The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power just dropped its fourth episode, and fans are falling more and more in love each week. While the storylines and character performances do an incredible job at drawing viewers in, the technical aspects are also some of the best on television. The visual effects, production design, and artwork help establish Middle Earth’s epicness, and illustrator/concept artist John Howe is a big part of creating the sweeping scale of that story.
We sat down with Howe at Dragon Con 2022 and discussed his work on the new Amazon series, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films, and more. Check it out below.
You have such a cool job. Can you give an overview of what you do?
John Howe: A concept artist is a person who is there to help the showrunners or the director, the art director, and the whole team to visualize the universe in which they’re going to have to live and work for the duration of a project. So that’s the basic answer.
It’s all about establishing a form of parallel credibility in order for the public to be able to suspend disbelief the time that they are watching and let themselves go and just go with whatever is proposed. And it’s very exciting. It’s sound and vision.
Walk me through your introduction to Lord the Rings initially. How did you become a fan before working on the properties?
John Howe: I started with the wrong book. Because I was in my teens, or I think I was 12 or so, and I couldn’t buy the books. So, I’d got them from the local library, and the Fellowship of the Ring was never on the shelf. And I waited and waited and waited, and I got impatient. And so I read The Two Towers.
Smart, wasn’t it? And then The Return of the King made no sense. And I finally read The Fellowship of the Ring. So, I ruined my first pass through Middle Earth. But I did go back and read them in the right order later on. But it was a very adolescent reading because I can only recall the battles and the extraordinary landscapes. However, after that, I’ve gone back to read them properly.
It is a landscape that rolls itself out in front of you. And that sums up precisely the job that I try to do. I have a pedestrian approach because I like to start from a ways off and draw what I see and then I’ll walk a bit closer and draw what I see. And eventually, you end up in the city or the place that you’re headed for. And that gives me the time to actually understand where I’m going.
It’s very much like a pilgrimage. If you imagine you’re going to, and you can see it from afar, but you can’t quite make it out. Every step brings you a clearer revision of it. And the only difference is that you’re making it up as you go on.
With the artwork, have you found inspiration specifically in New Zealand, like specific locations? Where should LOTR fans go to see what has inspired what they see on screen?
John Howe: I mean, I can confess to a great vulnerability when faced with the landscape. Because every time, it makes my heart either want to explode or collapse when I see something that I could not have imagined myself but is simply there in front of me. And that happened endless times in New Zealand, part of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, I believe. It’s concentrated, very concentrated.
And I think the most moving part of that is with The Rings of Power, we are finally on the ocean. We’re finally on the coast, and the New Zealand coastline is one of the most beautiful in the world. I spent a lot of time hiking along beaches in Middle Earth. And I have parts of the world, which, for me, are very intimately associated with portions of Middle Earth. And to give you an example, I can’t use the Canadian Rockies that I know very well for anything in Middle Earth.
They don’t work for me. Other mountain chains do work. There are coastlines and landscapes, which for me, say Middle Earth. And it’s a mix of real places that I know, and this mythological superposition of Tolkien on top of the New Zealand landscape suddenly enhances the landscape itself.
And so, of course, you can take the movie tour and see all those places. But I think you could also imagine, let’s go somewhere in Middle Earth that I want to discover and leave your mind open to that simple beauty. It’s beautiful because it doesn’t need us. It makes us disappear. And to stand anywhere on the edge of anything means that you are somewhere. What you can see is where you can’t go. And to me, those are the most poetic and beautiful places in the world. And they are literally everywhere. So, they are the embodiment of the nature of inspiration to me. You don’t know where it’s going to come out of the woods and suddenly bite you. And it happens all the time.
I use a lot of Swiss landscapes because I live in Switzerland. But I’ve pulled from a number of different travels I’ve had the opportunity to do. Suddenly something will say to me, oh, there you go. That’s perfect. There is your reference. So, it’s something I cannot, I refuse, to analyze, and I could not define, but that is how inspiration is supposed to work.
New Zealand is one of these sunset countries, one of these early morning countries. And when I was living in Wellington and Auckland, I used to get up before dawn, sometimes on the weekend. I’d already have a spot I picked, and I go up and wait for the sun to come up. And you think this is literally the dawn of the world. It happens every day. It’s there if we just make an effort to get up and see it. And it’s a reminder that we are very small in a very beautiful and amazing universe. It’s extraordinary because it’s simply something that’s a part of what makes us human. I get all kinds of worked up when I think about it. But these are the simple things, and they are truly extraordinary in a landscape like New Zealand’s.
For Rings of Power specifically, what was the most challenging part of your job on this project?
John Howe: I think part of the challenge was the fact that this is not a universe we had never visited, and it doesn’t entirely belong to anyone. It belongs to everyone. The expectations are very high to go back into the universe and offer new ideas and new things you’re aware of. People already know what things look like or believe they do. So, it’s quite complex. It’s a real challenge to try and find those sources of inspiration once again. This inspiration which has brought us close to the text in the past. And then to come back out of that with a visual interpretation. And we’re in the same world, but it’s different.
So, in that sense, it’s quite a challenge because inevitably, you fall back on what you’ve done and what you know. And that’s the greatest danger. And for me, as we said, I’m delighted it’s finally come out because all of the work I did was a long time ago, and I’m already thinking well past season one into season two.
To see the actual project come to fruition with the work of literally thousands of people and the dedication that they all share, to me, I think it’s wonderful. So, I can watch, but I think, for all visual artists, there is this LA time lapse between the work you do and when it appears. And you’re already thinking past that, years ahead.
I often have books that come out. And I’m like, oh yeah. Oh, that book, oh yeah. I remember working on that, and it was eight months ago, and I hadn’t forgotten. But I moved on along to other things.
But we are very aware that for the population in the world, this is new. We’re hoping that this series will accompany them back into Middle Earth. Not only in Middle Earth that they know and love, but a Middle Earth they have yet to meet.
Be sure to catch The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime Video! A new episode is releasing every Friday at 12 AM EDT until the Season 1 finale on October 14, 2022!