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24 September 2014

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You are in: Devon > People > Profiles > Lord of the Drawings

Alan Lee

Alan Lee at work in his Dartmoor home

Lord of the Drawings

Dartmoor-based artist Alan Lee gives us an insight into his Oscar-winning work on the Lord of the Rings movies - and reveals that Dartmoor is a big inspiration.

Lord of the Rings Things

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on the 3rd January, 1892.

He was born in South Africa, but his mother brought him back to England when he was four.

It took him 12 years to complete the Lord of the Rings, which was published in 1954.

The three editions are: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.

More than 50 million copies have been sold worldwide.

Tolkien died in 1973.

In the movie trilogy, over six million feet of film was shot during production.

Step into Alan Lee's Dartmoor cottage, and it's a bit like walking into Tolkien's imaginary world.

Alan lives and breathes the work of JRR Tolkien. It's not just his's his life.

Everywhere, there are paintings, drawings, and sculptures from The Lord of the Rings. On the coffee table, there is even a Lord of the Rings mug, from which the world-renowned artist sips his coffee.

Most of the pictures on display are Alan's own creations.

After illustrating the special centenary book of JRR Tolkien's classic tale in 1992, Alan was asked to provide the artwork for the sets of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy - he won an Oscar for his work on the third movie, Return of the King.

The downstairs rooms of his house are where he works in the winter. During the summer months, he moves into his studio out the back - a stone barn, again brim-full with books and pictures.

Tower of Cirith Ungol

Tower of Cirith Ungol

So how did he end up here, in the middle of Dartmoor, which let's face it is light years away from the Hollywood life?

Alan explained: "I was living in London until 1975 and came down to visit some friends in Thornworthy on Dartmoor, and had the most wonderful weekend with my partner and just fell in love with the place.

"Walking through the woods and by the river, I just saw everything I would ever want to put into a picture. I just thought I could spend a life actually drawing all this. I love the moss-covered boulders and trees and it seems the stuff of legends really.

"So we stayed an extra day and looked at some houses and this was one of the houses that we looked at and decided to make an offer for it - that day! So it was all done in the weekend."

The moorland landscape has proved a major source of inspiration during Alan's career as a book illustrator and, latterly, as a concept artist for films like The Lord of the Rings.

"I've used Dartmoor in my work a huge amount," said Alan. "Whenever I can, I go for walks and I take photographs and do lots of drawings as well. So there are lots of trees I have sat and drawn which have ended up in various illustrations.

"I just thought I could spend a life actually drawing all this (Dartmoor) seems the stuff of legends."

Alan Lee

"Just the whole kind of mood of it, and the fantastic details that you get in the amount of moss and lichen that encrust the trees and it's just a wonderful source of material."

Alan was asked by publishers Harpers Collins to illustrate the special centenary edition of The Lord of the Rings in 1992, which was released to mark the 100th anniversary of the author's birth.

It was an unbelievable opportunity come true for the self-confessed Tolkien fanatic.

"I had read The Lord of the Rings when I was about 17 and really just inhabited that world for a number of years afterwards. I just loved the whole world that he created and so it was a dream come true really to get the chance to illustrate the books later on."

It was the drawings in this centenary book which attracted the attention of Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson.

One day, the postman delivered a parcel to Alan's home which would change his life forever: "Peter Jackson had been gathering visual material while working on the script and amongst that was my book.

"So they were using the book when they were going through the adaptation and occasionally they would look at the pictures and think: 'We should see if we could get somebody like Alan to come out and work on the films.'

"And then they made a leap to thinking well, perhaps we should ask to see if Alan is available.

Mirror of Galadriel

Mirror of Galadriel by Alan Lee

"So one day, I was sitting in my studio and I got a parcel containing two videos - Heavenly Creatures and Forgotten Silver, and a letter outlining their (Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the screenwriter who co-wrote Lord of the Rings) plans for making The Lord of the Rings and asking if I'd like to be involved.

"So I phoned back, after watching the videos because I was really curious. I hadn't actually heard of Peter Jackson. We had a great conversation and I agreed to go out to New Zealand and work with him, along with another illustrator, John Howe."

Alan headed off to New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed - little did he know he would be there for six years.

It was also a huge culture shock working with hundreds of people, instead of sitting alone in his Dartmoor studio.

"When I first went out, the film didn't have the green light at that stage, said Alan. "It was in pre-production and the film company, Miramax weren't quite committed to it. They were biding their time, funding it on a week-by-week basis.

"But they weren't saying one way or another whether they were going to make the film. So we didn't know if it was actually going to be made.

"We estimated I'd be out there for six months to begin with, just working on conceptual designs but in the end I worked there for six years and got involved with every aspect of the design of the films, with going from conceptual design onto working with the art department actually designing the sets and props.

"And then, once the shooting had finished, working with the visual effects department on designing effects shots.


Rivendell by Alan Lee

"It was an extraordinary experience and I don't think anything quite like it will happen again. Making three films all at once hadn't been done before, and I think it's unlikely to happen again.

"It was just almost impossible. It's a tremendous tribute to Peter's energy and perseverance. I think we all felt that we were on the point of failure at any given moment. It felt like touch and go for so much of the time."

Alan's job was to interpret Tolkien's descriptions, and bring them to life: "I think I do it quite intuitively. I do respond when I'm reading something. I get quite a strong - not a detailed picture - but quite a strong sense of atmosphere.

"I did about 2,500 or so sketches during the time I was in New Zealand, and not very much painting because there just wasn't enough time really to finish paintings.

"But I could do several fairly detailed sketches in a day and they would either be in sketchbooks or on little scraps of paper, or a lot of them were large drawings which I would do and then show to Peter and to Grant Major, the production designer, and get his feedback.

"There would be quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to actually get the design that worked for everyone. It was really trying to tease out the images that Peter had in his mind and to help him to create the kind of film that he wanted.

"As we got into the project I think I became more familiar with the kind of ideas and the way that Peter liked to work, the way he liked to use the camera and so would get there more quickly and often would just do one drawing that Peter would say that's great, and that would be the starting point.

"And then there would be dozens of drawings showing every conceivable angle and every detail.

"I was trying to summon up what Tolkien was describing and I think that Peter and Fran and the casting directors were trying to do the same thing and we both came up with same kind of ideas. I thought it was a brilliant cast, very well chosen."

Sculpture by Virginia Lee

Lord of the Rings sculpture by Virginia Lee

After coming up with the artwork, Alan then watched to make sure the sets matched his images: "I would look at the sets as they were being constructed. It was a continual process of feedback.

"Because we were so busy - we had so many sets to build - about 400 altogether for all three films - and so at any one time, there would be at least 10 sets being built and several being filmed.

"I'd find I'd be walking around, looking at the sets, and there would be constant questions about what a particular detail would look like, so I'd be walking around with my sketchbook, running off very quick little sketches of detail, getting them copied and sent to the sculptors and various craftsmen who were building the scene."

One of the sculptors was Alan's daughter, Virginia, who spent two years working on the films in New Zealand. One of her Lord of the Rings sculptures sits proudly on Alan's lounge mantelpiece.

Alan received the ultimate accolade for his work on the movies, when he won an Oscar for the third film, Return of the King. He remembers that night as though it were yesterday.

"It was a most glorious evening, not just for us in the art department, but there were 11 other awards as well for the Lord of the Rings and it was just fantastic to see, time and time again, people and friends from New Zealand going up to collect their Oscars. It was great."

The Oscar wasn't the only accolade Alan received - Peter Jackson was fulsome in his praise for his work, commenting: "Alan Lee's artwork has a beauty and lyricism about it. His art captured what I hoped to capture with the films."

After six years in New Zealand, Alan returned to his Dartmoor home in 2004. In 2005, he published The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook, featuring a selection of his work from the centenary edition and the movies.

He has also worked on another Peter Jackson film King Kong, as well as The Chronicles of Narnia.

His current projects include a calendar for 2007, and illustrating a reworking of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which are stories from Greek Mythology retold for children and written by Adrian Mitchell.

He also hopes to launch his own website, to show sketches which wouldn't normally be seen.

As for doing more movies, Alan says nothing could ever compare with The Lord of the Rings: "If The Hobbit happened, it would be nice to be involved in that. But it would have to be a pretty special film to match the experience of working on The Lord of the Rings."

last updated: 11/03/2008 at 14:26
created: 24/01/2006

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