Q&A with Design Artist Daniel Falconer

As a longtime fan of both J.R.R. Tolkien and illustration, conceptual work for The Lord of the Rings films was a dream job for Daniel Falconer. This New Zealander was intimately involved in the design of creatures, armor, weaponry, props, and costuming for the trilogy. On February 23, 2005, shortly after the release of The Return of the King extended edition, he answered some of my questions.

Braun: How did you become interested in The Lord of the Rings?

Falconer: My mother gave me a much-loved and thumbed through copy of The Lord of the Rings in one paperback volume when I was eleven. Many of the pages were falling out, but I protected that book like it was my own flesh. I was so thoroughly enthralled by it that I devoured it in no time at all and then kept going back for more — rereading favorite parts all through my teenage years. I loved every page that Gollum was on — the dynamic between the two Hobbits and him was just so much fun to read and imagine. I also loved the Ents because they were so magical, and reading their scenes conjured up strong imagery in my head.

Braun: How did you become interested in illustration and design?

Falconer: Being the child of an art teacher, I was encouraged to explore art throughout my childhood. I maintain that more folks can draw than they realize. The problem is that we are so often discouraged when young, lose confidence, and consequently never draw again. I am thankful that my mother encouraged and supported my creativity. She actively fostered it, and kept me well stocked with art materials of all kinds, from paints and felt pens to polystyrene and cardboard packaging that I would reshape into environments for my toys. We had Plasticene and clay as kids, and would make our own fun. That basis of confidence in one’s own artistic ability, coupled with an insatiable desire to be making and creating things, set me up to be able to pursue this as a career path. I had known ever since I saw such movies as Star Wars and The Dark Crystal that I wanted to end up in the film industry. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to make films as I wanted to create new worlds and tell stories in them. After seeing “making of” documentaries about films like those I mentioned, I realized that you could actually do that for a living. From that point on, I knew it’s what I wanted to do, and all my schooling and university education became geared toward achieving that goal.

Braun: What did it mean to you when you found out you’d be working on The Lord of the Rings?

Falconer: Being a longtime fan, I had always hoped to one day be involved in bringing it to the big screen as a live-action endeavor. In my wildest dreams, I never expected to find myself working at the place that would be handed the project to make — especially so early in my career. I had only been at Weta a year when it came along — that’s one year out of art school and here I am designing the greatest fantasy novel of all time as three huge-budget movies! No pressure!

The level of excitement I felt was fever-pitched, but because of the secrecy agreements I had signed, and the desire by the studio to keep the project under wraps, I couldn’t tell anyone what I was doing. Even my family didn’t know what we were working on, only that it was going to be big. The joy I felt when the project was green-lit and we could talk about it was immense. It was an exhausted high that lasted over six years.

Braun: What did you like doing most?

Falconer: I think to pick a favorite, it would be designing and building Treebeard and the Ents, just because I was afforded great freedom to realize them in a way that most married with my own creative vision of them from the books. There is also something very cool about a real physical creature. We built Treebeard as a giant puppet, and it was just so cool to be able to be involved with that. Standing next to that puppet on set was a thrill.

Braun: Did you know what you wanted right away with the Ents, or did the design take a while?

Falconer: I had a strong vision of the Ents after reading the books, so in one sense, that was easy to get down on paper for me, but, as with any design, there are always issues to resolve in the design that don’t show themselves until you draw them.

For that, the process in which the designs are honed and improved is invaluable. It helps sort out any problems with the design, and gives you the chance to improve it, tweaking little things here and there to get the best possible result. The Ents were established with the very first drawings done, but they had to be honed and developed to really work. That came about with everyone’s input. It was also important to come up with other options, even if they were discarded, just to be sure that we had indeed settled on the right choice.

Braun: How did your knowledge of the books help you on the project?

Falconer: I actually ended up becoming one of the “go-to” guys for Tolkien knowledge. I remember with great fondness the day we were all in the Weta cinema watching rushes (the results of the day’s shooting) and a debate was being had between some of the department heads as to some creative issue. Peter Jackson called out in the dark room, asking if I was there. He wanted to know what Tolkien had to say about it, and thought I was the man to know the answer. That was a very proud moment for me, and one that made all those years of being a nerd at school worthwhile. At last that knowledge gleaned with my head in a book while others were out playing sports had born fruit in the end!

Once shooting started, I was also asked to provide handout folders for some of the cast who hadn’t had the time to read the books before beginning work. I prepared detailed folders for several of the main cast, particularly the Elves, with family trees, relevant sections from the books, character bios, and personality insights. I got to sit with several of them and talk about their characters, sometimes on multiple occasions.

Braun: And you even got to be an Elf yourself at Helm’s Deep.

Falconer: I was lucky with Helm’s Deep. I was only there a couple of times, and mostly that was shooting indoors during the day. Most of Helm’s Deep was shot on location at night. It played havoc with crew sanity because it was a long, hard, cold, wet, dark shoot. I think I got very lucky in getting to dodge all that hard work.

Braun: What happened to all you Elves at Helm’s Deep? Did you all die?

Falconer: It was never explicitly stated that all the Elves died, but after the battle, you can’t see any left standing, leading one to wonder, “Did they all get pasted?” In a romantic sense, the idea that they all gave their immortal lives in a sacrifice to buy time for Rohan is a wonderful one, and I think perhaps one that Tolkien might have approved of. The final answer though, as to whether any survived at all, will probably never be known. I think if any had, they would have been quick to leave for their homes and the sanctity that they had amid such carnage. I doubt any Elf who survived that would be left with much taste for lingering in Middle-earth.

Braun: Did you get to do a cameo for the third film?

Falconer: I did try, but it fell through. There was talk of the Design Department getting to be Dead Men of Dunharrow, but it never happened.

Braun: For those of you who had been longtime fans of the books, how did you deal with having different visions of how things should look?

Falconer: As a concept artist you are always balancing several creative agendas. When designing something for The Lord of the Rings, you are trying to realize Peter Jackson’s vision, stay true to Tolkien’s vision, create something fans will like, and also satisfy your own creative vision. Fortunately we usually got several cracks at it, sometimes submitting hundreds of drawings before the final design was approved. That gave us the chance to get our own feelings down on paper and also hone in on what Peter Jackson wanted. It also meant that all the options were thoroughly explored. We couldn’t be unhappy with the final result if it didn’t match our own personal vision exactly, because we had plenty of opportunities to present our own ideas. In the end, the best ideas rose to the top of the pile and stood out, but all options were considered. Accepting that sometimes an idea one might really like doesn’t make it through is part of the job. It doesn’t pay to get too attached to a concept. It’s important to remain objective.

Braun: What do you think of the films as a whole?

Falconer: They are my favorite films. I love them. Fortunately the project was so large that, even having worked on them since the very beginning, there was still huge amounts that I never saw till the cinema release, so I could appreciate them as a fan and not just as a crew member.

Braun: As a fan of both Tolkien and special edition DVDs, I love the Platinum Series Special Editions. Michael Pellerin and his people seem to have poured so much work into them. What was it like working with them?

Falconer: I cannot speak highly enough of Michael Pellerin, Susie Lee, and the rest of the DVD team. These guys have become great friends of ours through the production. They were intimately involved with all aspects of the films throughout the whole job. They knew us all well and were keen to do right by us — telling the full story of these amazing movies. We did several interviews with them, and also looked through our artwork with them. Bottom line though, the DVDs are as good as they are because Michael and Susie know us all so well, and know all the stories. They know what to dig for to make great content on the DVDs and they are phenomenally talented, smart people. I’m really glad you asked that question because these guys often get forgotten, yet they are as important in the equation as any of us.

Braun: Okay, now to the tough questions. I’m going to list some choices, and I want you to select your preference. Best Peter Jackson cameo: man of Bree, spearthrower at Helm’s Deep, or mercenary of the Anduin?

Falconer: Mercenary without a doubt. How cool was that scene in the extended edition of Return of the King?

Braun: Best Peter Jackson kids cameo: cute Hobbit children, cute Rohan refugees, or cute Gondor kids?

Falconer: Hobbit kids — just too cute for words, especially their reactions to Bilbo’s story.

Braun: Line most likely to have Tolkien rolling over in his grave: “Nobody tosses a Dwarf,” “Meat’s back on the menu, boys!,” “It’s the Dwarves that go swimming with little, hairy women.”

Falconer: Tie between the first two. There were those moments that made even some of us wince with awareness that we were perhaps treading a little close to the edge. . .

Braun: Sexier babe: Éowyn or Arwen?

Falconer: Tough call. I’m going to pass on the grounds that my wife might read this.

Braun: Better singer: Éowyn or Arwen?

Falconer: Both great — but I cried for Éowyn’s lament.

Braun: Character you’d least like to kiss: Lurtz or the Mouth of Sauron?

Falconer: The Watcher in the Water — just ewwwwww!

Braun: Lord of the Rings the books or Lord of the Rings the movies?

Falconer: As much as I love the films, if they only serve as an eleven hour–long advertisement for the books, then that’s fine by me. Go read them everyone! No contest for the power of the written word. The films just make them more accessible for many who might otherwise never have read them.

Braun: Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings or the Rankin/Bass Return of the King?

Falconer: Never seen the Rankin/Bass movie, but I really loved parts of Bakshi’s labor of love. The guy really got some things right, and did a great job with the technology he had. It’s easy to be critical in the wake of the live-action films, but when you consider the difference in tech, budget, and support, Bakshi deserves some serious credit. His film enriched my experience of the books in the same way I hope ours will for future readers. You watch them, take what you like onboard and disregard the rest in favor of your own imagination as inspired by the books.

Braun: Better idea: The Hobbit the movie or The Hobbit the miniseries?

Falconer: The movie, in my opinion — just because I doubt that a miniseries would have the budget that The Hobbit deserves, and the Battle of Five Armies demands to be seen on the big screen.

Braun: Furthest from an Oscar caliber performance: artist Christian Rivers as the beacon keeper, composer Howard Shore as a happy Man of Rohan, or producer Rick Porras as the frightened pirate when the Army of the Dead attack his ship?

Falconer: Ha! I should say Rivers because he’s a good friend, and I’d hate to pass up the chance to rib him. Actually, I thought he was great. My prize goes to the Uruk-hai tiptoeing down the steps at Amon Hen.

Braun: Sounds more like a lecturing college professor in the DVD bonus features: Richard Taylor or Alex Funke?

Falconer: Oh poor Richard — he actually sounds quite different in person. I think he intentionally speaks very clearly and slowly on the DVDs to be sure he gets his point across. He is a very good public speaker and is intensely passionate about what he saying. I think it’s important to remember that he has told these stories thousands of times, so that probably affects the telling. Go easy on him — he’s one of the most amazing people you’ll ever meet!

Braun: Favorite film: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, or The Return of the King?

Falconer: Return of the King because it has the emotional payoff. It is also the end of the journey, for us as well as the characters, so it has added emotional weight. I haven’t yet managed to watch it without getting choked up in places.

Braun: What has it been like to have worked on a project so big for so long? Does it seem a bit anticlimactic to move on to something else?

Falconer: It’s hard to imagine what could top The Lord of the Rings, but every new project has its own challenges and joys. I will always remember what The Lord of the Rings was to me, and what an incredible time it was in my life. It has changed me deeply, and I am hugely thankful to the project and Tolkien for how my life has been enriched by The Lord of the Rings, both professionally and creatively.

Braun: Do you have anything you’d like to say to the fans?

Falconer: I think what we have about covers it, but I’ll say a big thank-you to all those fans I have had the pleasure of meeting. I am constantly amazed by how generous, articulate, and warm the fans are. It’s a wonderful community to be a part of, and I have been lucky enough to meet some incredible people and hear some amazing stories. I have made many lasting friendships as a result.

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