The Fellowship of the Ring - Production Notes

Last Update: 08 December 2001


"The greatest feeling of success has been to watch all these bits and pieces of polystyrene and metal and wood become a world so real you believe these characters live there. We've painted Tolkien's palette as much as possible across the film."
-Richard Taylor

Until now, Tolkien's Middle-earth has existed only in the imaginations of readers and in the detailed yet limited illustrations for the novels. But in The Fellowship of the Ring, the Hobbit holes of Hobbiton, the sylvan glades of the Elf refuge Rivendell, the smoky innards of the Prancing Pony Inn, and the networks of underground caverns in the Mines of Moria come physically, palpably to life.

Peter Jackson had one underlying precept for the visual design for The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a transporting brand of realism. The undertaking would not be possible without the services of WETA Limited, New Zealand's premier physical effects house, under the direction of supervisor Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger. Their mission: to create Middle-earth's physical reality, from the interiors of Hobbit holes to the heights of Mount Doom, as if they believed with all their hearts and senses in its existence.
Taylor approached the project like a general going to war. He immediately employed a crew of over 120 technicians divided into six crucial departments:

Special Effects
Makeup and Prosthetics
Armor and Weapons
Model Effects

WETA Digital, a separate arm, also took on the challenge of creating the groundbreaking computer-generated creatures and effects for The Lord of the Rings trilogy (see Breaking Digital Ground: Special Effects).

But before WETA could get to work, the filmmakers needed to turn Tolkien's vividly drawn descriptions into three-dimensional visions. They turned to the two men who knew Tolkien's universe best: conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, who illustrated the Harper Collins editions of The Lord of the Rings. Lee and Howe sketched madly, producing seminal images of the cultures, creatures, buildings and landscapes that make Hobbiton, Rivendell, Mordor and other locations in the trilogy feel so alive.
Inspired by their own intimate love of Tolkien's work, Lee and Howe produced hundreds of life-like sketches which later were metamorphosed into storyboards, then scale models of Middle-earth's many landscapes and regions, and sometimes into full-scale sets under the aegis of production designer Grant Major. In addition to full-sized sets, the production widely used miniature sets - models so detailed and artistically rendered that the slightly larger ones became known as "bigatures."

"As a conceptual artist, it is quite a mine field treading through Tolkien's world, but you somehow have to trust your own judgment and your own vision. Tolkien's descriptions are so beautiful and poetic, yet he has left plenty of room for us to make our own little explorations," says Alan Lee.

Lee was especially excited by Peter Jackson's mandate. "When he said he wanted to be as true to the spirit of the books as he could and try to create very, very real landscapes and as believable a world as possible, I knew I was the right person for the job," he says.

Says production designer Grant Major of Lee and Howe: "Their contribution to the project was absolutely fundamental. They gave us the look and feel of Middle-earth, and they brought the most intimate knowledge of Tolkien lore to their work."

Lee had always tried to make his illustrations believable, but now he and Howe had a new challenge: producing illustrations so rich they could be turned into miniatures, models and sets. He recalls the magic of seeing Hobbiton evolve from Tolkien's charming descriptions to detailed sketches to life-like sets. "We had drawn so many sketches and had so many conversations and then there was the whole construction process," he recalls. "But, finally it became this absolutely real place where grass grew over the roofs and the chimneys were spouting smoke, and it was like a dream to see it come to life."

Lee also oversaw the work as his sketches became miniature sets that seemed to take on a life of their own. The miniature production unit was guided by director of photography Alex Funke, who won an Oscar for his effects on Total Recall. Funke and team filmed an unprecedented 64 miniature sets, some of the most complex ever rendered. Among those seen in The Fellowship of the Ring are the "forest kingdom" of Lothlorien made up of tree-houses connected by walkways, and the land of the Dwarves known as Khazad-Dum.

Many of the sets, big and small, were carved out of polystyrene, a material that can look like wood that has aged for thousands of years, as in the Prancing Pony Pub, or the stone sculptures at the gates of Minas Tirith. WETA made some remarkable innovations, using a polyurethane spraying machine developed for spraying rubber coatings on North Sea oil rigs.

"We were able to do in a week what might have taken months to build in a traditional manner," explains Richard Taylor. "With this machine, we could sculpt anything. We were making a hundred helmets in a day. It helped us to build many worlds."

Production designer Grant Major oversaw the creation of such life-sized exterior sets as the intricate and delicate Elvish kingdom of Rivendell, the grassy knolls of Hobbiton, and the underground interior realms of the mines of Moria. He, too, made realism and exquisite detail a priority.

The sets for Rivendell, for example, were created to reflect the Elvish culture - which is highly artistic and intimately connected to the forest and nature. It appears as a place of deep serenity, with arching walkways spanning babbling streams and quiet wooden gazebos. "We used a leaf motif throughout the sets, and used a lot of hand-carved statues, pillars and door frames. Even the colors are right out of the forest," Major notes. "We even added Art Nouveau-style influences that reflect their elegant nature."

Major also wanted to lend Rivendell "a sense of mystery," so he designed and built a series of 40-foot-tall towers that shimmer in the background of Rivendell, suggesting more than meets the eye.

Many of Major's sets were built on stages in Wellington, New Zealand. This, for example, is where he created the Mines of Moria, where the Fellowship journeys in The Fellowship of the Ring. Gray granite walls were sprayed constantly by WETA technicians to appear as glistening, dripping, jewel-encrusted caves, a whole network of which spans beneath the Dwarf land, Khazad-Dum.

One thing Major always had to consider in the design of his sets was durability. "You had thousands of people trampling through these sets, and sometimes people were hucking axes into the floor, so they had to be built to withstand a lot! Our sets had to withstand 60 pounds per square foot." Major worked hand-in-hand with WETA Digital, to make sure the sets would accommodate computer-generated images to be added in later.

Major even found himself becoming a fledgling gardener. To create Hobbiton, he had a large greens department team plant 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens a year before filming began. "We started the year before filming because we wanted the look of it to age naturally in the weather," explains Major. "We were always trying to make every set as real in time and place as could be imagined."

Everyone who entered Hobbiton was transported. Observes Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf: "Hobbiton really wasn't a set at all. It was a real open-air village, with growing crops and flowers actually sprouting in gardens, birds singing, insects... Nothing was plastic or fake. It was just totally thrilling to enter another world like that."



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