The Sawdust of the Past
A History of LOTR Scenery Building
© lotrscenerybuilder 2008
"Just know that Middle-earth exists...
... and it's happening as you're watching it."
- Ian McKellen -
"We love the smell of sawdust in the morning..."
- The Lotrscenerybuilder -
For some years now we have built various pieces of LOTR-scenery. Apart from a wagon load of scale buildings we have gathered by now an impressive collection of designs, second best pictures and, above all, lots of happy memories. Some of you might like to learn a bit more about the story behind the Lord of the Rings scenery Site. We, for our part, wouldn't mind at all to chatter on (and on...) about our work and show you some stills that didn't make it onto the site...until now.
A Tale of Years... by Shire-reckoning
(the models printed in dark blue were never before selected for this site):
The Black Gate
||The Tower of Orthanc
||The Chamber of Mazarbul (1st version)
The Paths of the Dead (1st version)
||Durin's Causeway (1st version)
The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
The Chamber of Mazarbul (2nd version)
The Westgate (1st version)
The Second Hall
||Durin's Causeway (2nd version)
||The Chamber of Mazarbul (3rd version)
The Chamber of Mazarbul (4th version)
||Durin's Causeway (3rd version)
The Chamber of Mazarbul (5th version)
||The City of Minas Morgul
||The Tower of Cirith Ungol
||The Paths of the Dead (2nd version)
The Trollshaws: Bert, Tom & William
||The Stair Falls
||The Westgate (2nd version)
||The Watcher in the Water
||The Interior of Cirith Ungol
||The Stairs of Cirith Ungol
||The Illumination of Minas Morgul
A Balrog Statue of Minas Morgul
||The Green Dragon
The Stable House
The Dark Folly...
It all started with the making of a mock-up miniature of the Barad-dûr, to please a seven-year old LOTR-fan. Proudly the boy showed the tower to his friends, who assured him that this pimped up cardboard tube was as good as the real thing - if not better!
But they were all of them deceived...
... for anonther tower was made. Long past children's bed-time, far from any Spying Eyes, we built in secret a Master Tower, worthy of Mordor. And since all those walls, buttresses, turrets and spires seemed to arise almost effortless from our hands, we produced a model of the Black Gate as well, to complete the Dark Lord's stronghold.
At Christmas Eve we had a little surprise for our son when we sent him on a Quest to a fully blackened out bedroom... where, amidst a dark, forbidding looking mountain range rose a one metre high model of the Dark Tower... illuminated by some fifty-odd red-flashing fairy lights and crowned with the Lidless Eye of Sauron!
On the slopes of Mount Doom...
At the outset, our pieces of scenery were meant to act as an environment for our Playalong Toys collection of LOTR figures. The games that we played in those early scenery-building days were indeed 'Quests' or 'Searches': a series of puzzling letters and missions led us to certain locations where 'tableaux' like the one above were displayed. To us, Sauron was by far the most interesting character to be found in Middle-earth. To make him feel at home we built this little Mordor-Shrine (for which we found some Elves of the Galadhrim willing to act as Prologue Elves).
The Tower of Orthanc... in our Middle-garden©...
A few month's later, Saruman's stronghold was built to use up the leftovers of black paint from our earlier works. At this time we didn't have any serious plans about bringing more of Middle-earth to life, but we were a little concerned about wasting a pound's worth of paint. The Tower of Orthanc was a 'quicky' and, consequently, shamefully lacking in detail. Instead of sculpting all the fins and horns manually we cunningly used a load of matchsticks and a family-pack of wooden clothes-pegs.
The Paths of the Dead (1st version)
But we kept on buying LOTR-figures that had to be housed. This ruined wall behind the King of the Dead was actually based on a screenshot taken from the ROTK computer game by EA Games. It was our first try to transform a plate of MDF into a brick wall (but we didn't fabricate the cobwebs - they're real).
The Chamber of Mazarbul (1st version)
As we became more and more intrigued by the Chamber of Mazarbul, we made a first attempt to bring this gloomy and dramatic crypt to life. Since Playalong Toys ommited to produce a Moria Cave-Troll, we had to catch one elsewhere...
Then, one fine day, two things happenend which caused a change in our approach to Middle-earth scenery building. First, we bought some LOTR miniatures from Sabertooth Games, including their Cave Troll (initially we had little love for these dwarfish figures with their strange hexe-shaped bases but we thought the Troll was a smasher!). Since these miniatures are considerable smaller than the Playalong Toys figures, they ennabled us to start working on a more comfortable scale. Second, we decided to spend our money on the extended DVD box of the LOTR trilogy. By way of the 'Appendices' we started to get a much better understanding of the architecture of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth.
Durin's Causeway (1st version)
As told elsewhere on this site the arrival of the Cave Troll gave occasion to the building of a first version of the Moria Stairs. It proved to be rather easy to integrate the "Combat Hex" game-system into the images of the film. However, our first version of "Durin's Causeway" was only remotely based on the movie stairway. Actually, it combined the Stairs of Khazad-dûm with the entrance to the Chamber of Records as we wanted to include the Cave Troll in our first Combat Hex Battle Field. As it turned out this model, together with our Sabertooth miniatures, was capable of evoking just the right atmosphere of a nightmare pursuit in Moria.
"Fly, you fools!"
The Stairs of Khazad-dûm automaticly led to the contruction of the accompanying Bridge... and, inevitable, to the expansion of our collection of Sabertooth Miniatures with a Balrog of Morgoth! Although our Fellowship was still far from complete and our Orkish Army hardly larger than a curling team, both Stairs and Bridge offered sufficient scope for a score of exciting battles. But, like Balin before us, we already craved for the posession of the whole of Moria!
Then that memorable week in October of 2005 arrived in which we set a building record that we haven't beaten ever since. No fewer than three different scale models were finished in less than six days. The first of those was a modified version of the Chamber of Mazarbul, with a grid of hexes on the floor and some separate stands against the walls.
The Chamber of Mazarbul (2nd version)
The crypt was only partially built. But already it breathed the claustrophobic atmosphere of Balin's Tomb. Legolas was relatively safe on his stand until the cave troll turned his attention on him. Just as it happens in the movie.
"Well... fool of a Took?"
Nowadays we have pretty good idea of the geography of this chamber and we are well acquainted with every nook and cranny. In those early days of building however, we even overlooked the well in the back of the chamber...
"Roaring Fires! Malt beer..!"
The next model in this range was that of Moria's Westgate. Instead of modelling up on the movie image - which looked rather daunting on first sight - we turned to one of the conceptual designs by Alan Lee. Although the wall decorations on our model aren't exactly of the highest quality, we hold the view that the shadowy cavity of the mine-entrance makes up for it. Anyway, it was on this battle-field that we played our very first Combat Hex battle scenario.
The Second Hall
All our Moria models were built in such manner that they could be linked up in order to create a continuous battle-circuit. Since our Bridge of Khazad-dûm was connected directly to the Causeway, we felt the need to construct a monumental finish for the Fellowship. That's why we placed this model of the Second Hall - and in consequence the Balrog with his flaming sword! - at the other side of the chasm of Khazad-dûm. As we had already started replaying the whole Moria episode, this Hall had to be built in great haste. The paint was still wet when Gandalf lifted his staff against the Flame of ûdun!
"Lead them on, Aragorn!"
Testing the scale of Durin's Causeway (2nd version)
The five models of our Moria series pleased us only for a short run. Durin's Causeway came first to its turn to be replaced by an improved version. Now that we had built the Chamber of Mazarbul, the door beneath the steps had become redundant. Moreover, the resemblance to the movie stairway was, as already stated, superficial. Although the use of hexes brought some serious limitations with it, the realignment of the track of the new model was much better to our liking. Also, the gap between the steps was translated to its proper place, i.e. halfway the Stairs.
The Chamber of Mazarbul (4th version, in progress...)
... but our real focus of interrest was again on the Chamber of Records. Now it wouldn't surprise us if there are some LOTR-fans who do get exited by the fight in this suffocating crypt without ever having second thoughts about the cavity itself. And indeed there is so much action to enjoy that one might easily take it for granted that there are some background walls and a pillar or two in places. As for us, however, we think that for designing the Chamber of Mazarbul alone the people of Weta should have received an Academy Award.
According to Tolkien, there was:
... a doorway on their right. It was high and flat-topped, and the stone door was still upon his hinges, standing half open. Beyond it was a large square chamber. It was dimly lit (...) by a wide shaft high in the further eastern wall (...) Its light fell directly on a table in the middle of the room: a single oblong block, about two feet high, upon which was laid a great slab of white stone (...) There was another smaller door on the other side of the chamber, under the shaft (...) There were many recesses cut in the rock of the walls, and in them were large iron-bound chests of wood (...)
(from: The Fellowship of the Ring, pages 415-418)
Tolkien gives but a few indications about the lay-out of this dark and dusty crypt. There's no mention of any buttresses, no pillars, no carvings of runes on the wall, no ambulatory...
... but the designers of Weta invented them all, and what's better: they arranged these features in such a way that an uncommonly enigmatic arena was the result (they also came up with the well which was originally situated by Tolkien in the guardroom at the Three Passages).
Aragorn: "Stay close to Gandalf!"
This time we wanted to construct a faithful model of the Chamber. So we sat down for hours in front of the TV screen to study the fight at Balin's Tomb frame by frame. However, again we omited to build walls on all four sides (just like we had done with the 2nd version - this, in order to make it easier to move our Sabertooth miniatures around inside the structure). It was a mistake we regretted deeply: no sooner was the 3rd version finished or we started working on the next... and it wouldn't be the last.
All the pictures above were taken from the 4th version, which has ledges on three out of four sides. Someday we would like to build a 6th version in Combat Hex mode, with a complete ambulatory.
Up to the door where it began...
At last we succeeded in escaping from the "Black Pit" and going to merrier places... for a while. Inspired by the FOTR-computergame of Black Label Games, in which an exceptional pleasant portrait of the Shire is brought to life, we wanted to play some 'uncomplicated' scenario's with only the Hobbits and the Black Riders involved. It led us to the nocturnal paths and lanes in and around Hobbiton. Constructing the fronts of some "smials" proved to be a doddle in contrast to the shaping of the hillocks, for which we used very unwilling sheets of wrapping paper.
We were careful to use only animal-friendly materials...
Working on Hobbiton turned out to be an enjoyable experience. If you are immersed for days in a building-project like, for example, the Mines of Moria, you're prone to adopt the 'mood' of the environment whereupon your thoughts are focused. In case of Moria, it had brought us somewhile in a rather 'gloomy' temper. Now, with our mind on the pastoral countryside of the Shire, we became a ray of sunshine in the house.
Durin's Causeway III: for more information, go to the DIY-pages of this site...
And then it was business as usual. So far, all our Moria-models had been built according to the dimensions of the Sabertooth Combat Hex Game. Now we wondered if we could bring things back to the scale of the LOTR-figures from Games Workshop. Thus we descended once more along the stairs of Durin's Causeway...
Mazarbul V: "Let's see what's in there..."
... straight back to the omphalos of the Dwarrowdelf. This time, however, we weren't hampered by the limitations of a grid of hexes. This enabled us to bring on many more details onto the building. We completed the ambulatory by adding the ledge in the back of the chamber, just behind the well. We had overlooked this ledge during our earlier studies of the fight in Balin's Tomb; now we found out that this is the gangway where Aragorn knocks down some Orcs in order to reach Frodo. We discovered also that there are, other than the four pillars on either side of the room, another four pilasters (half-pillars) on the outside of each of the buttresses.
"Yep! This one's dead as well..."
During production we often wonder about the looks of the final results on the photographs... Because a nice looking model doesn't automatically produce nice shots. We want our pictures to come up to certain qualifications, being "to breathe the spirit of the movie" the most important of all. It isn't for nothing that Peter Jackson honours his lighting technician or "gaffer" Brian Bansgrove: it really is the light that makes the picture, that much we have learned by now. It takes a lot of time to search for the optimal lighting conditions. And if you're sure at the end of a long day that the Pulitzer Prize Winner has been shot, there's always, on reflection, some rock in the wrong position or an essential detail out of focus... The picture above didn't make it onto the site only because, although Gandalf is nicely framed against the shadows, Gimli, unnoticed, had scampered off to the loo...
"Right. We've seen enough of these. Let's make for the Gap of Rohan!"
Somewhere in 2006 we picked up the idea of showing our models to a greater audience. A picture gallery on the world wide web suited us fine. As we are not familiar with digital hocus-pocus we took counsel with the head of our Order, the Yellow Wizard. To conjure a LOTR Scenery Site was just his cup of tea! In October we went online. And let us see, what did we have? Oh. Yes. Lovely. Shots of Moria scenery... and look: more shots of Moria scenery! But things were about to change...
The Yellow Wizard:
"It would be wise my friend, to leave all the magic to me!"
For ages we had dwelt in the caverns of Moria. Now we saw the light: we would go out of our door, step onto the Road and explore as much as possible of the whole of Middle-earth!
To be continued in Part 2:
THE THREE TOWERS