Imagine you’re a longtime art director who has been given your first major lead production design gig from a dear old friend. It’s a two-film, er, now three-film job adapting one of the most beloved books of all time. A little bit of pressure, no? What about the fact it’s following three previous films set in the same world that won Oscars and critical acclaim across the world? Eh, you were part of those films as an art director and have one of those Academy Awards sitting in your office. Ah yes, but here’s the kicker: your old friend – the director – tells you the film is going to be one of the first Hollywood productions shot in high resolution 48 frames per second. It’s an unknown world. How detailed do the sets need to be? What can you cheat like you would on a traditional set? What can’t you? Basically, if you and your crew can’t get it right, your director is potentially throwing you to the wolves. Welcome to the world of production designer Dan Hennah and set decorator Ra Vincent.
Taking some time to talk to the traveling band of journalists in a meeting room filled with concept sketches and paintings for all three films, Hennah and Vincent seem to have either dealt with the pressure rather well or are expert poker players. It didn’t take long for the 48 frames per second situation to come up in the discussion and both men noted nothing could be taken for granted this time around. As we learned from the costume dept. and makeup and hair as well, any detail that looked foreign to the world – a stray hair, some brushed off makeup, a slight rip in a coat – would be exacerbated 100 times when projected in 48 fps. Hennah and Vincent weren’t as dramatic as their cohorts when describing how the format changed their jobs, but it certainly gave them a lot to think about.
“We're being a little bit more careful about what the finished surfaces are like. How our texture treatments are done, and just by pushing that much more detail into everything,” Vincent says. “It's actually enriched the [props] and the sets a whole lot more, I think, because we're quite often using real materials instead of prop making plastics and things. I think it's better as an interactive thing as well for the actors because they're interacting with glass instead of plastic and ceramics instead of card.”
Vincent continues, “It's made it really important for us to make sure that we complete the environments as well. There's no hiding things behind other things. Or not building the backs of stuff. The furniture is complete. Behind the bed head there is a wall and things like that.”
From a thematic perspective, Hennah reminds us this novel takes place 60 years earlier than “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” During this period, Middle Earth is a tad younger and brighter because Sauron’s dark influence hasn’t corrupted most of the world.
“By the time we got to places like Elrond's Rivendell in ‘Rings’ it was the autumn of the Elven civilization,” Hennah says. “Whereas now it's like midsummer. So we could be a little brighter, a little more uplifted in Rivendell. It's a beautiful place anyway, but we were able to bring a little more magic into the color of it. And also in Hobbiton. Well, it's late spring, early summer.”
Also complicating matters from a production standpoint was Jackson’s goal of emphasizing the different sizes of hobbits, dwarves and humans more than he could in the “LOTR” trilogy. Because “The Hobbit” films are also in 3D it created a lot more work.
“The whole scale issue, across the border, doubles up a lot of what we do,” Hennah admits. “Starting with Bag End, the small one, the big one. Same thing except we've got thirteen, fourteen scale people to deal with. So apart from all the wardrobe problems, there's all the [props and] there's the set pieces. But also, you've got the transitional characters like Gandalf in a scene with dwarves, and so all those old tricks, the false perspectives [didn’t always work]. The false perspectives is one that doesn't really work in 3D, so there's a lot of digital transition, but we also have been doing a lot of slave motion capture*.”
*Slave motion capture is a new version of traditional motion capture WETA and Jackson have devised where an actor can be filmed on a green screen in a mo-cap suit and react to what is going on within a live set. This has been used to create the different proportions of the characters. It also meant that Sir Ian McKellen was often in a green screen soundstage by himself while the dwarves and hobbit shot live on set. McKellen made it clear he personally wasn’t a fan.
During the rest of our conversation, Hennah and Vincent tease us with stories of beautiful sets built in New Zealand forests that are no longer standing. In fact, there is one massive set just a few miles from the studio, but it’s for the last film and being kept under wraps. Like little kids we plead with the unit publicist for a quick side trip to check it out, but are politely smacked down. Jackson isn’t fanatical like some filmmakers, but he’d like for there to be some surprises down the road.