Thanks to Peter Jackson adding me to the formidable team he had assembled to make the movie trilogy from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I, like all the other actors involved, was to have the rare honour of witnessing this adaptation continually go from drawing board to cinema screen. One of the key architects entrusted with bringing Peter's vision to life and giving audiences around the world the tangible, detailed representation of "Middle Earth" we have in these movies, was John Howe. He and Alan Lee, both already famous for their achievements as illustrators of many works of fiction and fantasy -- including and perhaps especially Tolkien's writing -- worked as a team, almost as one brain, to create many of the blueprints for our location and studio sets, for the story's characters and for all manner of artefacts related to it. The unshakeable foundation of the movie trilogy was always in the elaborate design of these things by John, Alan and their collaborators in New Zealand from the various departments under Jackson. No matter how many side roads the script-writers took in the months and years after cameras rolled and story-telling began in earnest in October, 1999, what had started with pencil and paper in John's and Alan's hands would always serve as our ultimate visual guide and inspiration.
When we started filming in Wellington, I knew about as much about John Howe and his work as I did about Tolkien's book -- which is to say practically nothing. In the same way that I necessarily became an ardent student of The Lord of the Rings and its sources, I, like everyone else, gladly fell into the fully-realised world imagined in John's sketches and paintings. Each line from his pencil, however faint, served as an indelible outline of the world we came to inhabit. Although I would never pretend to have become any sort of expert regarding his work or its place among that of his artistic peers, it is certain that a side of his imagination and draughtsmanship are now very familiar -- a part of me, and I a part of it.
An inkling of the symbiotic phenomenon connecting us, the places travelled by our characters, and John's eye, came when I first saw some of his drawings in progress. On an equal footing with a handful of solitary moments spent in some of Aotearoa's more unspoiled natural environments, are the memories of glimpses I was privileged to have of John Howe's work-space in the Art Department building at the Stone Street Studios in Miramar. On the second floor of a converted factory space was a modest office shared by John and Alan, his partner in dreaming and drawing Middle Earth. Although I was to take advantage of going up to see what he and Alan had been cooking up on several occasions during the long shoot, it was not long after I'd arrived in Wellington and begun playing 'Aragorn', that I got my first and perhaps most memorable look at John's work. One afternoon when most of the cast and crew were on a lunch break, I went for a walk. Hoping to see the conceptual art for the movie and learn something about what Gondor and its people would look like -- and how, among other things, they would be visually related to the Elves -- I had been directed to their office. After knocking on the door a few times and getting no response, I entered the room and found the artists were not there.
Although I immediately felt it was wrong to intrude without permission, and ought to have left, the initial impact of the relatively small room cluttered with artwork in different stages of completion was so strong that I simply stood on the spot, just inside the opened door, and followed my amazed eyes for what must have been a couple of minutes. I remember realising I had been holding my breath, and exhaled as I took another step toward their adjoining desks. Even if I had not been someone already interested in drawing and painting, I would have been awestruck at the sheer quantity and diversity of the art work and tools surrounding me and taking up practically every inch of wall- and desk-space, not to mention a good part of the floor. You couldn't really say it was a mess in there, but it was impressively cluttered. In the many drawn and painted scenes and detailed studies taped to the walls and lying about could be seen some of the few places we had already filmed in -- and much, much more of what we would come to see and intimately know in the years to come. Here was a faithful, comprehensive, and delicately exact vision of elements of the epic journey we had embarked on. What was "not there" yet in partially-complete drawings was as attractive to my imagination as the finished renderings of Lorien, Weathertop, or the Prancing Pony. Much in the same way that I was beginning to experience a growing interest in the less-obvious layers of literary and mythological origins of Tolkien's inventions, I found I was immediately drawn to the parts of John's sketches that faded toward the edge of a page or abruptly disappeared into the white paper. I felt invited; my mind finished the drawing and went past it, imagining what the rest of the picture might look like, what could have come before and would come after it.
In looking at John's prodigious artistic output outside the subject of The Lord of the Rings, I continue to see how effective his conscious choices to show less of, diffuse, or veil his imagery can be. As much as one can see the excellence and precision of his draughtsmanship in completed pieces like "Billiards", "The Castle of Chillon", "Lancelot", or the "Centaur" or "Rhinoceros" armour drawings - to name but a few - it is often what he carefully leaves out of other, less "finished" images that compels us to meet him with our own imaginations. What is beside or beyond, hinted at or entirely absent from any hard line John has drawn in certain pictures always has the power to stimulate or provoke the viewer in some way. This effect can be had from not only sketches like those for Mythago Wood, or more finely-worked drawings like "The Golden Fool", "Unicorn", or "Waterfall" -- but also in margin-to-margin pictures like "Merlin".
In the "Merlin" image, which was created as potential cover art for a book in French on the wizard that did not end up being made, we see John's deft use of what is "not there". The details that evoke the passing of time, a certain frailty, and natural specifics of changing season on a certain afternoon are suffused with a pale and frosty light that interests us in what might be beyond the ridge-line and in the mind of the squinting old sage -- even as, or because, it prevents us from seeing these things. The blend of precise lines and less distinct areas is also put to good use in the startling, blood red-accented "Sagittarius", for example; there is an exactness and sure touch in the depiction of what is least visible that perfectly complements all hard edges. In all of these pieces we sense a harmony of tangible forms and suggested light sources, of what is readily, accurately observed and what we can only envision. It affects us, moves us, because we know it is all connected, all real - even when it is impossible. John Howe has expressed the nature of this better than I could:
"We refer to borders all the time. Tell a child he doesn't need something, you are asking him to define the border between his desires and needs. Growing up means defining your own borders -- where you stop and others begin... Other borders: pencils on paper. Brushes and colour. All these things touching and defining each other by contact. Defined by the places we touch reality, outlining the places we touch imagination."
In order to have at least a passable understanding of what types of artists and artwork make up the world of modern illustrators, I have looked at a lot of books, calendars, magazines, posters, and other published work. Nowhere and in no one have I seen such fine balance of the specific and the ephemeral, of nature observed and invented, of highly informed story adaptation and wholly original flights of fancy -- except, perhaps, in the work of John's colleague, Alan Lee. (Peter Jackson was certainly clever, and lucky, to enlist the services of both these immensely talented artists!) That is not to say that there are not dozens, if not hundreds of gifted illustrators with inspired eyes and hands; I just don't feel as involved or inspired by what I've seen of their work as I am by John's . Obviously, the fact that I had a unique perspective of his art in progress while working on Lord of the Rings affects my present judgment. I got to know John's work fairly well. I lived in it, and, in some cases, was a subject for it. I do feel enough time has passed, however, and enough new imagery by others has come into view, that my continued affinity for John's work, though perhaps not entirely objective, will remain undiminished.
For probably another ten or fifteen minutes, I quietly wandered around looking at his drawings and paintings. Had I been someone with any significant knowledge of modern illustrators, or, I suppose, of Tolkien's body of work and fiercely loyal fan-base, I probably would have been having a minor heart attack from being alone with all of those unique original images. Probably I would have felt compelled to at least steal one of his pencils or sit in his chair, if not roll up a couple of sketches and make a run for it. Even in my virginal state of relative geeklessness, however, I was amazed at the sheer volume and fine detail of the work in the room. I remember being conscious of it being a special moment, and have retained a memory of the smell of the paper, ink, graphite in that room, that day. Even if I had known what I now know about John and about Tolkien, however, it may well be that I would have resisted taking anything. Just as I am interested in old churches, temples, mosques, ceremonial grounds, and other places of worship without having to steal from or possess any part of them, I may have been able to walk away from John's office empty-handed anyway. I certainly don't regret not taking anything. What I saw and learned on my own during that lunch break, and what John continued to show me and others through his work, will always be with me. Any time I see part of the movie trilogy or any connected image, I'll always see John's hand in it. More than that, though, I am now but one more in the legion of admirers who will continue to eagerly anticipate each unique new image made by John Howe.
As I was making my way out of the front door of the Art Department building after leaving John's office and quietly -- guiltily --walking down the stairs from the second floor, someone -- I think it was Chris Hennah -- asked me if I was looking for someone. I felt like I'd been caught red-handed, that she could see all of those drawings in my eyes. I mumbled something or other about just being out for a walk, and made my way over to the lunch room to see what I could scavenge in the way of left-overs.
Toronto, October 2004