that it is thatched with gold. (The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 6)

Dan Hennah: We decided very early on that the Golden Hall would have a golden thatch, like a wheat thatch look. We spoke to a few farmers in the area and we found a guy who was able to harvest his wheat with a machine which makes little bundles.

Grant Major: We had to sort of teach ourselves how to thatch. And we were reasonably successful, given that we don’t have a thatch tradition on these islands.

squire: G. So what did Tolkien mean: Gold thatch, as in wire made of the very valuable and expensive metal? Or Gold thatch, as in straw of a particular poetically-overused-name-for-rich-yellow color? 

Elostirion74: I thought Tolkien meant the first, seemed more majestic to me. But like many times before Tolkien uses the deceptive "seemed".

Darkstone: As always, in what at first seems to be a comprehensive description he leaves plenty of room for the reader to fill in the blanks and end up drawing his own picture.  Probably why even the purest purist could never film a pure LOTR movie.  Tolkien slyly encourages too much personal contamination by the individual.

squire: And what did the Art Department do to the straw, if anything?

Elostirion74: Did they do anything?

Darkstone: Fed it to the horses?

Dan Hennah: It’s pretty well described as a huge mead hall with sort of gold leaf embellishments. In this sort of rural environment it should stand out as something quite beautiful.

Alan Lee: There’s a sunburst motif centered on the front which is designed to catch the light and shine across the landscape.

squire: H. Did you notice the sunburst motif in the movie?

Elostirion74: No. I noticed there was a pattern of some sort, but nothing more specific.

Darkstone: Yep.

squire: Is Lee over-reaching himself to put something as iconic as the Sun on a hall of a people who are Men of the Twilight in Tolkien’s world?

Darkstone: “Men of Twilight” is a rather peevish term the Elves used to indicate Men who wouldn’t swear service to them.  I’m sure the Rohirrim see things rather differently.  But, yeah, if it had been the Elves doing the designing it’d be more like the you’d expect, and Eorl would have had a similar reaction to the one Durin had with Celebrimbor:  “Why in the name of cornbread heck did you inscribe an insult like “The Black Pit” on my freaking front door?!?!?!”

Peter Jackson: We designed the Rohan Stables to be particularly grand. I mean we wanted the stables to look as beautifully decorated as the Golden Hall itself.
Dan Hennah: Peter’s theory and I think it was a sound one was that the Rohan treat their horses probably better than they treat their families. So it was important to have the stables right at the very top of the hill.

The stables are on the left, with the horse-head cupola

John Howe: Their very survival depends on these horses therefore they require a form a deification with a little of the loftiness that you find in a cathedral.

squire: I. Again, did you notice the stables, or where in the village they were located, during the exterior sequences?

stanne: I didn't notice the sunburst motif or the stables but I'm usually too busy watching the actors.

Elostirion74: I never noticed the stables, actually.

Darkstone: Too busy waiting for the glimpse of Ewoyn’s legs.

Elf_Maven: The Stables It has taken numerous viewings of both TTT and this feature for me to even begin to recognize the exterior of the stables. I think I finally "got it" on my last viewing, but I wouldn't want to tell you how many times I'd watched it. The relationships of the exteriors, the camera angles, etc., did not come together even after rewatching to *try* to get a hold of it.

squire: It happens all the time: No matter how you design the set, it's the cameraman and the editor who decide how the audience sees it.

I think the Edoras set, for all its detail and interest, suffered tremendously from lack of places to put the cameras. That's what happens when you build "realistically" on a steep and narrow hilltop.

So that entire "Edoras street" leading up to the Golden Hall was shot either from helicopter, or handheld, and the relationship of the stables to the Hall was lost.

Among other things, if you shoot down toward the Stables from up on the porch of the Hall, you have to provide the rest of the lower town as background, and that was all meant to be computer-generated and seen from helicopter distances, not at medium distance. I believe they had decided not to do a model of the rest of Edoras, which probably would have made such a shot possible.

It's a pity, because the stables really are such an interesting set, and I totally agree with the designers about their importance and placement so close to the Hall. (Real stables would have been much closer to the gate, so the horses and all their fodder and waste wouldn't have to be transported half a mile straight uphill and downhill many times a day.

squire: Why spend so much energy justifying this design choice?

Elostirion74: Well, people like talking about their work, don't they? Again I believe the energy spent is a testimony to how they pursued their vision, and, of course, from the film makers point of view, a way of telling how much thought went into every detail. After all they are adressing the fans. 

Darkstone: They have to talk about something.  Anyway, maybe they’re just naturally energetic.

squire: Once construction and painting is finished, you have to dress the set with props that suggest a complete village life.

Alan Lee: We had a wonderful team of set dressers and they would take a vast amount of material down there. Barrels and  . . .  just all the detritus of a working village.

Viggo Mortensen: They were aged in such a way that seemingly centuries-old goat paths were created and there were just the right sort of animals. There was actually no end to the amount of detail.

squire: J. Did you think the dressing was layered enough? Since all we saw were the few houses that were at the top of the hill, closest to the King’s Hall, was there a design concept as to just who lived there at the top – i.e., was any social hierarchy in evidence?

Elostirion74: Not as far as I could see, I didn't think of these things when I watched the movie, although in RL I do.

Darkstone: Well, like most pre-automobile towns, I assume people lived near where they worked.  Those odd courtiers in fancy gowns that hung all over the palace probably lived up at the top, and the farmers and ranchers who worked outside the walls probably lived down at the bottom.

Barrie Osbourne: Every single actor who worked on that set I think will say it’s one of their favorite sets.
Bernard Hill: It was the most uplifting place I’d ever been to. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.
Miranda Otto: All the wind and sun and rain – all that sort of added to the Rohan feeling. The more that’s given to the actors the easier it is to perform.
Ian McKellen: You go back to the valley now you’ll find no evidence that there was ever a film made there. Not only is the set gone but the service roads that led up to this rocky outcrop. And now it’s just the sheep and the wind.

squire: K. Osbourne’s claim notwithstanding, the actors seem to be commenting on the view from the hilltop, not the built sets. Which contributes more to the success of the entire design?

stanne: I am sure the physicality of the place inspired the actors but the built set was also important in helping them get in role both in the outdoor shots that were actually done on location and the indoor shots that were probably done somewhere else entirely.

Darkstone: Well, the exteriors are the first impression, aren’t they?

squire: L. Did you find it distracting that almost all the shots of Edoras and the Golden Hall itself were from a helicopter, since there was no ground at a reasonable distance with a point of view that could encompass it?

stanne: The helicopter shots didn't worry me and, as you say, the shot of Eowyn striding out into the wind to check the horizon is one of the iconic images of the movie.

Darkstone: This is Middle-earth.  I thought of it as “Eagle-cam”.  That’s how the movie begins, after all.  And FOTR was full of similar “impossible” shots of Barad-dur and Orthanc.

FUNNY STORY – “What about Alan?”

John Howe: We were in a helicopter flying over the edge of the plains of Rohan on a scout, and Alan had his little camera and he was kind of absent-mindedly thinking he could lean out this window and half forgot that we were flying at about a hundred miles an hour. So his camera case is somewhere still on the plains of Rohan. And he’s lucky he didn’t lose more than the camera itself.

Alan Lee: Some of the people in the crew did occasionally comment that the only way to reduce the scale of this production might be to break my fingers. [giggles nervously] I don’t think it was said in any seriousness.

squire: M. What part does Lee assume as a character in the documentary? What part does Howe assume?

Darkstone: They switch off.  One moment Lee is telling an embarrassing story about Howe, the next it’s the other way around.


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