An Interview with Grant Major
Grant Major is a renowned Production and Art Designer. Having won an Academy Award for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Grant has also worked on films such as King Kong, Heavenly Creatures, X-Men: Apocalypse, An Angel at My Table, Green Lantern and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I spoke with Grant about breaking into the industry, his collaborations with Peter Jackson, and his work on The Lord of the Rings and King Kong.
Did you always want to become a Production Designer? How did you break into the industry?
There was no film business in New Zealand when I graduated from Art School. I stumbled into a job at the local television station which at the time had its own Design Department, Graphics, costume departments, drama, light entertainment etc... This was in the 1970’s and the business is completely different now. I came on as an Assistant Set Designer and learnt the trade from the more senior designers as well as from trial and error. I left there after a few years and went to the BBC Television Centre in Shepherds Bush, London, where I also worked as an Assistant Set Designer eventually graduating to becoming a Set Designer. While there I worked on some terrific shows, I grew to like drama productions rather than song and dance / comedy etc and decided to devote my career to film and television drama.
I returned to New Zealand and found work there in a burgeoning film industry working now as a freelance Art Director eventually graduating to being a Production Designer in the early 1990’s.
So there was no plan and only little formal training. I learnt as I was working, observing how other designers worked, read reviews and watched films to learn from them. I had some great mentors during my early years and when opportunities came to advance I grabbed them.
You frequently collaborate with Peter Jackson. What's the process like working with him?
It has been around 18 years since I last worked with Peter — on King Kong. We met around the mid-1990s when he was looking for a designer for ‘Heavenly Creatures’, we got on well and he invited me to then design ‘The Frighteners’ followed by ‘The Lord of the Rings’. He is a terrific person and gifted film maker of course, totally committed, energetic and collaborative. He has a long memory too given the length of time LOTR took to make. His process in creating a film project is similar to most film makers I reckon, but at the time I was working with him he was quite a hands-on maker of models, kit-sets etc as evidenced by his home-made prosthetics for ‘Braindead’ , ‘Meet the Feebles’ and so on. Coming from this craft-orientated direction led to his films having an idiosyncratic originality to them.
He was ideally suited to making LOTR in part because if this craft orientated approach and an audacious confidence.
You were production designer on the Lord of The Rings Trilogy. What was involved in the research process, and how long did it take?
This is a huge question and of course the whole experience was 20 years ago now. We worked on the pre-production for 2 years and eventually filmed the three films over the course of a year followed by a series of pick-ups after that so for me the experience was around 3.5 years.
Regarding research we had the superbly written book to glean pretty much all the information we needed but on top of this we looked at earlier European architectural styles, predominantly the Romanesque period as a touch-stone for the Gondorian culture. Other European cultures influenced aspects of Middle Earth for example ancient Icelandic building methods influenced the buildings at Edoras. Having said this we were not saying that Middle Earth existed as a part of Europe at all, but Tolkien has his roots firmly in the Anglo - European historic sphere so using these examples seemed logical. Lastly and most importantly the book illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe bought their own aesthetics to the design process that gave the look of the films a specific quality.
What were the biggest challenges you faced working on the Trilogy?
The length of the show required a lot of stamina and patience. The sheer number of locations and set pieces meant having to spread our time and resources to several projects at once. Keeping a handle on the overall style and maintaining a standard of finish was hugely important.
What is your day to day schedule like when working on a film such as King Kong? What is the workflow like?
This schedule changes during the course of the project from pre-production to shoot especially. These big productions have a large amount of people, designers, artists, trades and crafts involved so constantly circulating around the workshops and set builds, working in advance of the main production shoot is important. The places these jobs happen in are often spread around different locations and workshops, there is a lot of travel involved.
What was your favourite set?
I don’t have a favourite set, if any it’s probably the last one I did.