‘Hobbit’: Dan Hennah brings eastern influence to production design

Dec. 05, 2012 | 7:00 a.m.

Production designer Dan Hennah on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (James Fisher / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Alan Lee, left, Dan Hennah and Grant Major show off their art direction Oscars for their work on "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" on Feb. 29, 2004. (Jeffrey Mayer / WireImage)

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, left, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The dwarfs, Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Hugo Weaving as Elrond in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Galadriel actress Cate Blanchett and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, left, and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The White Council Chamber in a scene from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Dan Hennah, left, Grant Major and Alan Lee accept their art direction Oscars for their work on "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" on Feb. 29, 2004. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Few people know Middle-earth better than Dan Hennah, the production designer tasked with translating J.R.R. Tolkien’s words and director Peter Jackson’s vision to the big screen for “The Hobbit” trilogy. Hennah has been working on the film for three years, but it’s not his first visit to the land of dwarfs, elves, hobbits and Orcs. Hennah served as art director for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and won the art direction and set decoration Academy Award for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” along with Grant Major and Alan Lee in 2004. Hero Complex spoke with Hennah about his return to Tolkien’s world, what’s different in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and the challenges of bringing to life new corners of Middle-earth.

HC: Can you start by explaining what your job entails? Production design must have been so important for a film like this one.

DH: A production designer takes responsibility for the look of everything pretty much on the picture except the actors and what they’re wearing, and obviously lighting is a separate area. It starts with liaising with the director, with the script and working out creatively what the director’s vision is. And while it’s permissible for the production designer to have a vision, it’s always good to try and work out what the director’s vision is and to bring that to the screen. That’s the ultimate aim. And it involves liaising really closely, collaborating with the director of photography, the cinematographer and the costume department, because you don’t want purple costumes in a green room. And it’s one of those things that worked really well on “The Lord of the Rings,” and it’s worked again very well on “The Hobbit” — that sort of interdepartmental collaboration. The production designer has to put together a team of people who can execute the director’s vision and have it ready within the budget. Always, always the budget is a really big consideration, and time. And of course always time and money fight with each other; if you haven’t got enough of one, you need more of the other. Apart from coming up with this great grand vision that works with the director, it’s also about attention to detail. Every nut and bolt, every small thing being in the right place. So it’s a big-picture job, but with attention to the detail as well.

PHOTOS: 60 images from ‘The Hobbit’

HC: Does most of the work happen before the shoots, or does your team have a hand in post-production too?

DH: On this, we’ve put our concept artists and one of our art directors into the post-production world, so they’re working with WETA Digital, who are doing the post, particularly digital extensions to the sets and creatures. So our concept artists are working with them, and one of our art directors, just to take the vision all the way to the end. Because oftentimes, you find at the end of the shoot, the art department team all do their strike and go away, and the digital effects company is left to interpret what the architecture, what the extensions are doing. And it’s really great to be able to have some input to keep it consistent from the on-set shoot right through the final post-production.

The White Council Chamber in a scene from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: How is the look of Middle-earth in “The Hobbit” different from “The Lord of the Rings”?

DH: Well, it’s 60 years earlier, and quite a lot happened in those 60 years. Also it starts in midsummer and goes through to midwinter, through the three pictures. “The Lord of the Rings” started in spring so that was a slightly different feel, in the sense of our color palettes. We’ve gone a bit more whimsical. One of the great things about the script and the story itself of “The Hobbit” is that it’s written for a younger audience, or a younger reader, so we’ve been able to embrace that. It had a lovely, whimsical feel to it, whereas “Lord of the Rings” was a much more serious book. So we’ve incorporated wherever possible a little bit of whimsy. It’s a slightly younger world that we’re in.

HC: You won an Oscar for your work on “Lord of the Rings.” Has it been advantageous to have that prior experience in Middle-earth?

DH: Absolutely. I worked on “Lord of the Rings” for five years and got to know that world incredibly well. “The Hobbit” goes off in a different direction, but Hobbiton itself, the Shire, is similar to what it was, and Rivendell is the other place they go to, but everywhere else in their journey, we didn’t visit in “Lord of the Rings.” So this is a different world. In “Lord of the Rings,” we went south from Hobbiton, and in “The Hobbit,” we go east. We sort of took the view that going east would be like going east across Europe and into Asia. And those were the influences we used in our architecture and in our coloring and in our general feel. It was a really lovely thing to actually have a physical reference that we could use as our inspiration as we traveled, so just in general the use of stone, the use of timber, the use of peaked roofs, flat roofs, all those things — they do happen as you travel across Europe.

PHOTOS: Meet the dwarfs from ‘The Hobbit’

HC: So you were able to pull in some non-Tolkien influences?

DH: Yeah, absolutely, but you know, the interesting thing is that Tolkien wrote it. We discussed this going east thing, and really we based that on the fact that Tolkien had gone east from London, so forgetting about the English Channel, he had gone east across Europe in his research, and in his story, really. So that was the influence there. So in a way, while it’s not Tolkien, it is Tolkien, you know? But I think we have to say in terms of our design, Tolkien is our bible, and that’s the beginning and the end, really. And sure, there are opportunities to extend it, but you have to use them really subtly.

Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis, in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: Of all the new places in Middle-earth you helped design for “The Hobbit,” which is your favorite?

DH: In the first film, I’d have to say the world underneath the Misty Mountains. The goblins’ world was quite an incredible place to work on. As the films go on, there’s a sort of favorite in each film, really, but if we’re just talking about the first film, I would say the goblin world and Gollum’s cave, which is a hole in the ground with some water in it, but it’s very, very much more than that. It’s a very organic set, and one of the things about organic sets is they’re very hard to quantify when you’re working with a director, and you’re trying to visualize what you’re going to build for him, and what he’s going to work in. In this case, we modeled every set up so that Peter could look at the models, and we had to be as accurate as we could with these models so he could see if his action was going to work inside that environment, if the environment was suitable for the drama. That whole inside the mountain environment was quite fun.

HC: How did you go about developing the look of that world?

DH: We had some experience with goblins from “Lord of the Rings.” And John Howe and Alan Lee, our concept artists, played a big part in the types of goblins, and then we sort of hit on a concept of what goblins are, what they do. Before you start designing their environment, you need to know what they do there, because that will influence the design. And so there were weeks and weeks of discussion about what goblins are, and what they do, and who they like, and who they don’t like, and how they live, and it was a very involved process, but very fruitful.

The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: What does it feel like to see these designs of such iconic places and characters come to life as you go?

DH: Look, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s really great. Interestingly on “Lord of the Rings,” I spoke to a lot of people who were fans of the books and who were terrified that we were going to misrepresent their vision. It’s a huge consideration. At that stage, 50 million people had read the books. And now I think it’s up to 200 million, certainly with “The Hobbit” and the popularity of “The Lord of the Rings” films. So we’ve got 200 million people out there who all have a vision of what this world is, and it’s a huge responsibility to bring their vision to life. Really it was bringing Tolkien’s vision to life. But it’s not deviating from that vision, not having your own personal conceit jump out and, “Oh, I’ve got a great idea. It’s not really in the book, but it’s a great idea.” So you avoid that impulse.

HC: How did the returning “Lord of the Rings” veterans blend with the crew members who were new to Middle-earth?

DH: One of the great things in this industry is that you always get to work with some people who are new to it and some people who are veterans, and it’s great just to get that dynamic going where some people think they know all of it, and other people think they know none of it, and surprisingly, they blend together and create a whole new world. A lot of our team were “Lord of the Rings” veterans, but the other interesting thing is that it’s 10 years since we did that; a lot of people have gone elsewhere and moved off or got too old. Honestly we have a really nice young influence in our team across the board, so there’s a whole lot of people who had some experience with film but no experience with Tolkien, and they bring a freshness and a really nice energy to the job. We had 400 people at our peak in the art department, so that’s quite a lot of enthusiasm. One of the great things about this film is that our team across the board, we really are enthusiastic about the project, about the concept, the fantasy of Tolkien’s world.

HC: What’s it like working with Peter Jackson?

DH: Ah, he’s a delight. He’s a vision-directed director. He has a clarity of vision right from the very beginning. And a great vision memory, so when he sees a piece of concept art and then the next time he sees it, it’s a built set, he’s retained all of the elements from that concept art, so you’re always striving to be as accurate as possible as the process works its way from that concept art through to the final set.

Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and director Peter Jackson on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: You and Peter have been working together since “The Frighteners” 15 years ago, right?

DH: It’s a long and fruitful relationship, and it’s just been a delight. He’s a very creative person, and he comes through from left field with great ideas. That clarity of vision is always a fine thing, and when you’re planning something and you’re trying to achieve a deadline within a budget, which is always the case, it’s great to have someone who does see it and can describe it. To be part of his process is always exciting.

HC: After five years on “Lord of the Rings” and three years on “The Hobbit,” are you sad that your time in Middle-earth will be coming to an end?

DH: It’s sort of sad in a way, but one of the great things about film is that you create a piece of celluloid, or in this case a digital file, that will be around for a long time. And it’s really nice to be able to pick it up and revisit. Every time I look at a “Lord of the Rings” picture, it brings back good memories of places and times. It’s very hard to divorce yourself from the making of the film after you’ve done it and just watch it as a film, and it’s one of the things that I’ve really tried to do very hard — not dwell on where we were when we did that, and how this panned out or that panned out. But it’s very hard not to have those memories.

HC: What’s next for you?

DH: I’ve got a lovely big holiday coming up in the New Zealand summer, and we’ve got our pickup shoot in April, and after that, goodness knows. Whatever it is, I’m looking forward to a few surprises just around the corner.

– Noelene Clark
Twitter.com/@NoeleneClark

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Comments


3 Responses to ‘Hobbit’: Dan Hennah brings eastern influence to production design

  1. donaldmonro says:

    Anybody EVER heard of the Hildebrandt Bros !!?? Why for Gods sake don't these guys ever get any love from the filmmakers. Look at their illustrations next to Alan Lee's and tell me who had more influence on the look of the films. Seeing is believing.

  2. uglyartwork says:

    eww disgusting artwork. really medievalish fairytale like. need more than that

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