During the last block of shooting in the middle of last year, I got the chance to visit the set of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies for a couple of days.
Not only did I fulfil a certain lifelong ambition by briefly discussing Ray Harryhausen with Peter Jackson, (who shares an affection for Harryhausen's work - more on this next week), I also got the chance to speak to three of the titanic creative minds behind the film, all of whom have played hugely integral roles since day one.
The six films simply wouldn't be what they are without these three guys.
Dan Hennah, Production Designer
As entrenched a part of the Kiwi Middle-earth productions as cups of tea and wind, Hennah was Art Director on the LOTR trilogy (gaining an Oscar for his trouble), then replaced Grant Major as Production Designer for the three Hobbit films.
Dan Hennah, Production Designer. Photo / Grant Maiden
Think of what the Lord of the Rings films would be without the grime - the griminess of those films sold their reality more than anything - that was Dan Hennah's job. He also worked on The Tribe.
On his department:
Dan Hennah: What we do is we create backgrounds, really. We create places for people to be. A lot of the time, a good set functions as an environment for an actor to find himself. So if you create a set that an actor is really happy with, you know you're halfway there. And the other part of it is a set that gives the director his vision. It's a very collaborative process, but it involves concept artists. John Howe, Alan Lee, Anthony Allan, myself, Peter. That's the main point of where we go with this.
On developing the look of the new trilogy:
DH: One of the early things we worked out was that as you leave the Shire and travel to the Lonely Mountain, you go east. And we take the basic premise that this is Tolkien's world, he was in Britain or you know Europe, Western Europe, and so if he travelled east he would've gone through a number of sort of European countries and then started off into Asian countries. So we've used that as a basic influence. Even the Lapland architecture, some of that, as you go through, there is Russian architecture. Eastern Tibetan architecture. So while there are strong sort of Tuscan influences to Dale. There's also, and it's not as obvious now because a lot of the woodwork got burnt away by Smaug, but there's a very Tibetan side to it. Everywhere, you know, the further east we've gone, the more we've allowed that eastern influence to affect things.
On the movie to 48 frames per second:
DH: The big thing about 48 frames in 3D, the combination of the two is you get a much bigger depth of field, you get a lot more detail, your eye can pick up a lot more details. So within that depth of field, you have to be conscious that anything that is there has to be virtually real. You can't get away with shonky old blunt swords or things like that. All that stuff, the detail comes through. We've always sort of tried to do you know, museum standard props, key props anyway. But I think we had to take another step as well. I mean, we had to employ a few more people and spend a bit more money but the reality is you do get to make beautiful things - instead of resin, you make glass objects.
On the move from Guillermo Del Toro to Peter Jackson:
DH: We read and broke down the book while the script was being developed. We developed a whole process of design elements for one director and when that changed and we got Peter, we revisited everything so that we could say, "Well, is this valid, is it not. Is it going down another track. Is this your track?" Everything is director driven with Peter. It's a very cool thing because you can't just slide off on some whimsical tour. You have to stay with the book. And he is very strongly a Tolkien aficionado. It's about Tolkien's book, Tolkien all the time. And we go back to Tolkien's illustrated book as much as possible. Well we certainly refer-- I refer to that every set we do and say, "Well what are the influences here? Where was he thinking it was?" It may not work for film, but it's certainly going to influence the film.
On Game of Thrones:
DH: It's really hard from a design point of view to critique another genre. It's a similar genre but it's another medium. I've worked on television series and you know, you're shooting five minutes a day as opposed to one or even half a minute some days. Relative to that, our budget's extreme by their comparison. So in a way I don't like to make any comparisons. I love Game of Thrones, I think it's fantastic!
Richard Taylor, Weta Workshop Creative Director
Richard Taylor, Weta Workshop Creative Director. Photo / Mark Mitchell
My personal favourite New Zealander and this country's most accomplished master craftsman (Five Oscars! That's two more than PJ), there can be no overstating the contribution Taylor has made to This Thing of Ours. Talking to him in the offices of Weta Workshop is nothing short of utterly inspirational. I would follow this man into a Weta Workshop-constructed Hell.
On how he is inspired by those fish chart posters on the walls of fish and chip shops:
Richard Taylor: I feel really sad for the people in the world that go to a fish and chip shop that don't look at that chart and boggle at the uniqueness of our ecology around us in our world, because on that simple chart, that's New Zealand fish which you've seen in every fish and chip shop in New Zealand. When I go into a fish-and-chip shop with our children, that chart becomes the point of discussion for the length of time we're sitting there, not at a science level, because I don't have a great knowledge of that, but at a design level, at an evolution level, there's a thousand great design ideas in that chart.
On The Hobbit trilogy's new-look orcs, Azog and Bolg:
RT: There's a great restriction that you challenge when you're doing prosthetics, and we're huge prosthetic fans, that's what we do for a living. But, you have two triangles that you're restricted by. You can do digital eye-widening, you can stretch the face, you could, arguably, digitally stretch the limbs, but you're tied to the fact that if you want articulated mouths and emoting eyes, you have to leave the human eyes and the human mouth revealed. But that ties you to the triangle of the face. Also, if you want full mobility and you put someone in a suit, it ties you to the triangle of under the arms to under the groin. Like the Stay Puft guy, you can come down the arms and you can come down the legs with the prosthetics, but, of course, it restricts you. What we've tried to do is liberate that design constraint by delivering a number of characters digitally, where the Orcs have mutated in their DNA to a level that we no longer have to comply to those two triangles. His eyes have spread around the sides of his head, more like a predator, so now he's got wolf-dog overtures instead of chimp-primate overtures.
On Lord of the Rings fans-turned-Weta Workshop employees:
RT: We've got a number of people that have joined us from around the world, that are only here because they saw The Lord of the Rings, were so overwhelmed by the need to be near to the flame, that they've flown over, taken a flat - literally the story, as in the case of two people on the workshop floor, taken a flat across the road, an apartment, and sat and waited and waited to be interviewed. One of them took two and a half years of interviews before we had an opening, and now they're a core member of our staff. I've met fans on the floor at Comic-Con, and they are now core members of our staff. It's lovely. And interestingly, people perceive the word "fan" to be somehow distanced from the filmmakers. Fans of Tolkien are highly educated, literary-inspired, mostly in their adult years. They're exactly like us. So, we have actually become very close friends with some fans. Fans, is - It's almost inappropriate to call them that because they're far more than that. They're supporters, they're champions of what we do, and then we have become friends with most of the fan community around the movies.
Gino Acevedo, Weta Digital Creative Director
Gino Acevedo, Weta Digital Creative Director. Photo / NZPA
This imported American/adoptive Kiwi comes across as the living, breathing embodiment of what both Weta Workshop and Weta Digital stand for - it's like he designed himself! His background as a practical effects guy and creature make-up guru on the LOTR trilogy informs the tangible authenticity that Weta Digital brings to the creatures of Tolkson's (Jackien's?) Middle-earth.
On his career evolution:
Gino Acevedo: I was brought over by Richard Taylor years ago, back for Lord of the Rings to supervise the make-up effects. But a funny thing happened, during film two is when I started to get into the digital side of things. Joe Letteri at Weta Digital had seen a fake puppet that we had just done of Boromir and he was very intrigued by the way that this puppet looked and how life-like it looked, because we used a special material, a silicone material and it's very translucent just like our skin. And at the time they were trying to get Gollum to look very realistic, and very translucent and everything.
So Joe had asked if I'd be interested in trying to do some texture art work, and I said, "So, texture. Does that involve a computer?" He says, "Yeah." And I said, "Joe actually, you know honestly, I struggle with email. My brain just doesn't work in that technical kind of way." And he goes, "Let's just give it a try. I was very reluctant, but I did. And so that's how I kind of got started to move into the dark side of Weta Digital. I don't do too much with the physical make-up anymore. Just recently for the pickups, I was asked to come back to look after the make-up effects, the prosthetics again. So I told Peter and everybody, "Well I'll work it out, trying to balance between the two jobs." But it's been a lot of fun coming back and doing these prosthetics again. Bringing out the old airbrush and the paint fumes are back.
On being a digital artist with a practical background:
DH: A lot of artists that I have did come from a practical background of drawing and painting and things like that. Back when I was painting the digital Felbeast, I had painted a big fiberglass head that's over at the workshop to get a buy off from Peter as far as the paint scheme of it. And I recreated it again on the digital side. And I had this texture artist girl come up to me and she goes, "Oh, that's really cool! What did you use for a reference?" I said, "Well, this part is kind of like a Western Diamond back, because I'm from Arizona so I know all about snakes and things. And this was a little bit of an alligator and this was this lizard" She goes, "No, what photos did you use to scan, to put in there?" And I didn't know what she meant. I was like, "No, I just painted it." She goes, "No, what photos did you use to copy it?" I said, "No, I just painted it. I made it up." She's going, "Oh, my God, you just made it up?" And that's when I understood, I said, "Oh, I see what you guys do. You guys use photographs to scan and copy from and clone from." And that's how they do a lot of their stuff. So I thought, "Oh, okay. This is one area that I do have something above you guys."
On how living in New Zealand has informed his reference points
DH: In Arizona there's just obviously lots of desert and everything, and some forests and stuff. But nothing at all like what it's here. When I first came out here, I've probably seen more of New Zealand than a lot of Kiwis have, which is because of all the filming that we did back on Rings, we travelled all over the place. But down south, you know, going into the rainforests and just this lush, you know, texture of all these plants and things and microscopic stuff when you see this moss that they have. It's like a little world down there. These little tiny little things, probably even little fairies living in there, who knows. But yeah, there's a lot of new stuff out here that I find really fascinating, that I can take and use those textures. Everything, even some of the creatures that are out here that we don't have back home. Like there's the Tuatara, you know, that lizard.
Yes Gino, I know the lizard of which you speak.
* Amped for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies? How awesome are these three dudes? Comment below!