Building the Sets of Middle-Earth for The Battle of the Five Armies

Peter Jackson and his crew shot The Hobbit trilogy concurrently over 266 days (the same total number of days it took to shoot The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Another 10 weeks was needed for cast and crew for pickup shooting for The Battle of the Five Armies on the performance capture stage, which ends the Middle-earth saga that Jackson and his team have been working on since last century.

Building the sets for Jackson's Hobbit trilogy required all eight acres of Stone Street Studios, on the Miramar Peninsula in New Zealand, as well as the six sound stages. Building Tolkien’s hyper-realized world into practical sets required the work of production designer Dan Hennah, supervising art director and set decorator Simon Bright and set decorator Ra Vincent, to name a few. They had the monumental task of designing and building the physical world of The Hobbit trilogy in a way that would honor Tolkien’s exquisite detail, aiming for the realistic and tactile. They were helped by Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee, who have spent their entire careers developing a deeply researched, artistic feel for the details of Middle-earth, from the creatures to the cultures to the landscapes.

Lake-town, one of the many sets that had to be illustrated, designed, miniaturized and then built. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

Howe and Lee have been channeling Middle-earth through their artwork for a long time, and their intuitive grasp of Tolkien’s vibrant world was a major boon for the filmmaking team. “Their work excites the imagination and gave me a strong environment in which to imagine the story,” cinematographer Andrew Lesnie said in the production notes. “I frequently showed Alan and John’s work to the crew as a way of explaining the ‘feel’ of a location or a sequence. It was always nice to pull off a shot that felt faithful to the tone of their work.”

As trolls take their position and thousands of combatants prepare for battle, director Peter Jackson had unprecedented flexibility to film these sequences with Weta Digital's technology. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

The creation of a film like Battle of the Five Armies is not only an adaptation of the source text, but hundreds of adaptations within the production itself. Howe and Lee produced thousands of Middle-earth illustrations, which are then adapted by Hennah into detailed designs, which are then adapted into practical sets. The illustrations are adapted by costume designers Anne Maskrey and Bob Buck who dress the actors, and then those actors are filmed in 3D by Lesnie at 48-frames-per-second using Red Epic digital cameras, and that imagery is augmented with the visual splendors (and horrors) created by Weta Digital, and on and on it goes. Battle of the Five Armies gave Jackson and his team the very best immersive technology they’ve ever had to work with, allowing for unprecedented flexibility in staging, framing and filming the final battle for Middle-earth.

So how did they actually build the sets for Middle-earth? First, Hennah’s team created a virtual miniature of Tolkien’s world by building 94 models for the entire Hobbit trilogy, built in multiples of 1:16 or 1:25 scale. Once this was completed, the miniatures were transformed into life-sized sets for the film’s most intense, or intimate, set pieces. For Battle of the Five Armies, Hennah had 350 people transforming existing sets, as well as creating brand new sets for the third and final film.

Building the sets required adaptations upon adaptations, from artist to artist, to get to the finished, life-sized scale work. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.

One of these new sets that gets a much deeper look in this film is the ruined fortress of Dol Guldur. This abandoned castle is at the southern end of Mirkwood Forest, where Sauron was last defeated by the Elves, and where he re-emerges in The Hobbit trilogy to plot his revenge. It’s here in Dol Guldur where Sauron summons the terrifying Ringwraiths, those black-clad entities that are actually nine long dead kings whom Sauron controls through his Rings of Power. So clearly, Dol Guldur is an important location.

The thing is, it wasn’t described in detail in Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” but that didn’t stop John Howe and Alan Lee from summoning the castle through the history Tolkien described in the appendices of his “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The design that emerged is based on an equilateral triangle, with three sides, three bays and three staircases on an interlinked facet. This conception of it gave each Ringwraith it’s own chamber.

“The place is always a kind of reflection of the character of the people that live there, so we knew it had to be very creepy, redolent of evil and the horrible, gruesome things that happen there,” Lee said in the production notes. Howe and Lee’s design was then taken by Hennah and his team and transformed into six sets that were aged and rotted to look ancient, fitted inside a stone structure and rusted metal strapping. “This is an environment in which you immediately feel the evil that has collected there,” Hennah said. “There are skeletal remains and everywhere you look are metal spikes, chains, and great, thorny vines—all of which immediately evokes a sense that something bad has taken place here.”

The adaptations within adaptations that took place during the production of The Battle of the Five Armies is perhaps best visualized here at Dol Guldur. From Howe and Lee’s artwork to Hennah and his team’s design and construction, to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s use of all those hard angles in the three-side structure, to actress Cate Blanchett’s arrival in this place, where her character Galdriel descends barefoot into this dark, cold, evil place. Galdriel walks deeper and deeper into Dol Guldur’s rotted stone heart, wearing a flowing, white gown. The gown, of course, was created by costume designer Ann Maskrey, along with Bob Buck and Richard Taylor, who gave Galdriel an ethereal, angelic look that contrasted with the dark surroundings. The adaptations abounded during this production; Blanchett’s dress was inspired by ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn’s from “Ondine.”

Galdriel (Cate Blanchett) enters Dol Guldur in a gown, her ethereal presence contrasting with the dark, rotting set. Courtesy Warner Bros. Picturs.


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.

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