Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power fans are totally in awe of the heroic legends of the fabled ‘Second Age of Middle’ earth’s history. When I found out I would have the opportunity to interview the production designer Ramsey Avery and the concept artist John Howe, I had so many questions that came into my mind.
I was so appreciative my questions didn’t fall on deaf ears at the Scad TV Fest when I was able to find out exactly what John Howe and Ramsey Avery’s job description entailed in the Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power series.
Upscale: How were you able to maintain the authenticity of the look of everything?
John Howe: There were a lot of people involved in the production. There are as many people involved in a series like this as in a big Hollywood movie. There is an initial lead up time where there is a fairly reduced crew just trying to just flesh out the universe. Then it immediately goes from there into all the different departments who are going to be doing props, set design,lighting, cast and once it’s casted then everything goes until it’s just that run away train.
Upscale: Is everything handmade specifically for the series?
John Howe: Yes absolutely everything is made specific for the series. There is a huge fan base eagerly waiting to be taken back to middle earth and swept away. They are also waiting for any missteps along the way.
Upscale: Fans can be so critical. They are your best and worst critics sometimes.
Ramsey: That’s definitely true. We took the idea into account definitely that fans would be expecting the look of the Peter Jackson movies as well as the art that’s been developed. But that art has been going on for like 70 years. What that led us to get into is we had to find the core sense of sensibility that we believed represented what Tolting was intended and what the world would look like. We had to be very specific of what that third age would look like. That’s really different from the second age.
Upscale: As a production designer is that totally different from set design? Or do you just supervise the process?
Ramsey: What my job is to basically come up with what the world should look like. I work closely with the show runner and in some cases with the producers. In essence my responsibility visually would be pretty much everything other than what the characters wear. So in terms of what the world would look like, the colors, what they sit on and what they hold in their hands. First I’m in touch with the DP’s of what they want the colors to look like. Of course I don’t do all of this on my own. The set decorator responsible for all the characters are involved with, besides the walls comes into play. There is a weapons department, drapes, dishes, the lighting department and the visual effects department. The visual effects department which everything we design that goes in front of the camera has to blend seamlessly. The bedding the sheets that’s set design. So I am kind of the point person to all of that stuff. The separate weapons department, masonry, and there is the stone mason, black smithery, art directors.It’s my job to keep them in the right direction.
Upscale: Yes I can imagine fans are just looking to see if the lantern was from home goods or a period piece of antique.
Ramsey: Yeah, we hand blew most of the glasses that people drank from. A lot of that stuff was handmade. We often didn’t have time to do everything by hand so we would have to go to 3D milling or some digital work even on rock formations we had to do some 3D milling on that. Even when we do that a person would have to go in by hand and feel it to see if it feels handmade.
Upscale: I know the authenticity of it all is what people could appreciate. I know I certainly appreciated all of it.
Ramsey: It’s one of the things the show runners were particularly interested in. They wanted me to be very clear about it feeling real. They wanted the viewer to feel like if they could step into that screen that everything felt tactical and honest.
Upscale: How long do you have to do the pre-production process before going to film?
Ramsey: In this particular effort, the main effort took about 9 1/2 months before we went to film. It was also a fairly long shooting schedule as well. We had a little bit of time to prepare. It wasn’t like we had to have everything ready the first day. Of course, then there was COVID. When you are getting into that level of handwork some things could take weeks and some taking months.
Upscale: It has to be a fulfilling sense of accomplishment to see everything come to fruition.
Ramsey: One of the things that was so amazing was getting to work with John. He is remarkably quick. He was turning around imagery so fast. Also, it’s like when he does the artwork it’s a discussion. When he puts it in front of someone like a producer before it even gets to the show runner, it’s a discussion, then the show runner looks over everything and it’s another discussion. Then they run it past someone else and sometimes it just goes on until we just have to make a decision but the final answer is definitely the show runner.
Upscale: So if you have this super energetic young person that wants to show you for the day and they think they will learn this overnight. What advice would you give this type of ambitious person? Where would they need to start? I’m sure it’s not within the shadowing of you.
John Howe: I think it’s so hard to say. My general advice to a younger ppl who are sort of dazzled who perceives this as sort of a glamorous job, I would say get a job on any production. It doesn’t matter what it really is. You really need to know more about the logistics and mechanisms of things. You need to bring into it your own personal language. You need to establish a visual voice of some kind. Once you have that it’s a question of being able to work with others because it’s an intensely collaborative position. Everything is a proposal.Everything is a request for dialogue. As I often tell them at the entrance to any film studio there is a stand at the door for your umbrella and another one for your egos. Leave your ego at the door.
Upscale: With so many moving parts and collaboration would you recommend this type of job to someone who hasn’t dived into this type of work ever?
John Howe: I think it’s always worthwhile diving in even if you don[t know how to swim. In the worst case all they can say is thank you very much and then you can find something else to do. It does demand transversal thinking across the board. Trying to contribute in some kind of way to make a world asking the viewer to suspend his belief, buy into this type of world leaving the film wanting more. You never know what the final outcome will be because there are so many hands involved. Everyone involved is a small clog in this big machine. Then you need to be agile. Your convictions need to be yours and if you feel strongly about something that resonates with you then it should resonate with the public. This is intensely a collaborative effort.