Middle-earth and back again – Alan Lee

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

Many of you may have stayed-up a couple of weekends ago to watch the probably the most highly-regarded awards show in the world: the Oscars.

The 91st Academy Awards ceremony took place at the Dolby
Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles. As you can imagine, it was glitz and glamour galore and the stars turned out in en-masse.

Nothing could feel more removed from the modest, quiet and
low-key home towns of many of us on Dartmoor.

However, while many will know that Dartmoor plays host to TV stars such as Jennifer Saunders, few will realise that an Oscar
winner makes our humble moor his home: Alan Lee.

For those unfamiliar with his work, Alan was asked to illustrate the centenary edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (1995) and the 1999 edition of The Hobbit. These are but two of some of his many works.

Alan Lee and John Howe were then asked by director Peter
Jackson to become the lead Concept Artists on his Lord of the Rings film series – working in New Zealand for 6 years on the set.

The work that he did with Peter Jackson led him to two Oscar nominations. So, to begin our interview, we discussed his
experiences at the world’s most lavish award ceremony.

“I went to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony for The Two Towers which was great … you were ferried around in limousines and you go to parties …

‘So you’re at a party and there’s Jane Fonda dancing over there and Paris Hilton and you’re sitting at dinner and, on that first year, you had all these Hollywood veterans because it was a big kind of anniversary – I think 75 years of the Oscars – and they put each of these aged celebrities on different tables.

‘So you have Jack Palance sitting at the head of the table and he looked like a cardboard cut-out. Totally immobile and he didn’t want to be there and hated the whole business.

‘We came back the following year for The Return of the King and the Art Direction category was actually the first one to get called-up and that was right at the beginning of the ceremony and you don’t know who is presenting.

‘And so, Angelina Jolie comes on and she’s presenting the Art Direction category – I felt like this could be it, this could be the moment. It just felt right and life couldn’t be so cruel but to take it away.

‘And then she announced the winners and you go into this state of semi-shock.”

‘ you walk around the back and you line up with Angelina and there’s a whole crew of photographers standing around and asking questions but the funny thing is you go in there, because there are two red carpets.

‘There’s one red carpet about the size of a highway where the stars kind of walk … and then tucked away behind some shrubbery is another red carpet for the people that aren’t celebrities and then  kind of converge at the entrance to the cinema and there’s two big banks of photographers but they always had a spotter at the front who shouts out to the photographers whose coming and if they don’t recognise you they say “IT’S NO-ONE!” – so you just carry on walking through.

‘It was just full of funny old moments like that.”

Alan went to Ealing Art college at the aged of 17 and this was where he first encountered the work of Tolkien. A friend of his gave him a copy of the first Lord of the Rings book –  the Fellowship of the Ring.

He didn’t spend long at college before he dropped out feeling disenchanted with the course he was doing. During his year out, he worked as a graveyard gardener. He described working in a cemetery and it feeling like a different world.

Alan returned to his course at Ealing Art College not long after and found himself considerably more enthused with the course and his tutors. Reading Tolkien’s work had reinvigorated his love of fantasy: “While everybody else was working on campaigns for Volvo, things like that, I was quietly sitting there illustrating ancient Irish folk tales,” he says.

Reader’s Digest and Women’s Own were just some of the publications that Alan worked on once he had finished his course. He would go on to illustrate book covers, with his best works being the Fontana ghost-story anthologies and Alan Garner novels, including The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

This work wouldn’t go unnoticed. Alan’s work would come to the attention of none other than Jane Johnson – at Allen & Unwin and responsible for the Tolkien list. After discussing it with Christopher
Tolkien – J. R. R. Tolkien’s grandson – Johnson gave Alan the illustrious role of illustrating an edition of the Lord of the Rings to mark the centenary of Tolkien’s birth.

Thus started a 20-year odyssey for Alan that would inextricably link him with Tolkien; the start of his 20-year involvement with Middle-earth.

If illustrating this edition felt like a huge honour in 1992, then the next part was about to go to the next level. Alan had just moved to the edge of Dartmoor when he was contacted by the director Peter Jackson. He had sent Lee two videos of his previous work so Alan could see the direction he wanted to take the films in.

“I sat and watched them and read the letter  and he outlined what he wanted to do with The Lord of the Rings and so I just phoned back and we had a nice conversation and I agreed (to go out to New Zealand) for 6 months to see how it would go.”

‘That turned into six years,” Alan laughs. “I lived out there while all three films were done. I was probably the last member of the crew left there, doing the final promotional art work.

‘So I came back to England … and thought I would do some more books and a couple of months later I got a call from Peter and was asked if I would go out and do a little bit of work on King Kong, so I went back out again for about two months … and I ended up doing quite a bit of work on that.”

Following the work he did with Jackson, Alan was asked by
Guillermo del Toro to work on The Hobbit film series – though Peter Jackson would eventually take over from del Toro.

“In 2008 The Hobbit began to start up again, this time with Guillermo del Toro directing it – It took a while for it to get going, lots of stops and starts, and again it took six years. I didn’t know it was going to be another three films again and that ended up being another 6 years.”

Alan’s workshop is a converted barn which looks out over the untamed landscape of Dartmoor.

He has referenced on a number of occasions how the unwieldy, mythical moor has formed the inspiration for a lot of his work.

However, with no more films on the horizon, Alan spends his days back in his studio, continuing to experiment and, despite being an Oscar winner, honing his craft.

He has recently returned from a tour of the UK where he was promoting the Fall of Gondolin — the third “rediscovered” Tolkien novel – taking in two cities a day for talks and signings.

He’s got another book to work on: a Hobbit sketchbook featuring his work on both films and books.

“I have to admit,” he says, “I’m at my happiest when I’m sitting in my studio with a brush in my hand.”

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