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Lord of the Rings designer gives insight into Oscar-winning career

Alan Lee Monday 14 November 2016

Lord of the Rings designer and illustrator Alan Lee gave a whistle-stop tour through his Oscar-winning career, at the university’s first ever Tolkien Day.

Mr Lee demonstrated how his designs developed from sketchbook to screen, and talked about how he approached the challenge.

He also discussed his early excursions into film, including Terry Jones’s Eric the Viking and Ridley Scott’s fairytale Legend.  

It was a Lord of the Rings book cover that inspired Peter Jackson to contact Mr Lee and ask him to work on the first Lord of the Rings film. He recalled how what he thought was going to be a six-month job turned into six years.

He also spoke about how he created the environment after reading the novels, saying “I took myself on a mental journey,” starting at the base of the first tower and then looking in all directions. He stated how “each time its gets more crystallised” and that this is how his evolutionary process works.

He stated that of those mental images that he conjures up, “the ones that keep appearing survive into the film.” He described how he worked with miniaturists and Photoshop experts to integrate his drawings with the film, and how his role ranged from imagining and creating vast landscapes to the smallest detail on a piece of armour or a doorknob.   

He also showed the audience one of the very few watercolours he produced while working on the film. Mr Lee said he put his creations down to “being a perpetual student” and going to a school where from the age of 13 he was allowed to draw and paint for 25% of his school week, all of which taught him “how to look closely.”

He then spoke about how, even when designing fantasy worlds, he still aimed for “a feeling of reality.” He added, “I don’t think you get enough of that in film. The tendency to overdesign can stop you connecting in a way with a film.”        

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