From Hobbits to Elves
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From Hobbits to Elves: The Costumes and Make-up

From New Line Cinema press release, December 2001

"On a project of this size and scope you have to design what you believe in, and on this film there wasn't a day in the 274 days of shooting that the costumes didn't look and feel real."
      -Ngila Dickson, costume designer

At the heart of every culture are its clothing and physical appearance, and Middle-earth is no different. In order to clothe an entire universe of beings, costume designer Ngila Dickson faced the challenge of her life. Although she has been creating imaginative, ancient costumes for "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Hercules" on television, Tolkien's universe presented a challenge unlike any other: clothing not just hundreds of characters, but nine physically and expressively different cultures. Working with a team of 50 tailors, embroiders, cobblers and jewelers, Dickson attempted to make each costume life-like, functional and reflective of each character.

The volume of costumes alone was staggering, an average of 150 costumes for each of the different cultures. Adding to the sheer numbers was the fact that many individual character costumes had to be made in two sizes: one for the actor and the other for the smaller or larger "scale double" used in filming.

Creating the Hobbit costumes was always a priority - and a sticky challenge. "When you have little fellows running around in frock coats and short trousers, you have to work hard to make that believable," notes Dickson. "But Peter was quite clear that he wanted them to look as real as possible."

Dickson did so by highlighting their pastoral nature. She used very natural fabrics and strong weaves, influenced by ancient European cultures. They wear waistcoats in harvest colors - greens, yellows and browns -- with brass buttons. But she also reinforced the playfulness of their stature and way of life. "I added a lot of quirks, things to jar the eye," she points out. "Their trouser legs and sleeves are too short, their buttons are too big, and their collars are out of proportion. I even made their pockets higher than usual for example, so when they put their hands in their pockets it has a very distinctive, funny look to us."

For the Elves, Dickson went for sheer elegance, mossy greens, tree-bark browns, autumn scarlets, an androgynous quality and a touch of antiquity. "They invoke their environment," she notes, "and they're very light on the earth, so we searched for very, very fine layers of fabrics for them." Their costumes were forged from Indian silk brocade, which Dickson washed, bleached, dyed and sandpapered to give the costumes a shimmering metallic gleam that looks organic.

The Elves also wear silk-velvet acid-etched with Art Nouveau leaf designs. Even their sleeves are made in leaf shapes, coiling around the actors' arms. On their feet are knee-high leather boots that add to their willowy appearance.

Another challenging costume was that of the Wizard Gandalf. Dickson toiled for weeks designing his hat, the ultimate wizard icon. "I wanted something impressive, ancient and magical but not too overwhelming," says the designer. "Our first sketches were like great ships on Ian McKellen's head, but we finally came to something that was perfect, functional and mysterious."

For the film's female characters, Dickson went for a new ethereal aesthetic. For the film's two Elven leading ladies, Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler, Dickson took their ethereal qualities to create an alluring race who are "the angels of the story," as Dickson puts it.

Dickson continues, "The Elves are tall, slender and elegant. They have a floating image to their costumes, using colors and fabric that are light and semi-shimmery."

Once Dickson created her costumes, she then had to "ruin" them. That is, she had to age and soil and tear them to make them look like they had gone through the adventures the creatures of Middle-earth experience. The Hobbits, for example, start out with clean, white shirts at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring, but soon find them muddied and bloodied in battle.

In the case of Aragorn's rugged, mud-splattered costume, Viggo Mortensen did the aging himself. "He took his outfit home with him because he wanted to literally grow into it," says Dickson. "He sweat in it, lived in it, even repaired it himself, as Aragorn would have. That's the best you can hope for in making costumes: that the actors will participate and make them their own, a part of their character."

Working closely with Dickson and Peter Jackson in forging each character's distinctive, detailed look was the makeup and hair design team of Peter King and Peter Owen. One of their main challenges was hair, which in The Fellowship of the Ring ranges from the belly-length beard of Gandalf to the thinning scraggles on the head of the Orcs to the flaxen locks of Galadriel. King and Owen had hundreds of wigs made to specifications that make them essentially invisible to human eyes. In fact, some 300 hand-made knotted wigs were permed in a giant pressure cooker in WETA's workshops.

The makeup artists also worked closely with the prosthetic artists to coordinate such features as pointy ears with the overall look. They, too, had to "enhance" their work with a variety of dirt, blood, scratches and gashes collected as the journey went on. In fact, the make-up artists eventually became known on set as "The Mud Men."

No matter the costume, it was essential that every robe, wig and boot in the film be maximally durable - especially given the fact that actors were scrambling over cliffs, slogging through streams, crawling underground and heaving swords at one another. "We tried to get longevity out of each costume," explains Dickson. "They had to survive a lot."

In the end, Dickson hopes her costumes don't stand out. Instead, she hopes they become part of the astonishing realistic backdrop for the characters' incredible journey towards friendship and wisdom. "The less people notice the details of the costume the better job we did in a sense," she comments, "because that means the costumes have helped to completely absorb you in the story."

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This page was last updated 04/22/08