Scoop Review of Books

Mountains of Creativity, Chronicled

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Chronicles: Art and Design

By Daniel Falconer (HarperCollins, $60)
Review by Jim Robinson

There sure are a lot of beards in The Hobbit. Braided, looped, scraggly, lopsided, jeweled, regal — you name it, they’re all represented in fine, hairy form. Just as well, too. As explained in The Hobbit Chronicles, Art and Design, the distinctive facial foliage boasted by each dwarf and wizard helps movie audiences to tell the key characters apart.

Chronicles, Art and Design is the first in a planned series of books. It records the development of The Hobbit characters and scenes in fascinating detail. As well as hobbits, dwarves and wizards, there are pages and pages of ornate swords, clubs and armour; awful trolls, wolves and goblins; and imposing woodlands, mountains and castles.

According to the introduction by Richard Taylor, the Weta design department alone produced 9000 paintings, concept drawings and models for The Hobbit film trilogy. On top of that, there was all the work by the film’s concept art directors, Costume Department and 3 foot 7 Art Department. The book shows highlights from that mountain of creativity.

It’s all most beautifully presented — definitely coffee table material. Large glossy pages are printed in full colour and sit between thick embossed covers. Add to which, there are captivating touches like a foldout A2-size Thorin’s Map, complete with invisible printing that shows up in the dark (echoing the story).

With such imagination and craft on show, the book will doubtless attract Hobbit buffs and fantasy fans like Gollum after a ring. But I think there’s appeal well beyond the Middle Earth loyal. My two daughters, who haven’t seen the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, both thought the book was “cool”. My wife Nikki Slade Robinson, who’s a children’s book illustrator/author, has spent hours poring through the character- and scene-development, tracking the designers’ experimentation and refinements.

“It’s always nice to see the working drawings of other artists, and a little of their development of an idea or character,” Nikki said. “I would have loved this book as a kid and would have subsequently spent hours doing my own character development sketches. I think this book would be inspirational to any budding kid-artists.”

So, initial book impressions: gorgeously done. I’ve spent several hours in the book myself, and will spend more. I love much of the work. The Great Goblin and Grinnah visuals are superb, with art that is photographic in its detail — grotesquely compelling.

However, both Nikki and I felt the book could be stronger in the words behind the visuals. Almost all of the text is made up of captions from the people who did the work — workshop designers, prop makers, set designers, concept art designers, costume designers, and so on, as well as actors. That’s great, providing the real insider’s perspective. But with so many voices — voices that don’t appear to have been edited to fit as a whole — there’s a lot of repetition. Different people say essentially the same thing, and in places, it gets annoying.

I also thought the book cries out for a chapter up-front to overview the whole concept and development process. As it is, after the introductions, Chronicles launches straight into the specifics of designing Bag End and Hobbits, and goes on from there. In the captions, you get things like, “the red camera has a tendency to sludge things down, so we had to push more colour back in there to compensate”. Err? I assume a red camera is related to the 3D, but I’d have really liked that explained at the outset. Same goes for things like the design implications of shooting at twice the normal number of frames per second; or how exactly prosthesis are made; or how and when the different design teams work together; and so on. A chapter of film concept/design-101 by the book’s writer/designer Daniel Falconer of Weta Workshop would have added insight to everything that follows.

I feel there are other gaps. The book presents artwork for many spectacular landscapes. Stunning stuff. But I would have loved a little insight on where exactly in New Zealand those scenes ended up being shot. A map of the country with location reference points would have been great.

And throughout, there’s a lack of actual screen images (or if there are actual images, they’re not named as such). Maybe that’s a copyright thing, but it would have been grand to see where all the character development ended up in the cinema. As it stands, you get a wealth of development work, but you’re often not quite sure what’s the final rendition — or whether there was in fact further development that is not shown.

Don’t be put off by these criticisms though. Ultimately, the most important thing is what you see, and this first Chronicles looks absolutely spot on. Even if you don’t read the words at all, it’s an impressive — and periodically hairy — journey.