What I Learned About Design from the Lord of the Rings Movies

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I love seeing the design process behind a movie or TV show. It’s probably one of my favorite things to learn about. So when my husband and I spent a few weeks rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies (extended editions, of course) and then all the hours of special features for each movie, I was riveted. The movies are very well made, but watching the 9-10 hours of special features for each movie was especially interesting (I highly recommend watching the special features if you haven’t). They break down and discuss every aspect of the movie design and making process from storyboard to set building to sound design. So in today’s post I wanted to break down the things I learned about design from the Lord of the Rings movies.  

I love seeing the design behind a movie or TV show. It’s probably one of my favorite things to learn about. So when my husband and I spent a few weeks rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies (extended editions, of course) and then all the hours of special features for each movie, I was riveted. The movies are very well made, but watching the 9-10 hours of special features for each movie was especially interesting (I highly recommend watching the special features if you haven’t). They break down and discuss every aspect of the movie making process from storyboard to set building to sound design. So in today’s post I wanted to break down the things I learned about design from the Lord of the Rings movies.

 

Design is Reflective

The design of the characters in Lord of the Rings started with basically a brand guide for each culture or race of character. They discussed and decided on the “look” for the elven culture, the orcs, the hobbits, the different human cultures, and the dwarves. What shapes reflect the culture/race? What colors would best represent them? What style of architecture will their buildings be? What is their fighting style? Those decisions were then translated into their costumes, makeup, movements, sets, and even music. For example, the elves are a very wise and powerful race. Their style is very lyrical and flowing. The elven cities are one with nature, and the architectural style is much more round and curvy than a dwarven city. The dwarves have a much more square and rigid characterization and architecture style.

“We wanted to make it look like you could look at a piece of architecture and tell if it was dwarven or elven immediately just by looking at it. If you looked at a weapon and then you looked at the architecture, you could tell which cultures were the same and which were different. So that meant establishing iconic designs...it’s graphic design, really, at it’s basic level.” -Daniel Falconer, Weta Workshop Designer/Sculptor

The questions the Lord of the Rings team asked when designing the characters are the same questions that designers ask when building a brand for a person or company. Ok, maybe not the fighting style question, but the goals and plans of the company are taken into consideration. The brand is reflective of everything about the company. It’s more than it’s logo. The brand is the company identity, design, strategy, advertising, marketing plan, and it’s logo.

 

Design is in the Details

“Just by laying much more design into the development of the every part of the film whether it’s props or costume or armor or buildings that would never actually really be on film but it’s presence would be felt in some sort of strange way.” -Alan Lee

The elements of the sets and costumes were carefully detailed and many times the moviegoers would probably never see or notice most of them; however, all the details add to the realism on-screen. One of the details they worked hard on was designing the set for Hobbiton. Building this Hobbit town took an entire year, and they even grew the vegetation for the Hobbiton set so that it would look like it had been there a long time--which it did because it HAD been there awhile. They didn’t try to fake it.

“It was a very long and organic process designing and building it, but I like to think that Hobbiton needed that scale of detail to work well.” -Grant Major, Production designer

The use of miniatures, or what they lovingly called bigatures (because they ended up being so large), required a heightened attention to details because these sets weren’t necessarily only going to be shot from a distance but also closeup; therefore, the details had to be visible and come across to the viewer from both distances.

Design requires the same attention to detail that they took in the movie. Charles Eames said “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Making sure elements line up perfectly, the colors are harmonious together, choosing the right fonts, making sure the style is consistent across the whole design and matches the message it is trying to get across, all of this is important. These things make a design.

 

Design is Consistent

Making sure a viewer would recognize the different cultures from movie to movie meant they had to keep their graphic styles at the forefront of the design process. New characters had to fit in with the cultural styles that had been established. It helped that they filmed all three of the Lord of the Rings movies at once. But then when they decided to film the Hobbit movies, the consistency of the graphic styles was key to keep the movies in the same world.

Not staying consistent across your designs with color choices, fonts, spacing, and alignment can really break a design. Stop signs don’t change color or shape from city to city. They are always red octagons. The same goes for your designs whether it is for web or print. Consistency creates a known expectation for the user and makes a brand recognizable. Create a style guide when you are working on your next project so that you have a reference of the different fonts and colors used when you need it.

 

Design is Doing Many Iterations

Designing the many characters and creatures in the Lord of the Rings world would many times take 50 or 100 drawings to find the right mix of elements. A sketch iteration wasn’t an official character design until it was “Peter Jackson Approved,” and even then, it could still change. These changes in creature design (even after an approval) happened during the evolution of Gollum.  A design had been created for Gollum, and Jackson hired Andy Serkis strictly as a voice actor. But once the director saw the way Andy Serkis used his entire face and body to create Gollum’s voice, they decided to use more advanced techniques to create their character. They changed Gollum’s design to look more like Serkis and then used motion capture during Serkis’ performance. It was only then that Gollum’s design was what they had been looking for.

Ideas can come from what you may think are odd places, but you never know what may spark something. So when designing, thumbnail like crazy. Because it is small-scale, no idea is bad. Just sketch what comes to mind and see where it takes you. It may take hundreds of iterations, however the best idea may come from a combination of multiple of those iterations. During your next project, force yourself to come up with 50 or 100 ideas for something because it causes you to think outside of the box and be inventive.