Designing Helm’s Deep


squire: The climax of the entire documentary, as it was of the film, is Helm’s Deep. Here is what I think is the most complex job of Art Direction in the piece, and perhaps the most difficult to understand. Unable to build an actual full-scale fortification a few hundred feet high and a thousand feet long, the designers built only a few key portions in full scale, where the lead actors could act for the camera.


The special-effects crew and the editors would then do the work of tying the resulting film footage together with other, more artificially-composed footage, to create the illusion that the entire castle and wall existed. A tremendous amount of miniatures work and digital imagery was done to accomplish this, but not by the Art Department. The article in Cinefex magazine on the special effects work for The Two Towers actually helped me make sense of this part of “Designing Middle-earth”, which I find kind of choppy.


Still, this is the story of the set designers, not the making of the film as a whole, and so now we’ll walk around Dry Creek Quarry with the set designers and admire some pretty impressive, if fragmentary, sets.


Completing our examination of various ways to do sets, note that the Helm’s Deep sets are built and shot ‘on location’ -- in that they’re not built at the studio – but the location is not really seen in the movie. The quarry where the set segments were built was just a convenient vacant construction site with some vertical rock to anchor the sides of the castle set.

Ataahua: What this section of the appendices made me realise is just how much planning and sheer physical work goes into movie making. I had never thought that five versions of Helm's Deep would need to be made to make it work on film - naive me thought there was one single set built to high detail. But I love the shots of the worker coming out of the quarter-scale miniature: Talk about the attackers having a giant on their side!

I also really appreciated *finally* being able to work out the layout of Helm's Deep in my mind. I could never get it from the books, but now I've got a solid picture and can read that chapter without being frustrated by my own visual inconsistencies.

SureCavanaugh: On of the most amazing sets. IMHO this set is one of the most spectacular ones seen during the movies, standing with the likes of Minas Tirith (which is my personal favorit), Edoras, and the many other insane sets brought to us by the art department.

weaver: Helm's Deep for Dummies... A few rambling comments...

I'm one of those who had a hard time picturing Helm's Deep until the films.  The construction of the set helps greatly for me, as it not only  gives me three or four main points of reference, but lots of images of where those things are in relation to each other.

I am continually amazed at how seamless it all works when they put it together. They certainly made me think it was a "real" place.

The design to me seems to be what Tolkien envisioned, even if the action doesn't exactly mirror the book.  So I am glad to finally have a "set" in which to place the characters on my book readings of the Battle. 

Helm's Deep was one of the sequences Tolkien was open to cutting out of the story in his comments on the Zimmerman screen treatment, but the film makers made it one of the sequences they expanded upon the most.  That says to me that Helm's Deep has a lot going for it from the perspective of telling the story in a visual medium vs. a narrative one.

Peter Jackson: There’s this great piece of Alan Lee art that was done for the book about ten years ago which he did: Helm’s Deep. And it was like you look at it and say, ‘Wow, imagine if you could see that in a film.’ And that’s what I thought when I saw the painting, so I always had it in my mind that Helm’s Deep has got to look as good as that painting. Otherwise there’s no point in doing it. If we can’t get to the standard of that painting, why should we bother?

Alan Lee: The very first thing I got involved with when I started with this project in January ’98 was the drawings for Helm’s Deep. I was trying to keep as close as possible to Tolkien’s description and the kind of topography that he outlined.

Helm’s Deep, by Alan Lee

Alan Lee: So I designed this, which was essentially a valley with rocks on either side, and the Deeping Wall which stretches from one side to the other and protects the people who shelter in the valley from whatever’s coming their way. And the fortress itself which is set up a little bit higher.

Helm’s Deep, by John Howe

Peter Jackson: The only thing we changed from the painting was the suggestion of John Howe’s, because he said if this was really a defensive position the wall would curve inwards so at any point on the wall archers could cover any attackers from any length of the wall. So that was the one fundamental change that we made.

squire: A. What differences do you note between Lee’s and Howe’s sketches?

Darkstone: Well Lots more color in Howe’s

squire: Do you wish John Howe had designed Helm’s Deep for the movie?

SureCavanaugh: I'm a personal fan of Lee's, his work seems so much more fluid and flowing. While Howe's work is breath taking in its own right t seems to jagged and angular for the races known for their elegance. His depiction of all the "evil" stuff is great, very menacing and dangerous. I have The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook by Alan Lee, and when I look through it it really just takes my breath away, it all seems so real and natural...and amazing book, I recommend it.

Darkstone: Not really

squire: Generally, Howe was assigned the role of “Sauron’s Architect”, that is, he got to do all the “evil” sets in the film, while Lee got the Elvish and Numenorean ones. Consider the films’ designs from this point of view. Of course both men helped each other, not to mention the rest of the artists on the design team.
B. Still, can you identify by now a “Lee” style and a “Howe” style for the structures in the film?

SureCavanaugh: Yes, Howe's is the one with all the jagged spires and spikes. Howe's is much more rough around the edges while Lee's seems to flow and be very rounded and smooth.

Darkstone: Howe tends to be “Well, as long as it looks cool” except when it comes to armor, which he feels has to look functional.  He seems to especially like pointy bits.  Lee tends to be a bit more organic with the surroundings.  I think it’s nice Jackson took the best of both.

Dan Hennah: We resolved fairly early on that we’d build it in five separate elements, just to make it possible to film.

Dan Hennah: So we got teams of hardy builders out there and started building it.
Ed Mulholland, Construction Supervisor: The first two or three months, there was literally two big bulldozers moving tons of rock. We had three-meter square concrete blocks to start off with, so we could sit our scaffolding on top of that. I think they’d weigh something like two ton each.

squire: In the picture you can perhaps make out the basic construction technique: Concrete blocks give a secure foundation to a frame of steel commercial scaffolding, onto which are attached plywood flats and shapes that form the castle sets. It’s a gigantic hollow shell. Foam is applied to the outside of the plywood, carved into stone textures, and sealed and painted.

C. So why not just go whole hog and build the entire thing at full scale, anyway? Isn’t all this they’re doing just as much work?

SureCavanaugh: Way to much money. Building a full size set would a) be to costly and b) be a waste of those cost because, as they have shown us, they don't need a full set to film what they needed. With the crazy camera tricks PJ uses we probably saw the same stretch of wall 100 different ways and never were the wiser.

Darkstone: Time is money.  While the first unit is filming the actors on the main set, the second unit can be filming passes of the model, and the third unit can be filming stunts on the wall section.

Joe Bleakley, Art Director on location: We’re building sections of it basically all over the quarry. We’ve got, over here where the trucks are, this section here is finished, they’re building the top of the set and it’s about half the size of a rugby field.


squire: Four of the five sets they’re talking about are in this photo. Can you begin to get a feeling for what they’re doing? Unfortunately the upper Hornburg set, with the parapet walkways, the statue of Helm, and the doors into the citadel, is not visible here.

Joe Bleakley: Then we’ve got, ah, another one building just up on this ledge here, which we’re carving out. But the faces of the thing are going to be the front faces of the castle.

Rick Porras: We had the main causeway, the ramp, right up to the entrance of the castle itself, so you can actually shoot people going through the front door and actually get to the Hall, if they didn’t go left or right. And then we built the ramp to the left which you could actually get horses up and down on.

squire: They’re talking about the big set on the left.
D. Can you remember all the scenes in the battle and the prelude to the battle that were shot on this set?

SureCavanaugh: A lot of it. The entrance of the King and Co. after the warg attack when Eowyn is looking for her dearest Aragorn. Théoden checking all the strong/week points. The preperation of battle. The retreat and the rising of the flag of the White Hand. The ride of then King and Co.

Darkstone: Yep.

Peter Jackson: Then over alongside that was my favorite bit in the quarry, which was the quarter-scale miniature of Helm’s Deep.

Rick Porras: Funny, you think of it as a miniature. But it was quite large. It was big enough to be able to sort of crawl around through and build. It was pretty amazing.

squire: This miniature set is on the right in the aerial photo above. It’s all of Helm’s Deep, the Hornburg and the Wall and the surrounding valley sides too. See it?
E. What do you suppose it was used for?

Darkstone: Slow passing panoramic shots for compositing in cgi stuff or as a matte.

Joe Bleakley: And there’s a ledge up on the top there where you can see, it’s like a little table, where actually we’re cutting a stairway directly out of that, so we’re going to build a set directly into the rock.

Grant Major: And in fact those stairs were cut step by step, so there was quite a long job for a guy on the end of a pneumatic drill.

squire: F. Again: Where was this “set” used?

SureCavanaugh: When Aragorn retreats from the dail he runs up the stairs screaming for a retreat and to get to the Keep

Darkstone: The charge of the Uruks, the arrival of Aragorn, the “turtle” for the battering ram, and the high ladders.

squire: G. Why chip, blast and bulldoze rock, instead of building it out of foam like they did with the Emyn Muil?

Ataahua: My best guess is because they'll have people running up this stairway, rather than carefully climbing up it as in the Emyn Muil. We heard from Sean Astin that sometimes he'd lean on a polystyrene rock or be holding it in his hand and a piece would pull away. Those stairs would have to be made out of rock just to handle the wear and tear.

I wish they'd kept that 'real' set in place. It'd make a great tourist attraction for film lovers!

SureCavanaugh: Good question, probably have to do with the wear which they will under go. 1) They are out in the elements, rain, sun, wind...ect. 2) They are going to be run up but Viggo and extras while a battle is being fought on them, seems like more than just aimlessly wondering the paths of Emyn Muil

Darkstone: The set has to have substantial support.  Even foam weighs a ton if there’s a lot of it.  Plus workmen will be working on it, actors will be acting on it, directors will be directing on it, producers will be producing on it, and artists will be arting on it.

Ed Mulholland: And on the second level of the quarry, which was like sixty meters up, we had a section of the Deeping Wall.

Rick Porras: Within that wall we had a section that could blow away once the explosion occurred and we could actually then shoot action on either side of the wall.

squire: H. Once more: where was this set seen in the film?

SureCavanaugh: Did you see that big wall in the movie explode? Is that enough of an answer? But seriously, the majority of the battle was fought on the walls and knowing PJ that same wall was used over and over from different angles and put together to make a huge wall. Probably one of the most important parts of this sets

Darkstone: “Boom!”

squire: OK, we’ll skip the little bit of tower where Gimli blows the horn, but they built that too.

I. After this lightning tour of the quarry with Joe, can you now remember all the scenes in the Helm’s Deep story where our hero actors actually stood, talked and fought? Are these sets all that were needed?

SureCavanaugh: For the most part. I can't think of anything else needed that would make a big difference. I think it would have been interesting to see the stable that Helm built, or see the entrance to the Glittering Caves, but that wouldn't do to much beside make fans happy. They did a great job with what they had, and I'm sure they would have done just as good with a bigger, or smaller set, I don't see many problems with it in the film so I don't think they need anything else.

Darkstone: Well, unless you want establishing shots for the audience.  Heck, you could even do without the sets entirely and do LOTR without any sets at all ala Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

squire: J. So how did they do the rest of the film of this sequence?

SureCavanaugh: Force perspective and digital work.

Darkstone: As Philip Henslowe (c. 1550-1616) would say, “It’s a mystery!”

squire: Why does it look like there really was a giant fortification and huge battle with hundreds of Men and Elves and thousands of orcs?

SureCavanaugh: They meshed the miniature and the large set pieces being used by the actors together to make it look like it was one continuous fort. As for all the men, Elves, and Orcs (Uruk-Hai), it was a computer program named "Massive" (designed by WETA programmer Stephen Regelous) which created individual characters, called agents, and gave them all a personality of their own. "Every agent has its own choices and a complete brain," Regelous said. "The most important thing about making realistic crowds is making realistic individuals."

In Massive, agents' brains -- which look like intricate flow charts -- define how they see and hear, how fast they run and how slowly they die. For the films, stunt actors' movements were recorded in the studio to enable the agents to wield weapons realistically, duck to avoid a sword, charge an enemy and fall off tower walls flailing. Like real people, agents' body types, clothing and the weather influence their capabilities. Agents aren't robots, though. Each makes subtle responses to its surroundings with fuzzy logic rather than yes-no, on-off decisions. And every agent has thousands of brain nodes, such as their combat node, which has rules for their level of aggression. (,1412,56778,00.html)

squire: K. What other parts might they have built, if they had wanted to stage it the way Tolkien wrote it?

SureCavanaugh: Again, just for the geeks sake, maybe the stables and the entrance to the Glittering Caves, but besides that I think they did an amazing job

Darkstone: Seems almost perfect to me.  How about showers for the ladies of the court?

squire: Once the decision of what to build was made, do you suppose Jackson had to rewrite the script?

Darkstone: Nope.


FUNNY STORY:  “God if we’re defending a castle I’d want our Art Department building our front door!”

   Grant Major: And then we came to the battering ram. This is, this is a good one. Because not only did it have to look good but it had to physically smash the front door down.
   Barrie Osbourne: The battering ram for Helm’s Deep. And normally, ya think, OK, you’re going to have a battering ram in a movie, it’s going to be a movie prop, you’d probably send two guys to pick this thing up. But, uh, just to transport it out to Dry Creek Quarry where we were filming was a major undertaking. I mean this thing was a real battering ram!
   Sala Baker, Stunt Performer: The battering ram was really heavy. When we first started to do the battering ram with the door, that – OK, we were “I want you to try to smash this door down, it’s not reinforced at all.” You’d just run back and run towards the thing and throw the battering ram at the door . . .
   Mana Davis, Stunt Performer: He’d say, “You guys are pussies man, you hit like Elves.” We’d go, “Right!” and go smash that door down. *crunch!*  Nothing would happen. And so we’d take it back and *bam!* the thing’s still there. They’re “Come on! What are ya, Arwen or something?” Grrrr . . . . *bang!*

   Sala Baker: We’d try and tried and tried and we’re like, goddam, this thing won’t even move. It wouldn’t put holes in the door.
   Peter Jackson: Somebody else in the Art Department decided, “God, my door that I’m building has to stand up against that thing? God, I’d better make this pretty strong.” Of course they over built it.
   Mana Davis: “Son of beep beep, bee-bee-bee-beep-beep!” Would you believe it?
   Peter Jackson: It was interesting, ‘cause God if we’re defending a castle I’d want our Art Department building our front door ‘cause they did a hell of a good job.

weaver: THANK YOU SQUIRE! I'm guessing this is your final post in this Special Feature Discussion, and I just wanted to give you a HUGE THANK YOU for all the hard work you put into this discussion. 

You gave us lots to learn and appreciate -- thank you for all of your organization, insights and most excellent questions.  What a gift to this Board!

I am not alone, I know, in hoping that you take time to share your views on the questions you posed.  Your answers are always worth reading.

Good to see you around here!

N.E. Brigand: The motion carries. Thanks for this series, squire.  I was especially interested because one of the papers at Mythcon this weekend, by Robin Reid, will attempt to show that the film of TT, in its treatment of locations, is working in ways equivalent to the way that Tolkien's style treats landscapes (Reid follows some of the same grammar analysis used in Drout's piece on the "Pelennor Fields").  This follows up on a similar paper that Reid presented on FotR at Kalamazoo in May, where she noted a regular use of landscape as the agent of a phrase or sentence, and claimed that Jackson's emphasis on landscape represented a translation of Tolkien's style.  I'm not entirely convinced by Reid's (as yet preliminary) argument, and her focus at K'zoo was more on cinematography and editing than design, but a side argument was that none of the Tolkienists writing on the films were seriously analyzing the, um, filmic aspects of Jackson's work, and it's nice to have a clear counter-example to which I can point.

Sorry I wasn't able to respond at length to more than your first four posts, but the "Description of Númenor," and getting enough done at work to let me run off to Oklahoma for the weekend, took up all my time.

squire: Well...The thrust of last week's design discussion so far has been to what degree the writers' and director's intentions were fulfilled by the design teams, and to what degree the designs were in synch with the script rather than the book. The use to which the director and cinematographer and editor put the resulting footage seems to be the focus of Reid's approach, as it should be.

Many people have remarked in general that the film's relative faithfulness to Tolkien's physical descriptions are Jackson's attempts to convey the mock-archaic style and themes of his writing, and make up for some of the modernizations of character and plotting, just as some have called Shore's score a substitute for the absence of any of Tolkien's poetry.

If Reid and others are now beginning to investigate these thoughts in a rigorous manner, I can only approve.

I am beginning to think that the best criticism of the New Line films can only come from those who have not read the books - the issues of adaptation seem always to overwhelm any perception of the works as independent works of art.

You know you're going to have to view these films again, NEB! The excuses are wearing thin!

N.E. Brigand: I heard...Reid's second paper today.  Better than her first, probably only because she had more time at this conference to develop her points.  I too wholeheartedly approve of her rigorous approach to the films, even if I'm not yet convinced by her arguments.

stanne: seconded..great work and much appreciated.


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