Quint interviews artist Alan Lee about his LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK!!!
Published at: Nov. 7, 2005, 6:32 a.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a little chat I had last week with Alan Lee over a couple of burgers in Downtown Austin. He was in town to promote THE LORD OF THE RINGS SKETCHBOOK, a collection of his pencil sketches that he did over the 6 years he worked with Peter Jackson and the design crew on the trilogy. It also has an interest for art fiends because Lee demonstrates how he uses pencil work to map out his big, famous water color paintings, using specific examples from his Tolkien book work.
It's a gorgeous hardcover book, almost 200 pages, and it covers every aspect of his work from weapon and armor design, to architecture work to character and creature design... it's got everything. Look for it to pop up in the Holiday Shopping Guide, I liked it that much.
Anyway, here's the chat. I hope you guys enjoy it!
QUINT: I finished reading through the book last night. I was wondering how much it represents of the total amount of pencil work you did for the LORD OF THE RINGS films.
ALAN LEE: Well, the total number of sketches I did on the film add up to around two and a half thousand. That was just drawings. There were also probably another thousand or so Photoshop pieces I did for artwork studies for visual effects...
QUINT: With Gus Hunter?
ALAN LEE: Yeah, with Gus and with Jeremy (I think he's referring to Jeremy Bennett from Weta). Gus actually showed me how to use Photoshop. (laughs) He's great.
QUINT: Gus is crazy talented. I saw some of his work when I was out there for KONG.
ALAN LEE: Are you reporting on KONG?
QUINT: Yeah, I wrote up a few set reports and I have a couple others I need to finish up.
ALAN LEE: I went back and worked on KONG for a couple of months last year. It was great. I finished working on LORD OF THE RINGS last April. I was almost the last person working on the project, actually, because by the time Peter (Jackson) and Richard (Taylor) were going to start work on KONG we were just kind of finishing off the design work for the packaging of the DVDs. So, they were closing down the studio and the production offices around us.
So, this sketch book represents really quite a long period of time. It's not just the film, but it's also (from) when I first started getting interested in the book itself and with illustrating the book. So, it's a period of... Well, I well first read the book when I was 17. When I finished working on the film I was was 57, so there's about a 40 year association with that book.
Obviously the most intensive part was the 6 years spent in New Zealand working on the films.
QUINT: Do you remember the moment when you first put your pencil to a piece of paper and created something that made you go, "I want to keep doing this"?
ALAN LEE: Umm... I don't think I can think of one moment. When I was very young I started drawing, you know... at a pretty early age. It really was like a form of play, almost like a virtual reality game that you can sort of start off drawing this hill, then you draw a figure creeping over the edge of it and then a figure kind of raising a rifle on the other side... creating these little scenarios. Then going on and building castles and drawing castles, creating these little imagined worlds for myself. I just never really stopped.
Another thing I did when I was a teenager, when I was about 13 or 14, I started doing some comic strips. I found that very compelling. I did this whole kind of amazonian adventure. This group of adventures set out from Bristol across the Atlantic, travel up the Amazon looking for this treasure. There's all kinds of dramas and it ends up with one guy just floating down the Amazon half conscious on a raft. I don't have anymore, but it was just getting a feeling of what you can do just with drawings, the way you can tell a story.
QUINT: Going through the sketches I noticed that a lot of your art actually benefited Tolkien's world more than a full color painting would have. Did you find that there was a particular place or character or event that worked better as a pencil drawing for you?
ALAN LEE: What's quite interesting with pencil drawings is, for the most part, they're kind of on the way to a painting, they're a puppetry stud in form or another. But on a movie the finished picture is the moving picture that's going to be made by all these other people. The drawings... I never really considered any of them finished. They were just taken up to the point at which they communicate what they need to for the particular person or group of people who would be looking at it.
Obviously, the first thing is to do a drawing that shows Peter what you have in mind and see if it matches what he is thinking. Once he's Okayed that you just do loads of drawings. Some of them are specifically for just working out how large the set's going to be. You start with kind of a ground plan, all kinds of bird's eye views of the whole thing and lots of drawing of detail. So, any one set would actually have maybe 50 or so drawings exploring every aspect of it.
But I do love drawing. I love sketches because in a way the person looking at the sketch is actually finishing off the picture in his mind. You're kind of suggesting things and he's kind of fleshing it out with his imagination. And it's quite good not to pin things down too tightly. Watercolor is very good for that as well. It's kind of a fluid medium where you can create an atmosphere without really nailing every single detail. I quite like that aspect of it.
But with the sketches for the movie, every single detail had to be nailed and very precisely, but it was kind of nailed in lots of lots of different drawings. Just every little doorknob and every bit of sculpture... everything.
QUINT: Is there a favorite character from Tolkien's world that you find you keep sketching, that has a big draw for you?
ALAN LEE: I suppose I still find otherworldly creatures quite fun. I did this book, Faeries, with Brian Froud. I don't know if you know that, but that involved drawing a lot of fairies, goblins and dwarves. Actually, creating denizens of the woodland has always been quite pleasant to me because their anatomy is all kind of stretched and distorted anyway you can have a lot of fun with that.
So, I very often find that I'm drawing all kinds of weird or semi-human creatures in the corners of my sketchbooks.
QUINT: I have two favorite pieces in your book. One is the big splash of Sam-wise fighting Shelob and the other is just this little thing off to the side... not the main focus of the page at all, but it's this little thing with human legs from the waist down, but where the stomach should be is a skull!
ALAN LEE: Oh, yeah!
QUINT: How often do you find that you do that kind of out there stuff?
ALAN LEE: Well, all the time. That's really just doodling and often I'll do a sheet of drawings without really being fully conscious of what I'm doing. I'm just kind of maybe half-thinking about them. I'll start these things without knowing where it's going at all. That's another aspect that you like, this element of improvisation. Sometimes I'll do drawings I completely forget about because I haven't ever really thought about it, you know? (laughs) So, I'll turn over leaves of my sketchbook and come across all these odd little creatures and go, "My God... I don't remember doing that."
Very often it's an excuse not to be getting on with the drawing I'm meant to be doing. So, I'll have a sheet of paper on which I'm meant to be working out some book cover or something, and all around the edges, because I'm putting off actually thinking about the book, are all these weird little creatures.
QUINT: So, how do you like the way the book turned out overall?
ALAN LEE: I was very happy the way it printed. One of the benefits of working on RINGS was that I learned some computer skills, so I was actually able to put the book together myself. I did all the layouts and a friend of mine did the typography, so it was all kind of done from home, basically. I was very happy with the way it printed. It was printed in Italy by a company there.
QUINT: With your illustrations you also have summaries that chart your experience making the movie, tying each film in with the sketches on the page...
ALAN LEE: There's no avoiding that, really, because it was all so fresh in my mind and it's just such a big adventure. I wanted to balance it out with the other stuff, but I guess I talk more about the movie than anything else because so much more happened. (laughs) There's only so many ways you can tell the story of how you sat down in your studio and did a drawing. (laughs)
QUINT: I really did like how you set up the stages on how you did your watercolors, though. It was a surprise to see how it's done, especially to someone who is as clueless about real art as I am. Was that the most interesting part of the book for you?
ALAN LEE: I think probably the most interesting part, really, is the Minas Tirith bit for me because it was a kind of a journey of exploration. I started visualizing it from ground level, almost, kind of entering the gate and making my way up the streets just kind of imagining myself at the end of that particular drawing and looking up at another street and drawing that. Just kind of improvising really, but all the while just sort of improvising, really, with the idea that the architecture will kind of crystalize and get clearer in my mind as I make that trip.
So, I think Minas Tirith as a whole was really satisfying. I mean to just be able to design a city! (laughs)
QUINT: Is there anything in particular that you couldn't put into the book that you really wanted to?
ALAN LEE: There is a huge amount that we didn't really didn't touch on in that book, but there are some things that were designed for the film that actually were kind of dropped at a stage in the script writing. There was going to be an episode at Farmer Maggot's house, so I did quite a few drawings of every aspect of Farmer Maggot's, so I really feel like I built that in my head. It didn't get any further than drawings, but it got up to about a dozen pictures or so. Peter decided we couldn't afford to spend time, that it slowed the action down too much.
I think when Peter's making a film he's kind of judging his reaction to what he's seeing and if he starts to feel bored... You see it in the cutting room. He's judging the length of a shot by frames, you know? Three more frames and you're getting bored with it. Such fine tuning. He's just got this amazing sense of what the audience will take.
QUINT: Are there any other well known books or stories you'd like to try your hand at illustrating?
ALAN LEE: There are just so many great stories out there. My next project is going back into Greek Mythology, classical Mythology? Just in the world of Mythology alone there's so many fantastic stories. There's a lot of other great stuff out there. I don't know if I'm going to just be doing Tolkien for the rest of my life... (laughs) although it has been fantastic.
QUINT: Do you find that you're sitting and reading something, just for pleasure, and then you start drawing out scenes from the book?
ALAN LEE: It's actually probably slower... I'll let things kind of percolate a little bit and then it'll come out. It's not so much a matter of interrupting reading the book because usually if I'm reading something and enjoying it I just want to keep going.
But yeah... Those images settle for a while, then come up when I'm doodling the next time.
QUINT: Are there any specific examples that you can think of?
ALAN LEE: Probably from everything I've read and enjoyed. One of my favorite novels is Gormenghast. It's actually a trilogy written by Mervyn Peake. Sting had the rights to make it into a movie at one stage. He wanted to play a character that's pretty evil and disruptive character that enters this castle called Steerpike. He's very kind of sly and ambitious. There's a fantastic range of characters. There's a butler called Flay, who is a really kind of tall, skinny, creaky guy. There's a great cook called Swelter... And it's all about this family. It was turned into a BBC series and it was really nicely done, but there's still potential there possibly for a film.
There's a writer Robert Holdstock who wrote a book called Mythago Wood, which I think has got a great potential as a film. It's about this particular wood and it's a very ancient little patch of woodland in Kent. When you enter it, your subconscious kind of gets infected by these things called Mythagos which are like archetypes, so you're actually creating these fantastic creatures that inhabit the woods. There's been a few attempts to actually get a script off the ground, but that's a story that is very close to me because it's all about woodlands and the creatures and characters that inhabit it.
So, that's a couple!
And that's what I got for ya. As always, Mr. Lee was a gentleman and a scholar. The publisher is holding a public Q&A with Alan Lee starting today (Monday) and on through Tuesday. You can submit a question via this website right here and on Friday Alan Lee will post his responses. Not all questions will get a response, but for those of you who missed his last book tour, it's a shot at talking to the man himself!
Hope you enjoyed the little chat! Be back soon with some cool shit, so keep your eyes on the site!