Interview with Alan Lee (BnF, 6 February 2020) – part 3

The document below is a transcription of the interview with Alan Lee I hosted for the French national Library on 6 February 2020.

The interview was filmed and is available on YouTube here:

If you missed Part 1 and the introduction in which I explained my transcription process, you can read it here:

Part 2 covered mostly questions about Tolkien and Alan Lee’s illustrations for his texts. You can find it here:

In this third and final part, Alan Lee answers miscellaneous questions from the audience.


You mentioned that Christopher Tolkien had a say in what you were supposed to illustrate. Who else has a say in what you illustrate for a book? Do you choose almost everything, or do you have [subjects] that you have to do because of [editorial choices]?

Most of the time I’m given a pretty free hand. I suppose it saves the editor having to think too much about it. I think a good working relationship is a level of trust. You know you’re thinking along the same lines. [Usually, as an artist you’re chosen] for a reason. I always do roughs to show [my publisher] what I’m thinking. [It may lead to a] discussion about [various] aspects of it. As I said before, with Christopher Tolkien, he had a particular interest in the way he wanted the books to be [made]. Generally, I’d do a series of rough drawings. There might be one or two comments, [for instance if I haven’t offered enough] variations in a particular story. But I’m pretty much left to make those choices myself most of the time.

You mentioned that in illustrations and how you picture a place, your personal history comes into [play]. Are there places or travels you’ve made that have had a particular echo on your works?

Yes, definitely. But I think the place which has had the most impact is actually the place where I live, which is in Dartmoor, in the West country, the West of England. It’s a very romantic and bleak, […] very atmospheric landscape of high moorland and rocky crags [with marshes and woods and rivers. It’s kind of everything that I want in a landscape, apart from the mountains. But particular places, yes, it’s Dartmoor and the mountains of Snowdonia, in Wales, mountains in Scotland, and New Zealand, of course. It was such a pleasure being able to explore New Zealand to look for Middle-earth or elements of Middle-earth. It’s a beautiful landscape. But there’s lots of places I’ve never been to Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden. I’d like to make that journey and see if there’s something there that I can use.

To mirror the first question, some of the illustrations we can see on the screen [correspond exactly to what we see in the movies]. I know you have you worked with others […, but] did you have [complete] freedom, [did Peter Jackson] take your drawings and make [them into a movie, or was it more a collaboration with others ?]

It was a very intense collaborative exercise. So no, none of us had complete freedom. I’m not sure even Peter Jackson had complete freedom. The whole point of the exercise was first to do drawings which would make it easier for Peter to make [the most of them]. We would start off by doing drawings of a city, for example, to get a general overview. And once he’d honed in [what he wanted], we’d do several versions. [When he was satisfied with the result], then we had more freedom to work on the details. [He didn’t comment on] every single thing [we made, because he wouldn’t have had time.] We had to design every single thing in a set, every window-hatch, every doorknob, every prop. So when he reached the point when he decided he was comfortable with the design of Moria, for example, [he let us add details without checking everything.] We were involved with the process all the way through, from doing conceptual designs to sets, miniatures, props, and then staying on… I stayed on three years after we’d finished shooting, in order to work on the special effects. Those had to be approved by Peter as well. He’d give us a sequence that would contain lots of green screens. We would take a frame and paint what we imagined would be in the background, show Peter, get his approval, and then that would go over to Weta Digital and they would [turn the painting into CG]. It was a very long, intensive work. For me it was six years on Lord of the Rings and a further six years on The Hobbit, perhaps two and a half thousand drawings on each [trilogy], fifteen hundreds Photoshop […] visual effects. So yes, [lots of drawings]. That was a long answer.

I had a question on your work on ruins, and what your process was. There’s quite a bit of ruins in Middle-earth [for instance in Moria or Osgiliath. Do you picture their glorious past, or do you invent them as ruins?] […] My question was what your process was in the creation [of a drawing of ruins.]

That’s quite an interesting question actually – whether you start with a ruinous shape, and hope it makes some kind of sense, or if you start with the whole building. In the films, everything has to make architectural sense because [the camera is always moving] and exposing the logic behind what you’re creating. For example with Dol Guldur, in The Hobbit, it was all built as CG, but to do designs for what these particular towers would have looked like in their finished stage, [we had to imagine their whole shape, first, and then picture their state as ruins]. That’s how I would go about it. I’d design the entire structure of a building, and then ruin it. We’d do that with the actual objects as well: to create a ruined statue, we would [design it and] have it carved as a finished thing, take it away from that particular sculptor to another one to ruin, because it was very hard for sculptors to ruin their own work [so I’d make someone create a sculpture, and ask someone else to damage it].

[Were there some decors that were difficult to reproduce from your illustrations? Were you sometimes limited? Was it possible to do anything?]

So you’re asking whether any of the previous illustrations were used as they were?

[Were] there any major difficulties in recreating [some element from the illustrations]?

My process was quite tortuous in a way, because sometimes things look OK as a drawing, and I’d be quite happy with [the whole picture, and Peter Jackson would be happy with it], and then somebody else would make a model of it, and it’s not quite right. Then Peter would say “oh no, I don’t like it anymore”. You can’t say go back to him and say “look at the drawing again”. You have to go back to square one and do another [drawing]. There was a set on Lothlórien, for example, just one, which was quite tricky. It was tricky to create something that has that kind of detailed, light and graceful look out of materials like polystyrene and plasticine. Some of the things would take some time to reach [a satisfactory result].

[Here a young boy stood up to ask a question.]
Hello, my name is Alexander and I’m a big fan of your work. I have a question: if you can sign my book [laughter in the audience].

[I’ll sign your book.] In fact, you can be first in the queue if you like. [Applause]

My question is about the impact of your work on the reader’s imagination about Middle-earth. Your work is very famous for all of my generation [through] the movies and the books. Are you comfortable with the fact that your work has such a strong impact [on the readers’ mental pictures of] Middle-earth. [You mentioned that you discovered Tolkien when you were seventeen years old. Sometimes, when reading fantasy, we like to create our own mental pictures.] Some people who saw the movies think about your works [before making their own pictures].

Yes, thank you for that. To be honest, if I worried too much about that, I’d be completely frozen and I wouldn’t do anything. I do think about it, and that’s part of the reason why when I’m illustrating a book, in particular, I do try to step back and not put myself between the text and the reader. That’s my reason for concentrating more on [things] the author did not [describe with lots of details, for instance if the writer describes] a moment between two characters, I’ll be thinking more about what is happening in the background. I am aware of that, but I’m also aware that to a certain extent, I received these images by reading the text closely, and I just have to trust that other people reading it are not going to be that far away. And then there’s that thing about not overdesigning. If you put in too much detail, it’s very easy to get carried away. If it’s a character like an Orc and you want to make his armour immensely elaborate, and what Tolkien is describing is something with a metal cap and a chainmail shirt, not covered in horns and great spikes, the kind of things that might be more familiar in a sort of Dungeons and Dragons style […]. So I think if I’m respectful to the text and hang back a little bit, not get too excited, and concentrate more on the atmosphere, hopefully that [works] for everyone.

Are there any artists or painters that have influenced you? Gustave Doré, maybe…

A huge number. I was very attracted to the Pre-Raphaelites when I discovered their paintings for the first time: Burne-Jones, and Victorian painters in general, because they have a very illustrative approach to their work. But also landscape painters like Turner and illustrators such as Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham, Albert Dürer, Leonardo, Botticelli, … I’m so inspired by so many painters, it’s like a complete history of Art [if I start making a list]. But I think the thing that distinguishes the ones that I particularly picked up on were those who could obviously draw very very well. So it would be Dürer, Rembrandt, and certain 20th century illustrators [who have a very dynamic style of drawing]. That’s kind of a bottomless question [on which I could spend the whole night].

 [Is there a difference in your creative process when you draw with pencil and paper] and when you draw with a computer [to create digital illustrations]?

Very often, if I’m doing stuff on the computer, it’s specifically for a film. But I will very often start with a pencil drawing anyway, then scan the pencil drawing and work on top of that. But essentially, the setting of a computer or  a Wacom tablet and a stylus, and looking at the screen, is not that different to sketching in a sketchpad. There’s just a difference in the quality of the line, the kind of [scrambles], that kind of analogue quality you get with any kind of material like pencil or charcoal, which is really hard to duplicate on a computer screen. I don’t know if that answers your question. Yes? Ok.

I have two questions which are related. The first one would be: which would be your favourite Tolkien work? And the second question is: did you find you had any difficulties [drawing for] a particular story by Tolkien compared to another? Maybe some of them are more descriptive? When you lack detail in a description, [how do you manage]?

To take the last part, sometimes it’s good to lack details in descriptions. It gives you a little more [freedom]. I think I found The Children of Húrin quite a difficult book, because it’s just such a strong, tragic story, really. It made me quite… kind of miserable while I was illustrating it.
I think I’ll come back again to this thing about being more moved and more interested in the landscapes, the world around the characters. Doing a conflict scene, a portrayal of any one character, is a major endeavour. [Sometimes it] doesn’t quite work, it isn’t quite what you had in your mind. But I think Children of Húrin might be the hardest and maybe Beren and Lúthien was the easiest. The Hobbit was very enjoyable. The Lord of the Rings was enjoyable, but it took about eighteen months. Yes, I think that might be…

[The person in the audience then reminded Alan Lee of the first part of the question.]

My favourite story? Of Tolkien’s? Lord of the Rings.

Would you say your experience with the movies [had an influence on your way of working]? Maybe in the composition of your images, or regarding the dramatic intensity of your creations?

Yes, it did. One of the main things, one of the main differences with working on a film is that we have a different format. You’ve got this wide screen which I really enjoyed, it’s called the 2,35:1 format. I missed that when I was back from working on the films to work on books.
It just gives a lot more freedom to compose. Working in a portrait format means you tend to pile the things on top of each other, to a certain extent. But having that kind of wide screen canvas was very enjoyable. And then I think also that working on the films, working in Photoshop and doing these special effects, that kind of made me broaden the possibilities of what I can actually do with illustrations, made me [picture things in a more dynamic way]. Yes, I can’t think what else to add to that. Does that answer the question?

I have a complex question. [We saw in the exhibition] a lot of illustrations [of architecture.] When you worked on the movies, did you [create] something new [in terms of architecture? With the Elves, for instance,] the villages were Art Nouveau. [The architecture of the Dwarves is completely different. Did you come up with new architectural styles?]

Well I never said to the director “Sorry, that can’t be done” […]. The interesting thing about working on The Hobbit films was that we were able to [explore] some areas we hadn’t tackled before with The Lord of the Rings [in the Shire, Dwarvish kingdoms], the culture of Dale, Laketown. So it [was a matter of stepping] into another culture and see what we were going to do with that.
But it’s kind of problem-solving, really. We’ve got certain things we’ve got to achieve, certain limitations perhaps [in expenditure]. I quite like that problem-solving aspect. For an illustrator, you should go into in with the belief that you can draw anything. The only things I can’t draw are… I can’t draw anything that’s kind of totally modern: space-crafts, or cars, because they just look antique immediately. I did a few science-fiction covers, and they look like 19th-century science-fiction. So yes, there are limitations to what I can do. [Fortunately] I’m not really asked to go too deeply into that. I can select, to a certain extent, what I can do, what I’m comfortable with [through the stories I choose to illustrate].

[Did you like the exhibition about Tolkien and what did you think about it?]

I like the exhibition very much, I just had a look around just before coming here. But I saw it in Oxford, the version of it they did in Oxford, I saw it twice. And I’ve also had the privilege of having a close look at some of the originals [in the Tolkien archives]. So I’ve had some really close engagement with Tolkien’s work. But I liked seeing the extra dimension that the BnF exhibition has brought to [the manuscripts]: the bits of armour, artefacts. It’s quite a different experience… as enjoyable, if not more enjoyable,  than the Bodleian exhibition.

I have a question about the way you feel about the transposition of your images into movies. [Is it a] consecration to see [them in a] realistic way […]? [Do] you find it interesting to see [your illustrations turned into a movie, or [do] you feel that something is lost in the process]?

Turning an illustration into something on film? I never think of it as losing something that is [taking] another level of reality. You still have the original drawing, you haven’t lost that. Apart from the fact that [you’ve] left it in New Zealand. [It’s a real adventure] to take a drawing and see [how it can be transformed into something in 3D,] into a place you can visit, walk around. It’s fantastic, really delightful. Generally, it’s been a very happy process.



2 réflexions au sujet de « Interview with Alan Lee (BnF, 6 February 2020) – part 3 »

  1. Bonjour,
    Merci pour cette conférence très intéressante et pour la transcription en anglais! Elle s’est révélée extrêmement utile pour éclairer certains passages que les interprètes ont laissé sous silence ou mal compris dans le feu de l’action.
    Au cas où l’interrogation n’aurait toujours pas trouvé de réponse, ce que dit Alan Lee correspond au ratio 2,35:1 utilisé par Peter Jackson pour les deux trilogies.

    1. Merci infiniment pour votre commentaire et votre réponse! Je vais corriger la transcription immédiatement.

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