Transcript of the chat with Alan Lee during the Children of Hurin US Paperback Release Party (16.10.08 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

Yesterday, to celebrate the release of the Children of Hurin paperback, Houghton Mifflin together with organized a chat event with the illustrator Alan Lee. The event had started at 16:00 GMT, but some attendees had already logged in much earlier. There was a lot of discussion going on in the chat box, mainly about The Children of Hurin, Tolkien illustrators, collecting Tolkien books and of course the Hobbit movies. 12 signed paperbacks were given away by means of some fun quiz questions (thanks to Jasper Huitink and Olwe). By 21:30 all chat box attendees where very excited and we all waited for Alan Lee to enter the chat event.

The special guest, Alan Lee, is an English artist best known for illustrating the 1991 one-volume hardback edition of The Lord of the Rings. He was one of the two lead concept artists for the 'Lord of the Rings' movie trilogy; Alan Lee won an Academy Award in 2004 for his work on 'The Return Of The King'. After the movies his Lord of the Rings Sketchbook was a major bestseller and in 2007 Alan Lee illustrated The Children of Hurin and also the cover image was by his hand. In 2008 the illustrated version of The Tales of the Perilous Realm will be released, which will also be illustrated by him.

The chat event was moderated by Pieter Collier and the questions that were asked were either sent in in advance or gathered from numerous Tolkien websites (,,... to name a few). Some questions were submitted during the event itself. At 21:45 Alan Lee entered the chat room and was welcomed by all visitors.

Alan Lee: It's a pleasure to see so many of you here.

Question by TCinUK:
When will you start working on the hobbit movie, Alan?

Alan Lee:
Not sure when I'll be starting work, as I have a big job to finish first - but I'm looking forward to hearing more about it. I was very pleased to hear that Guillermo was going to direct. I loved Pan's Labyrinth when it came out - and his other movies too.

Question by Mathias:  How did you first come into contact with the work by Tolkien and when did you decide to make illustrations of his work?

Alan Lee:
Hello Mathias. I read Tolkien at 17, and loved it immediately. I didn't imagine I'd ever be illustrating the work, or working on film versions, but I remember thinking what a film it would make.
It is often remarked that  lotr was unfilmable before special effects reached the state they are in at present, but I don't agree with that. I think David Lean might have made a fair pass at it.
I'm just trying to make the point that you don't need elaborate computer effects to tell a good story. What do you think?

Bruce: David interesting THAT combination might have been!
Frandalf: on a more intimate scale he could have done that, yes
Turin_Turambar: With the Lord of the Rings, I am not so sure!
jasper_huitink: I agree Alan :), nice view
Mithrennaith: I agree with Alan, also
Pithlit: It probably made a "better" movie in terms of what makes more money. But I suppose most fans would have preferred a movie that was a bit closer to the books and a bit less "cool". maybe having both movies would be nice

Alan Lee: I remember watching certain movies as a child that felt huge, because the story had a weight to it, and looking at them now and seeing how comparatively simple they seem. But when I saw Peter's Lotr, it evoked the excitement that I'd had seeing films like The Thief of Baghdad as a child, because there was something fresh about the storytelling.

Question by willowgreylock: Tolkien is very descriptive in his writing, is the story your total inspiration for your drawings?

Alan Lee: Hello willowgreylock. I try to be as responsive to the text as possible - to add to the readers enjoyment of the story.

Question by Frandalf:  Why did you choose to depict Turins dwarvenhelm as a sort of Galadrim-styled helm (from the movies)? Tolkiens description seems quit different. Was it an artistic choice?

Alan Lee: I'm not sure that tolkiens description was that different. It was just what seemed appropriate at the time. It was influenced by certain viking or anglo saxon helmets i'd seen.
Frandalf: The description reminded me a lot of Anglo-saxon helmets. They have dragons on them, and a vizor. (Galadrim helm/2nd Age helm)
Alan Lee: On a general note, there are times when I've deviated from imagery based on Tolkiens own drawings; probably because he has a certain style which I admire but don't wish to imitate.

Question by Rowns:
Deviated because you prefered the text to his drawings, or the other way around?

Alan Lee: Middle-earth is bigger in the text than it is in tolkien's drawings.

Question by Maggie H:
How does the real world influence your illustrations of a fantasy world?

Alan Lee: Hello Maggie. I try to make the illustrations as realistic as I can. The use of watercolour gives a less tangible feel to the world, but I'm bringing in landscapes that I know. Woods that I've wandered and sketched in. fortunately, I live in a very inspiring environment.
I don't use photographic reference directly, but I take a lot of photographs and they help with the landscapes, and occasionally the characters.
I don't know if Tolkien was very familiar with Devon, but there are places nearby which seem to be perfect for middle-earth. the woods in particular.

Question by Compa ( How has your work in the Jackson trilogy affected your most recent book illustrations? Did the approach change? Do you see Middle-earth differently?

Alan Lee: Hello Compa. Well, I tend to be much happier woking in a landscape format. I enjoyed seeing Middle-earth on a wide-screen format so much that it is less appealing doing portrait-shaped artwork now.
It's a more natural way of seeing, as our eyes are more used to scanning across than going up and down.
Pieter Collier: A bit difficult for book illustrations I suppose... since the space you receive is exactly portrait shaped.
Alan Lee:
When I worked as book cover artist, my heart would always sink a bit when the art director suggested a wrap around cover, as it meant twice the work, but I enjoy that format more now.

Questions by JEV3: I've noticed in my own sketches that once I've started drawing a scene partially, the rest comes much more easily. When you start your sketches of a landscape or a person, how do you choose where to start and what is the most common starting point? Additionally, do you find it more effective to draw from the foreground to the background or vice versa?

Alan Lee:
I usually start by making some very loose, gestural lines that suggest a composition, rather than begin creating detail. The images crystalize out of a light haze of pencil lines. I usually don't start out with a very clear idea of how I'm going to proceed.
I like to work intuitively as much as possible. That way I can occasionally be surprized by how it turns out.
I think I usually work on the background after establishing the foreground.

Question by Maggie H:  If you become involved in the Hobbit films, how will you approach illustrating them?  Will there be differences, maybe in atmosphere, from your illustrations for The Lord of the Rings?

Alan Lee:
When I was working on the LOTR movies, I was trying to flesh out Peter's vision - to make it easier for him to get the designs he wanted and make the movie he wanted. If I'm involved in the hobbit, my job would be trying to do the same for Guillermo.
There may be differences in atmosphere, but i imagine it would be in the same world.

Question by Mithrennaith: In view of the current setup, there may be more or less of Peter's vision filtering through in Guillermo's vision, and your input might (subconciously) subtly change the balance ?

Alan Lee: There were a lot of designers working on LOTR - including John of course, and it all gets filtered through the directors vision.
Also a lot of the look of the film is created by colour grading and other fine-tuning, so all my influence is subtle really. I think the way I work leaves a lot of room for interpretation. It's not immediately set in stone.

Questions from Jasper Huitink: Are John Howe and Ted Nasmith also involved?

Alan Lee: Hello Jasper. thanks for the question. I don't think I can answer it! I'm not entirely sure of my own involvement yet.

Question by willowgreylock: I would be curious to know, if GDT, or PJ, have coordinated an estimated date that you might be heading to NZ, to start work on, The Hobbit?

Alan Lee: It's still very early days. I imagine most of their attention is focusing on the scripts at the moment.

Question by John Khass: Couple years ago you took part in RingCon, Germany. There was a presentation of my animated film "Mr. Bliss".  I will be very grateful if you can say a couple of words about your impression about it.

Alan Lee: Hello john, I remember your film very well. I liked it a lot. I hadn't read the story, so your film was my introduction to it.

Question by Maggie H.:  Is there a particular book or movie you would like to illustrate, that you haven't done yet?

Alan Lee: There are a lot of great stories that I'd like to have a go at. I'm currently working on a retelling of Ovid's Metamorphoses for children, and enjoying it immensely. I'd like to do something with the Kalevala. And do some more work in film - if there's time!
Frandalf: I think the story in the Metamorphoses with the 2 old people that turn into trees when they 'die' is very tolkien-esque. I love it. (can't think of the name, sorry)
Alan Lee: Yes, i'm looking forward to that illustration.
Alan Lee: Philomen and Baucis
Frandalf: That's it. Thanks - looking forward to your interpretation.
Alan Lee: I love the connections between Tolkiens writing and earlier myths. You get a fantastic sense of continuity

Question by Rowns:
Given that it seems the Tolkien family feels very comfortable with your illustration style and that you are the only illustrator to work on the Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and The Children of Hurin, and of course your involvement with the PJ films, do you feel somewhat of a burden being a "de facto" visionary of Middle-earth?

Alan Lee: Hello Rowns. That's a good question. I think Ted nasmith and John Howe have set a lot of the tone for the way tolkiens work is seen - in print form - as well. I  think I'm still involved as an illustrator because  I haven't imposed a very strong vision.
I doubt that I'll be doing that much more illustration of tolkien - perhaps one or two little things, but I don't have any great desire to monopolise Tolkiens work. there are a lot of other wonderful illustrators out there, and I'd enjoy seeing some new interpretations as well.
But it's not a burden!
Rowns: Nor is it unappreciated!
Alan Lee: Thank you.
And we would welcome much more if you change your mind!
Balin: thank you Mr Lee
Alan Lee: It's a pleasure.

Question by Olwe: Any news about your website?

Alan Lee: I'm starting to get embarrassed by how long this website is taking! But I really want to get it ready next year. Perhaps I'll find a few weeks in the spring to get some pages on the web.
There won't be any pop-ups, or flashy little animations - just pages of well-reproduced illustrations. But when i do, you'll be the first to hear about it.

Alan Lee: It's been lovely talking to all of you. thank you for your questions.
I think I need some shut-eye now!
Good night all!

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