Profile: Dan Hennah's epic Middle-earth journey

Dan Hennah’s Middle-earth immersion has taken him on an epic journey of a scale that’s entirely appropriate for the amazing cinematic projects that have occupied his life for a decade and a half.

Dan Hennah’s Middle-earth immersion has taken him on an epic journey of a scale that’s entirely appropriate for the amazing cinematic projects that have occupied his life for a decade and a half.

The Nelson New Zealand-based Oscar-winning film production designer is a man with a twinkle in his eye and a phenomenal attention to visual detail that has played a key role in bringing to life the incredibly detailed Middle-earth of firstly, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy then The Hobbit Trilogy.

Set designers are accustomed to the transitory nature of their material artistry, but Hennah’s work has earned two lasting public reminders - the Hobbiton Movie Set which lives on as a permanent and highly popular tourism location and, nearby, the Matamata Hobbit Gatehouse, modelled on The Shire and which is frequently the first port of call for tourists heading to the celebrated movie set.

Since the completion of filming on The Lord of the Rings Trilogy in 2001, Hobbiton - near the country town of Matamata, in the North Island’s Waikato region - has become a tourism phenomenon as film fans and admirers have found their way to the farm that Sir Peter Jackson chose as the setting for the Hobbit village.

The Shire - otherwise known as Hobbiton Movie Set - extends across 12 acres of a sheep and cattle farm with 44 Hobbit holes dug into the hillside, surrounded by gardens and orchards, and the Green Dragon Inn where thirsty Hobbit fans gather to whet their whistles with Middle-earth themed brews.

Meanwhile, business is also booming at the local i-SITE tourist information centre on Matamata’s main street. In December 2012, to celebrate the world première of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the i-SITE rebranded as a crowd-stopping Middle-earth-themed gatehouse - a year later, and the gatehouse has just doubled in size to help cater for the crowds.

While the tourists who come to admire these whimsical creations will forever associate them with director Sir Peter Jackson who put Middle-earth on the big screen, Dan Hennah’s story-telling eye for detail will also live on here.

The Book of New Zealand
Now, as the journey nears end, Dan Hennah has been called on to deliver one last very public Middle-earth fling with a twist.

The Book of New Zealand - an installation dwarfing the iconic Beverly Hilton Hotel - is set to make Hollywood and the world take notice by telling the non-fiction story of the real Middle-earth landscapes and experiences that appear in the famous movies. The theme - fantasy is reality.

Using an idea created by WHYBIN\TBWA New Zealand, Tourism New Zealand has brought Dan Hennah and his talented production design team - Ra Vincent (set decorator, The Hobbit Trilogy) and Simon Bright (supervising art director / set decorator, The Hobbit Trilogy) - back together with the magicians at WETA Digital to conjure up the world’s biggest pop-up story book.

With the eyes of the film world on New Zealand for the world première of the second of The Hobbit Trilogy films - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), The Book of New Zealand has been designed to attract the attention of the international media gathered in Los Angeles for the red carpet event.

The Book has five main zones, including a VIP lounge, and over four days will host media interviews with The Hobbit Trilogy star cast and crew, invitation-only high profile events to promote New Zealand tourism, film industry, food and wine, and a public day for 700 lucky film fans who can win tickets through a local radio competition.

Impressive scale
Dan Hennah, Ra Vincent and Simon Bright, along with a team of artists and set builders, have been on the job in Los Angeles for three weeks supervising the build in the hotel car park. The installation covers an area that’s the equivalent of two tennis courts and rises to 40-feet (15-metres) in height.

The original structure has been 12 weeks in the making. It was designed and built in Wellington New Zealand, then deconstructed, carefully labelled and packed into six containers - weighing in at 30 tonnes - for shipping to LA.

This project has been "like a film set but different," muses Hennah. "The original concept was a pop-up book of New Zealand on the sort of scale that would be impressive. Physically there have been a lot of construction challenges … including putting the jigsaw puzzle back together in a car park."

"The result is massive - we’ve achieved something that brings together a range of film craft including footage from real locations, digital storytelling, lots of authentic props and set design."

Opening sequence
Guests at The Book’s opening night (30.11.2013) were treated to a 90-second opening sequence on a giant screen and featuring real film, digital effects by WETA Digital and a guest appearance by director Sir Peter Jackson - directed this time by Dan Hennah.

As the film opens, Sir Peter is in his private study - a cup of tea in one hand, pulling a small red-leather bound book from the library shelf with the other hand.

Jackson opens the book and turns the pages, scenes pop-up, a boat sails across a lake, a trout jumps, a thrush soars into the sky - the story comes to life merging fantasy and reality, real footage and special effects.

The sequence over, the giant projection screen rolls up to reveal four sets featuring original props and sound track from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. From Hidden Bay - Lonely Mountain, the gigantic brooding bust of the Dwarf King Thror gazes down over the ancient kingdom; barrels bob down Forest River, Lake-town’s houses line a canal - complete with boats, and Beorn’s House is furnished with intricately carved wall panels, an enormous wooden chair and a bed to match.

These are some of the sets that were closest to Dan Hennah’s heart. Lake-town’s highly detailed streetscape of canals, cute timber houses and boats was his personal favourite, and one of the biggest sets created for the second film in the Trilogy.

"It was built five different times. I love the idea of a set with boats, moving around buildings. It was highly detailed and cool."

Larger than life
Dan Hennah has been involved in The Book of New Zealand at all levels from early concepts through to design and project managing - sourcing materials, remodelling original props from the sets, and directing the installation on site.

Location shoots for The Book of New Zealand took him to four quite different regions featured as new locations in the second The Hobbit film - Turoa in the volcanic central North Island region of Ruapehu, Pelorus River in the hills above the beautiful Marlborough Sounds coastal region, Lake Pukaki in the alpine Aoraki Mt Cook region in the Southern Alps, and south to Paradise Glenorchy - an idyllic river valley near the year-round resort of Queenstown.

"While the movie is the catalyst, the motivation for The Book is to demonstrate New Zealand’s Middle-earth starring role … that the beauty of those locations and backgrounds is real, not a digitally created element, and that by going to New Zealand you can realise your fantasy."

It is these same landscapes, Hennah says, that are at the inspiration for the sets that he has created for each location. "Middle-earth is New Zealand - for me, the cinematic world of Tolkien is New Zealand."

The scenery shoot gave Hennah the chance to test his directing skills and face the biggest challenge - an incredibly short seven-day window in which to capture the diverse landscapes in regions scattered throughout New Zealand.

"I wanted something different from each place - clouds flitting across the sky at Beorn’s House, clear evening light at Pelorus, a moody feel for Turoa, and clear skies above Mt Cook - and we got them each time. The biggest day was the heli shoot of Pukaki and Mt Cook. We arrived at 7am to find a total blanket of cloud so we flew above and across to the West Coast for views from the other side, landed at Franz Josef, had a coffee … and, as we came back over at lunchtime we got our clean shot of Mt Cook with no cloud."

The Hobbit Trilogy
Working on The Hobbit Trilogy has consumed the last four years of Dan Hennah’s life.

As production designer, he has led a department of 400 made up of teams representing a whole range of skill sets from design to standard construction, modelling, sculpting, surfacing and painting, décor and dressing. The Hobbit movie sets are the product of more than 4000 concept drawings and each finished set is, in turn, the result of "a very collaborative process that embraces all the creative people involved to achieve the most exciting far-reaching result."

For the incredibly complex, highly detailed The Hobbit Trilogy, teams worked 24/7 to achieve the hundreds of sets required for the films. Hennah is proud that he was able to find all that talent from within New Zealand - many already working in the diverse Wellington film industry.

"No one was brought in though we did employ some talented overseas people who were already working in New Zealand - a boat builder from France, a sculptor from Germany, a Japanese model maker."

Original sets
Hennah knows the original sets and the thousands of components and details that appear in these locations better than anyone. His mind’s eye has imagined and reimagined, examined and re-examined, constructed and deconstructed these sets dozens of times.

For The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, there were 107 sets to build, some more than once. "Most filled a stage. There were four big studios, two major back lot sets - Lake-town and City of Dale."

"One of the challenges with The Hobbit Trilogy was that the journey went east so we had to imagine starting in London then moving east to Europe, then Asia and the design influences that they would find on that journey."

Timing and mood also affected set design. Tolkien had originally written The Hobbit for children, then 30 years later published Lord of the Rings which was set another 60 years later and took place in a darker era. The Hobbit films, therefore, required a different treatment - "a lighter, brighter palette, more innocent than Lord of the Rings Trilogy, midsummer colours, a holiday feeling."

Visual world
So, what makes an Oscar-winning production designer?

Dan Hennah says that his is a visual world. "When I talk, I visualise. I’ve always been influenced by visual elements, by imaginary things."

Growing up on a Hawke’s Bay farm, he remembers how - as a two-year-old - he lay in the sun on the verandah watching as his mother painted a water colour of the hills. As an 11-year-old, while reading The Hobbit, he was already imagining the backgrounds - "I think everyone who reads Tolkien gets a visual impression."

Hennah’s career path has taken a detour or two but it all adds up. He started out on architectural studies and worked for Wellington architect Ian Athfield for a few years. Though he never qualified, Hennah believes that working with this "visionary architect" was a really enriching experience and hugely valuable to understanding the design processes.

From Wellington he moved across the water to the top of the South Island where he spent eight years involved in the fishing industry, running fishing trawlers out of Motueka. He still lives in the Nelson region, commuting to Wellington for film projects.

Hennah has been involved in the New Zealand film industry since 1982. His many film projects have included The Lord of the Rings Trilogy where he moved from set decorator to supervising art director - winning an Oscar for Art Direction and Set Decoration for his work on the final film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Middle-earth is not, of course, his only claim to fame. Some of Dan Hennah’s other credits include: Savage Islands, The Rescue, The Frighteners, The Laundry Warrior, King Kong, Underworld; The Rise of the Lycans.

More information

Fact File: The Book of New Zealand

The Book of New Zealand

The Hobbiton Movie Set story

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

About The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Present a Wing Nut Films Production, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The film is a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), with New Line managing production. Warner Bros. Pictures is handling worldwide theatrical distribution, with select international territories as well as all international television distribution being handled by MGM. The film will be released worldwide beginning 13 December 2013.