‘Hobbit’: Peter King on yak wigs and the language of Middle-earth

Dec. 04, 2012 | 8:02 a.m.

Peter King, left, is a makeup and hair designer for "The Hobbit" trilogy. (Los Angeles Times; Warner Bros.)

Makeup and hair designer Peter King, right, applies makeup for an extra on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Todd Eyre / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Galadriel actress Cate Blanchett, left, with makeup and hair designer Peter King on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Todd Eyre / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Peter Hambleton, left, who plays Gloin and John Callen who plays Oin on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Stephen Hunter as Bombur, left, Adam Brown as Ori, Hark Hadlow as Dori, Jed Brophy as Nori and Peter Hambleton as Gloin 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.)

Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Peter King attends the Oscar-Nominated Makeup Artist and Hairstylist Symposium in Hollywood in 2004. King won the best makeup Academy Award that year for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." (Jesse Grant / WireImage)

Peter King, left, and Richard Taylor show off their Oscars for best make-up for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" on Feb. 29, 2004. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Peter King, left, award presenter Scarlett Johansson, and Richard Taylor show off their Oscars for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" on Feb. 29, 2004. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“The Hobbit” may be one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s simpler tales, but creating 13 individual yet cohesive hairstyles (and beard-styles) for the dwarfs in “The Hobbit” was no simple task. That challenge fell to makeup and hair designer Peter King, who won an Oscar with Richard Taylor for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” King, who has worked on all of Peter Jackson’s films since “The Lord of the Rings,” including “King Kong” and “The Lovely Bones,” spoke with Hero Complex about designing the hairstyles for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” opening in theaters Dec. 14.

HC: What’s it been like to return to Middle-earth after all this time?

PK: Like we’ve never been away. We had a break of what, eight, nine years and a few other films in between, but it was great. Like going back to see an old friend, really. It was lovely to go back somewhere that you know well, and you know the people. It’s almost become a second home to me, New Zealand, with working there.

PHOTOS: 60 images from ‘The Hobbit’

HC: What were your impressions when you first found out there was to be a “Hobbit” movie?

Peter King in 2004. King won the best makeup Academy Award that year for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” (Jesse Grant / WireImage)

PK: When I was over there doing “Lovely Bones,” I met Guillermo [del Toro], who was over there obviously discussing “The Hobbit” and stuff, so I had an inkling it was going on, but Guillermo was doing it, and he was going to use his own people and so on and so forth. So I never really thought about it. And then I got the phone call saying, “Now Peter’s going to direct it, so would you like to come and play?” And I was filming “Pirates of the Caribbean,” so I left a few weeks early on that one so I could come and start “The Hobbit.”

HC: Can you tell us about your process?

PK: I mean, it’s far more work than we had on “Lord of the Rings,” really, because first of all, we had these 13 dwarfs, these main characters who are on throughout the whole film. So Richard Taylor and WETA and Peter and Fran [Walsh] and everyone, it was a very collaborative thing. WETA brought a lot of conceptual work for the dwarfs, and then we whittled it down to the areas we liked for each dwarf, because we had to make sure they’re a band of people, so they all look like the same race. But within that, they had 13 different personalities, so we had to tell them apart and get to know them and understand them. So we went through the process first of all of designing the actual look, and then they were sculpted so we could see what they looked like in a three-dimensional idea. Then it was over to me to actually get all the hairwork done, and we decided on the colors of the hair and how we were going to do it. Then we designed all the prosthetics, and they were made by WETA for us, and then they came to us, and we applied them, myself and Tami Lane who was in charge of the prosthetic team. We started playing with it, really. And then we had this whole series of things we call show-and-tells, which is where we make the character up completely in makeup, hair costume, everything. That’s where the final designing happens, with myself, Peter, Fran, Philippa [Boyens] and heads of lots of departments, costume and so forth. Once we saw the whole thing in front of us, it’s then we started making final decisions about what we designed. Sometimes what we thought was going to look good maybe wasn’t working quite as well, so we had to change things.

PHOTOS: Meet the dwarfs from ‘The Hobbit’

HC: Were there a lot of last-minute changes?

PK: I think nearly for every dwarf, once we got them in front of us, we changed stuff. A lot of it wasn’t huge changes — we were changing hairlines, changing hair color, changing prosthetics, changing beard shapes. So we went through a lot of processes. To get their initial look, each dwarf went through about three or four show-and-tells. And then throughout the filming for the two years, for every look, for every different costume or breakdown of costume or whatever, we went through a show-and-tell series. I don’t know how many times we had the dwarfs in front of us all made up and everything so we could be absolutely sure that we were happy with the way they looked before we shot them. And if you think about that, that was only 13 characters, and we then had the rest of the cast. So we did the same for every single character, and I think I’m safe in saying that for every single major character, and at least half or two-thirds of the other characters either had prosthetics or wigs or both. And then after that, every single dwarf had to have a scale double, and a stunt double and a riding double. So for each principle dwarf, we made six wigs and eight beards. And then Gandalf comes along, and he has five wigs and five beards. And everyone has to have a scale double. Most of them have a stunt double and some will have a photo double because it wasn’t just one unit shooting. All in all, we had hundreds of wigs made, we hired hundreds more. Our basic team  — makeup, hair and prosthetics — was 37 people. Sometimes, with extras, we’d go up to 100 people just in a day doing makeup and hair.

Makeup and hair designer Peter King, right, applies makeup for an extra on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (Todd Eyre / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: That must be such a time-consuming process.

PK: Because we’re using encapsulated silicone, which is a fairly new product, it’s very easy to apply, and it’s much easier to blend the edges, so actually the prosthetic time was cut down. Which was great for the artists, ’cause they were doing this every single day, virtually. So I think the whole process was around two and a half to three hours for each dwarf [for full makeup, prosthetics, hair and costume].

HC: How did you go about choosing the hair colors?

PK: In the book, they’re actually described as having blue beards, green beards, silver beards and so forth. But we left that behind because you really want people to believe these characters. Where Tolkien said silver beards, we’ve had gray beards and so forth, but we haven’t had any strange colors, just because it might look too comical, and we want to take this seriously and believe in Middle-earth. So Gloin, he has to be red because he’s the father of Gimli in “The Lord of the Rings.” We had to make him the same color hair, and we had to give [Peter Hambleton] contact lenses, because we knew he was in the same family. We just chose different colors to suit their characters. You’ve got Bombur with the Friar Tuck haircut with a huge, great big beard that goes right around. And then Fili and Kili are the two young guys — the sexy dwarfs, if you like. One’s got an Irish accent. We laid off on the heavy prosthetics on those. The elder ones have got bigger foreheads, but these guys are supposed to be young, so we pulled the prosthetics back a little bit, because we had the idea that they were young and would grow into what some of the older guys were. They had a sparkle and a twinkle in their eye and were always getting into mischief.

Peter Hambleton, left, who plays Gloin and John Callen who plays Oin on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: How was it working with the actors?

PK: You’ve got 13 individual characters, but they’re a great band of actors to work with. They were very good, and they were very patient. Because the costumes and the padded suits and everything to bulk all their size up were fairly heavy. They made them as light as possible but they still used to get very hot. And we had to keep them cool because if they got too hot, the prosthetics would fall off and melt. So we had all this stuff going on for trying to maintain them.

HC: Did you look anywhere in particular for inspiration for their hairstyles?

PK: We didn’t really look to anything. It was just everyone sitting down and thinking, “What would these dwarfs look like? And how can we make them look like dwarfs but also believe that dwarfs exist?” We know that the dwarfs have beards and so on and so forth. We had Gimli from “The Lord of the Rings,” so we had that set up. A lot of them had big, thick wiry hair and big hands. So we’re using the hairstyles and the makeup and everything to make sure the scale is right. We couldn’t have a dwarf with silky hair because everything else would look out of proportion. So their hair had to be quite bulky. Most of the wigs were either yak or yak-and-hair mixed. We actually bought all the yak that was in England at the time. We cleared all the hair suppliers out of yak. We used so much — 60 to 80 kilograms of yak hair.

HC: Of all the work you did — elves, wizards, dwarfs — which look are you most proud of?

PK: I think I’m very very pleased with the 13 dwarfs, I have to say. We worked for four or five months before we put them in front of a screen or a camera. When you see the 13 dwarfs, they’re a band of guys who look ferocious and crazy, and I think for all the team, for everyone involved in creating that look, I think they should all be applauded.

Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: You have quite a bit of fantasy experience before doing these Tolkien films, including “King Kong” and “The Golden Compass.” Is this a realm you enjoy working in?

PK: It’s a realm I’ve actually ended up in, which of course I love, because it’s a great place to be. What I also really love is period drama, but I don’t get asked to do that so much now. Early on I did things like “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” and other stuff like that. So doing fantasy work, I think that comes from having a theater background, and I’d worked with theater and opera before I started in films, and nearly everything was period then; so I’ve actually learned an awful lot over the years about periods and what happens in periods and my knowledge is quite extensive now, so it comes quite easy to me. I’m not daunted. It’s one step further to start imagining things. Having all of that information in your head, you then somehow pick out little bits and bobs and put other bits together and start inventing and creating something else. Some people say, “Oh God, I’d be terrified to do that, because thinking of all the ideas and everything,” but for me, personally, it’s like a great challenge. Where can we go and do something that maybe these other people haven’t seen before? Which gets harder and harder as you go on, because everyone’s doing everything now. But it’s a challenge, and it’s fun, and I don’t think I’d be very good at just doing present-day stuff. I’d want to do something a bit more adventurous. It’s somewhere I do like to be. I like being creative as opposed to just replicating. The sky’s the limit. With the prosthetics and everything now, you can do everything you can imagine. You’re not held back.

HC: You have a long history of working with Peter Jackson.

PK: I’ve done everything with Peter since “Lord of the Rings.” We worked on our first project together, and now we just always work together. He always gets me, and we always collaborate. We work very well together. I’m someone who doesn’t bother people very much, and I get on with my work, and he likes to get on with his, and occasionally we have meetings to discuss stuff, and that’s how it’s done.

Galadriel actress Cate Blanchett, left, with makeup and hair designer Peter King on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (Todd Eyre / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: How are the looks you created for “The Hobbit” different from “The Lord of the Rings”?

PK: There are new characters that actually I can’t speak about because they’re not in the first film, but in the end, you have to be able to watch “The Hobbit” and then “The Lord of the Rings,” and there has to be a language that is common to all of the films. You can’t do something so different with this, especially with the characters we’ve already seen. You can’t really change Galadriel or Gandalf. We tried to make him look a little bit younger in this one, though he’s now 12 years older. You can’t change things you’ve already seen, so therefore the only scope we have is the new characters, like the 13 dwarfs, but they still have to be of Middle-earth. There is a language that we created in “Lord of the Rings” that we really have to pay attention to and not diverge too much, otherwise, especially because we’re making these 12 years later, it would be too incongruous. It would be a sudden jump from one to the other, and you would say, “Oh, these were made then, and those were made now.” We really tried to avoid that, so there’s always been certain things that we’ve thought about, and we’ve said, “No, we have to stay with this or we have to stay with that, because this is Middle-earth.” And Philippa Boyens, who knows everything about Middle-earth, was always great to go to and say, “We want to do this, are we veering too far away from Middle-earth?” And she’d go, “No, because Tolkien said that blah blah blah blah blah.” So we always had this point of reference in Philippa and people making sure we were still in Middle-earth, and not leaving it and going somewhere else. In that sense, techniques have changed, but our languages have really stayed the same.

– Noelene Clark


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‘Hobbit’ offers more ‘sophisticated’ Gollum

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4 Responses to ‘Hobbit’: Peter King on yak wigs and the language of Middle-earth

  1. Every time I read one of these articles it never ceases to amaze me how much work and effort they've put into these films.

  2. Logan says:

    While the standard English plural of dwarf is dwarfs, the Middle Earth plural is dwarves. Someone tell the proofreader. Tolkien even considered dwarrows as a plural for dwarf, but he controlled himself.

    • noelenecy says:

      Tolkien indeed used "dwarves" in his tales of Middle-earth. The issue was given much thought and discussion, but ultimately the Times' style ruling was for "dwarfs." But perhaps it is a shame we don't all use "dwarrows." :) Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • caseywollberg says:

        Yeah, but! You're talking about Tolkien's Dwarves, not Disney's "dwarfs". I've never seen any media outlet change it to "dwarfs" before. Come on! Get with the program, Times.

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