The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (II)

Some times you deliver a job and never hear another word. This can be disconcerting. One minute you are intensely focussed on a mission. The next you are alone watching your child cycle off, without the trainer-wheels, suddenly redundant.

Other times it is very different.

Italo Calvino

The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (I)



What do you think of when I say “The Lord of the Rings“? Hobbits or Uruk-hai? Viggo Mortensen or Cate Blanchett? Epic story-telling or dippy-hippy myths?

I think craftsmanship. 

As a shuffling youth, I read Tolkein’s Trilogy utterly disinterested in folklore and daunted by a book 3 inches thick. I was hooked in a few chapters. Good vs Evil, but many-layered and a complex weave of characters, cultures . . . Enough. You know about it and you don’t need my summary. My point is that it was the skills of the writer that made it work for me. Made it plausible. Gave it vitality.

So it is with The Lord of the Rings Movies. Peter Jackson and his team were so thoroughly committed to the project. They totally immersed themselves and that, in turn, generated a totally immersive movie-going experience.

Alan Lee, concept artist on all three movies, once told me that each actor in the Elvish army had an individual spell, in Elvish, painted on the inside of their breast-plate, over the heart, for protection in battle. No-one saw it. And that is the point. The suspension of disbelief is total. And that carries all the way through to the audience. Keeps it real.

I get poked that, “All designers love special effects”. Nope. On their own they are just pyrotechincs. Flashy ephemera. Movie-makers often throw cash at CGI and high production values and ignore the script. The script is the content. Book, Film, Music, Products, Services, (dare I say Social Media) – Content matters. Content is the core, the essence. With my graphics, I try to take its pulse. Get that right and you can reflect it with visual communication. Without it you are left with, well decoration.

Yes, I’d rather watch The Wire than Transformers any day. But it’s not an elitist thing. Give me a good story, well-told and art direction/special effects that bring it to life and I am all there. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Twelve Monkeys, Apocalypse Now . . . Brill! Bring on the popcorn. And nothing gets the juices going more than a great soundtrack. Imagine Psycho without the violins. The Dollar films without Sergio Leone. Southern Comfort without Ry Cooder. I’d better stop or this will be one long list. But I’d love to see your favourites in the ‘comments’ box at the end of this post . . .

Before I get lost in enthusiasm (that happens). I want to change tack to technology. I am under a publishers’ embargo not to show The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films yet. Must respect that. Hence the wee teaser image above. Maybe more about the design in a later Post. Back story: In 2009 the book design (anon) had been completed. Then they binned it. Totally. In the name of quality. Blimey. No pressure then.

What’s that got to do with technology?

This ambitious book’s author Doug Adams lives/teaches/performs/writes in Chicago. He took on the task of finding a new art director for the project. After a very long trawl, a Google search  found my website. Tolkien found calendars and diaries. Classical Music found my time at Decca Records. And serendipity found Douglas Adams, his namesake. So far, so good. Then he used LinkedIn, which provided my bona fides and the all-important references. E-mail contact was made. 

Wrongly, I used to associate technology with an icey hand – cold, impersonal. Language can defeat that assumption. In a flurry of e-mails dialogue began. Howe Records in New York. A few phone-calls followed. We exchanged thoughts, discussed theories, developed an understanding. I was hired. Time-difference just became part of the process. I worked up designs in the morning. Sent PDFs to Doug in Chicago early morning (which we dubbed Javatime). We discussed/revised and sent to NY as they got to the office one hour later. The book is 416 pages + a rarities CD. There were a phenomenal amount of PDFs, e-mails, Skype calls, Twitter pokes et al. Nancy Starkman, Print Broker on the East Coast. Printers in South Korea. But, because of our wonderful language, we built trust, developed our relationship, crafted nuance. Made a book. And met deadlines.

We have still not met. Hi, Doug! I have yet to meet the guys in New York office, Joe Augustine and Alan Frey. Artists, Alan Lee and John Howe are in New Zealand, their pencils kissing paper in the making of The Hobbit. We will all meet for the first time when finished books are launched at a Howard Shore/LOTR concert at The Royal Albert Hall this September.

The author is now my friend. Yesterday I received a Hand-Written letter of thanks from Howard Shore for my work. Wow!

LikeMinds stimulated my interest in Social Media in May. Now I write this new Blog. I will Tweet it to a growing bunch of good folk who follow me. I will meet many of them for the first time at TheMeet 140, in Bristol, next week.

Technology today is impressive. The range of media amazing. The power of language in a 416 pp book or a 140 character Tweet is extraordinary. With great content the potential is limitless.

By the way, I am a Londoner living on Dartmoor, Devon, in England. I travel.

(. . . continued in Part Two)

Oliver Sacks, MD

Oliver Sacks MD, FRCP began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. He encountered some fascinating cases and writes about them in a way that is both compelling and full of empathy. He describes the seriously bizarre characteristics of patients suffering a range of conditions from Tourette’s syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Now that does not sound a barrel of laughs but his humanity and utter fascination in his patients is nothing like as dry as it may initially seem. At Picador books I had previously designed the cover for Awakenings which I cannot find but will add later (software permitting). That was made into a film with Robert de Niro and Robin Williams and tells the true story of a number of patients suffering persistent coma who Sacks diagnosed as survivors of a global pandemic that lasted from 1913-26. He administered a new drug called L-Dopa (you couldn’t make it up). They all awakened to a short-lived but euphoric state.

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is about some other extraordinary patients. Particularly those with ‘object blindness’. In the absence of Dr Sacks medical training I understood this as a problem, not with vision, but with the connection from eye to brain. One man could not recognise the the left side of objects. Confronted with a pizza he would eat all the right-hand side but say he was still hungry. Rotating the pizza for him 180 degrees he ate the other half contentedly.


Another man was totally puzzled when given his own glove and asked to identify it to Dr Sacks. Defeated in this task he called it a leather pouch with smaller leather extensions, possibly for use in carrying different denominations of coins. I found the innocence of the account poetic. However when he went to leave at the end of the session. He took his coat but neglected his hat. When reminded he tried to yank his wife’s head off her shoulders believing it to be his hat.

Object blindness? Another visual challenge in the daily life of an art director.

Belgian painter René Magritte came to mind. In particular “The Betrayal of Images” which depicts a lone smoker’s pipe with the legend, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” beneath it (“This is not a pipe“). The point being that it is not a pipe but a painting of a pipe. What I wanted was the hat/wife link. I have done a lot of work with illustrators and I love to reach past their ‘style’ to engage their creative thinking on books they will respond or react strongly too. But on this occasion I had something specific that needed to be executed with skill and élan. I called Paul Slater. Master craftsman, good egg. And what a good job he did. Now I dislike plagiarism, and so I made damn sure we clearly credited our homage to Magritte as such on the back cover.

The book was published and was well received. It deserved it. Our efforts to communicate complex issues of neurology with apt graphic imagery worked. I mentioned how great a job Paul Slater did? I got a letter from the solicitors representing the Magritte estate who, in their zeal, thought we had used a real painting from the collection without permission. All was cool once we pointed out the fulsome credit acknowledging the great man, in fact they were pleased (In fact Paul has reminded me I wrote “Ceci n’est pas une Magritte“). Paul Slater you were just too good! Dear readers, please see the full range of Paul’s fabulous work unfettered by concept-obsessed art directors.

Douglas Adams

I have been fortunate to work with some really great people. Authors, Composers, Entrepreneurs, Actors, Publishers, Creatives. Working with the best is very demanding but it makes you raise your game.

I relish that challenge.

My latest project has been working with a very talented Musicologist in Chicago called Doug Adams. More on that project in a later post. But it’s a good excuse to start this Blog with the similarly named, Douglas Adams. I love to listen to BBC World Service. That’s where I first heard the radio broadcast of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – at 3 am on a sleepless night in West London. I liked the way it played with the Science Fiction genre. So when editor Caroline Upcher bought the rights for Pan Books I already knew the nature of the beast. And together we were able to spread the word that this was more than the SF designation it had on the list. But initially that is where it stayed. Mick Brownfield produced worthy cover art for the first edition. The series grew. It became a Trilogy.











Now, this is what I mean by massively late. Sales needed a cover to rack up the orders. I had to deliver the design for the hardback jacket before Douglas produced the book. I made him promise to tell me what he had in mind. On his way out of the Fulham Road offices, unaware of his imminent incarceration, he stuck his head round my office door to brief me. He said, “It’s called So Long and Thanks for All the Fish“. And left.I sat, lost for words. A few minutes passed and his head re-appeared, “But there are no fish in it.“, he declared – and fled.












This left me license to match enigma with enigma. And when the penny eventually dropped, it landed in a pint of Guinness and produced a ‘lenticular print‘. I found one of a walrus that morphed into a dinosaur, originally produced as a give-away for a cereal packet. Douglas Adams wrote in my copy “The silliest jacket in the history of history itself“.

An Olympic level of silliness reached (that, of course mirrored the product) we were able to cap it off nicely when we eventually produced a unified design livery for the whole series. Adams hard-nosed agent demanded that we get the new paperback editions in bulk display bins in WHSmith. Trouble was their policy was no bins for re-issues, which three of the four were. It’s never just simple! It was going to take a real eye-catcher to encourage WHS break the rules.

I played around with some nice images. Chris Foss produced a classy SF illustration of a spaceship in the shape of a Rebok training shoe. Fate demanded a fish this time. A very small place in North London produced a towel with the legend “Don’t Panic!” woven in. And Douglas had made a self-portrait on his early AppleMac. But felt none of them were strong enough to stand alone. Off to our author’s house in Islington. Unable to hear over the most sophisticated sound system I had ever seen we played games with paper. Marketing Gods would call it brain-storming. I chopped copies of the images into pieces. Then settled on cutting each image into four. So by reconfiguring them you see the whole of each image. Just out of devilment, the spines, when in chronological order spell out “42”. In Luscher Colour Test colours. Nobody got that.

Great fun, and millions of books were displayed and sold.