(L-R) John Howe, Ramsey Avery and Kate Hawley attend the Rings of Power panel during SCAD TVFEST 2023 on February 11, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD)

At SCAD TVfest, there was one panel discussion to rule them all. 

On Feb. 11, the last day of the festival, Concept Artist John Howe, Costume Designer Kate Hawley, and Production Designer Ramsey Avery joined SCAD TVfest to discuss their work on Amazon Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” 

The series serves as a prequel to both “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit,” bringing to life the Second Age of Middle-earth’s history. The show takes place thousands of years before Tolkien’s original work, long before we ever meet Frodo or Bilbo Baggins, and long before hobbits even existed. However, familiar faces such as the elves Galadriel (played by Morfydd Clark, reprising Cate Blanchett’s role from the original movie trilogy) and Elrond (Robert Aramayo, played by Hugo Weaving in the original movie trilogy) do make appearances, along with a brand new cast of characters. The show also features new locations not seen before, such as Númenor, the great island kingdom of men.

Howe has been connected to Tolkien’s work for decades and is well-known for his artwork of Middle-earth. Along with Tolkien artist Alan Lee, he served as conceptual designer for Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” film trilogy. He illustrated “The Lord of the Rings” board game, created by Reiner Knizia, and from 1996 to 2003 re-illustrated maps of “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” and “The Silmarillion.”

In her previous work, Hawley designed the costumes for films such as “Pacific Rim,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “Crimson Peak,” and David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad.” For her work on Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak,” she was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Costume Design. She has also worked on stage productions, including projects for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the New Zealand Festival, and the New Zealand Opera Company. 

Avery has over 30 years experience as a production designer, art director, and set designer. Among numerous other roles, Avery has served as the supervising art director on films such as “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Tomorrowland,” and “Stark Trek Into Darkness.” After working as the design director for a Marvel theme park for Dubailand in the United Arab Emirates, he took on the same role for Disneyland’s Avenger’s Campus. He has designed several other Disney theme park attractions. 

Rough Draft Atlanta was lucky enough to speak with Howe, Hawley and Avery after the panel discussion to go more into depth about what it took to bring the Second Age of Middle-earth to life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Robert Aramayo (Elrond), Morfydd Clark (Galadriel) in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” (Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video)

The three of you have varying levels of professional history with this text. I’m interested in how your vision evolves, or how concepts that you’ve had in your previous work come into play?

Kate Hawley: Every director and showrunner has a different vision. So that was one of the first things, you know, was to get [showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay’s] interpretation of it. They really responded, from my interactions with them, to a more grounded feeling of a real world as opposed to the more high fantasy elements of it. Our job is always to shed what we did before and take on the new vision. That’s our role. It’s a never ending invention, really, of imagination. 

The most important thing is the author’s work, and coming back to the text and the qualities that you see in the writing and what that meant the first time. It’s very much something that you take with you, and then it’s how it gets reinterpreted under the gaze that’s looking at it. 

John Howe: And not only Tolkien’s own work, but also Tolkien’s sources, which are varied and rich and really help you. Tolkien doesn’t give you a lot of visual descriptions. He’s more about describing the emotions of the characters in any given scene, which is a blessing because you don’t have the constricting elements of exact dimension and detail, but you have a sentiment. And because we see “The Lord of the Rings” so much through hobbits’ eyes, there’s this sense of the marvelous, and the vastness, and the exciting side of the world, which I think has touched all three of us. You just try and revisit that for the first time, every time.

Something came up in the panel discussion that I thought was interesting. Ramsey, you said one of the first things you saw were some mood boards that were created by Kate. Kate, what did those look like and how did you go about coming up with them?

Hawley: Every time I approach a project, there will be different things that inform the mood boards. John’s right – there’s not a lot of literal description … but what [Tolkien] does talk about is how the stars are reflected. You know, he talks about nature. So that has to be the forefront of everything. We talked about Edward Burne-Jones, and William Morrison. They were also artists dealing with the romanticism of mythology and dealing with nature and art. So that became the basis. 

I also had mood boards of the work of authors, and contemporary artists, and sculptors that we’ve mentioned of [Toklien’s] period, and the influences of The Green Man and all of those other works. That fed into it. You build up a vast knowledge and then things distill. I used them only as a starting point, and as we keep discussing, you’re moving images around, keeping it as fluid and lucid as John does in his sketching. I use it as a tool like that – just another way to sketch.

When you’re looking at all of these different things, whether it be outside inspirations or Tolkien’s work, how long are you gathering all of that information and putting it together before you start working?

Ramsey Avery: It depends on the projects. Sometimes you’ll get a bit more time and sometimes you have no time. 

Hawley: Yeah, the nature of a schedule that constantly changes – I mean, sometimes we only had four weeks to build a world [laughs]. 

I can imagine that’s a lot of pressure. How potent was that sense of pressure for each of you?

Avery:  There are all kinds of pressures. Not the least of which is the fact that you’re taking on this world, to show this world to a whole bunch of people who have very strong opinions about this world, and just having that in the back of your head. You know, don’t screw it up, because people care about this. 

To one level, [it’s] coming to the realization that we all care about this world as much as those people care, so if we don’t screw it up for ourselves, we’re probably not going to screw it up for the rest of the world. So that one level, you can kind of relax. But then you have scheduling, you have budget. 

Ramsey, during the panel discussion you mentioned that part of the design for some of the boats in “The Rings of Power” came from the Crown of Gondor. I wondered if there are any other examples of things like that, where you were looking back at something and repurposing it for the Second Age.

Avery: Elrond goes to Eregion, and when Eregion falls, he goes and forms Rivendell. So looking into the ideas of how Rivendell has been represented, both in the movies and also in other pieces of artwork, and trying to dial back those ideas to show what Elrond took from what he saw in Eregion to then build Rivendell … It’s not front and forward, but it is definitely part of looking at the roof lines, and the materiality of Rivendell – even to the fact that okay, we should put a waterfall in because Rivendell is all about waterfalls, so let’s have one as part of our storytelling. 

That was always core of what we were doing, was trying to find those things that can echo to the audience from things they have seen before, or they’ve felt before, and how it might inform bits and pieces of our world. 

Even very simple, kind of logistical choices – the whole idea of how books are represented in Middle Earth was a deliberate choice. Elves didn’t figure out how to do bookbinding. That was the Númenóreans who figured out how to do bookbinding. So Elrond’s library later comes because he’s learned from the Númenóreans. So there were even those types of levels of conversation and decisions. 

Howe: One thing Kate and Ramsey both mentioned is the crucial importance of layering of history. That’s something I think we’re all acutely conscious of. I live in a town in Switzerland, there’s a 10th century tower in the center of town. It’s one of the few remaining medieval artifacts. But the base of that tower is actually composed of Roman quarried stone, which was brought from another place as a symbolic transfer of power to build the city wall. That’s something that we try systematically to put in, is this idea that things change, things are built over one atop the other. They influence each other, they’re left behind, they’re buried, they’re rediscovered.

Númenor in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” (courtesy of Prime Video)

Hawley: I really felt you did that in a big way for Númenor, Ramsey and John – those layers on the docks and those parts that are more of the Elven world, and then layers from what the Númenóreans were and what they are now. 

Avery: The whole idea of trying to work through how we know that they were taught by the elves, but then they eventually rebel against the elves, and trying to represent that in histories of thousands of years of architecture. We did a whole historical survey of the various periods of Númenor, and what were the design elements, and the colors, and the shapes of each period and how did that get represented in all that stacking of that history in our design. 

Hawley: Super geekdom [laughs]. 

I mean, you have to do it to be able to represent something accurately. 

Howe: Also, the brevity of human life compared to the eternity of the elves’ lives. The humans are going to be putting that out. They’re going to be making statements in the brief lives they have. The elves are not so worried about that, because they’ve got the time. That I think comes through really, really strongly in what Ramsey did with Númenor. It’s an arrogant empire. It’s growing, it’s big, it’s expanding. They want to rule the seas. And that’s part of the human folly, in that sense, because for an elf, it’s brief. There’s that wonderful encounter between Elrond and Durin, where [Durin] says, you didn’t come back for 20 years! 

I loved that moment. 

Howe: It’s oddly something that Tolkien doesn’t really touch upon. I was delighted to see that come to be hinted at, here and there in “The Rings of Power” … Can you imagine living next to people who live forever?

Avery: And what that means. And they don’t forget anything, so how does their culture shift over time when they don’t forget anything?

Hawley: They made mistakes too, but they’ve had the luxury of time to understand the impact of those decisions. When you read “The Silmarillion,” there’s a lot of violence between elves. They’re not perfect angelic beings at all. It’s like the Greek mythologies, really.

Howe: There’s also the notion of what they would give up to put themselves in danger. When you have the choice of living forever, how far do you go in risking your life? Because when you live 80 years, well, it’s not quite the same question, you know? 

I think generally, for creative, visual people, you spend your entire life gathering things. Everything interests you, everything is of interest because you selfishly feel it might be of use. All of that comes in, and it’s a 24 hour, 24/7, every day of the year exercise. It all goes up into sort of an attic, where it all sits until the time you need to come to grips with a project, a theme, something you need to produce work for. 

Hawley: And it’s never literal, is it? You’re always taking that thing that you know, but then you’re reinterpreting it, you know? 

Howe: That’s the thing. You’re never just sort of spitting it back out. It will emerge in the form it should emerge in, if your points of contact and your intuition are functioning. If you feel you’re in contact with the theme and the project, then it just automatically will appear. Then the discussion begins, then the interaction, which is really the most fun part. As much as I love doing sketches, I love getting feedback. 

Kate, at the panel, you talked about having to evolve the costumes as you figure out what the physical environment is going to look like. I’m interested in that collaboration, particularly the collaboration with the actors, and how much they factor into costume design. 

Hawley: Hugely. We’re also dealing with the fact that we’re used to our images of Elrond, through the films and things. But when you talk to Robert [Aramayo, the actor who plays Elrond in “The Rings of Power”], he is Elrond. [Laughs] He’s a walking book. 

He was very much one that wanted to play down Elrond in comparison to the rest of the court. He wanted to be very simple. The first thing he talked about was having his feet in water. He felt like water was his image, and when you understand Elwing [Elrond’s mother] and all of his histories, that made sense. So we used that as an image through his garments. We worked very closely with him and gave him things to hold on to. 

Robert Aramayo (Elrond) in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” (Credit: Ben Rothstein/Prime Video)

[Actors have] an opinion on everything. And you have to listen to it and work with it … it’s like what John does, being open to opinions and many other things. You have to do that with your actor. You’re sharing a note, and then they might go away and think about something that you’ve said. It works both ways, and it’s an alchemy. You keep building on that. That’s why time’s really important for characters like these.

It’s a common thing, but it’s really hard when people fly in to do their moment and fly out. One of the great plus sides of a pandemic [laughs], was everyone was stuck here. So we could talk endlessly. Often, we’d invite them to our concept room, that was full of the mood boards, and we could just sit there. Sometimes we talked about things that had nothing to do with the material we were actually doing, but just in the world, always about the world.

A huge part of our job was to help them understand what everybody was doing on the show. What Ramsey was doing, what John was doing, what everybody was doing. It was our job. We were the first portal, really, for them to access their character and the world.

Howe: And a lot of them are big “The Lord of the Rings” fans. 

Hawley: Yeah .. I think it’s not always taken so seriously, but every one of them had done their homework. 

Howe: It’s interesting, as an evolution in the public. The generation I belong to, we read the books. Then there were the movies, now there’s “The Rings of Power.” And I’ve started to meet kids who haven’t seen the two trilogies, and their first introduction to all this is “The Rings of Power.” 

It’s really interesting to see how they’re moving into this world. I remember meeting the first people who hadn’t read the books and had actually seen the movies first. 

That’s me!

Howe: I’m really interested in that, because I want to know what they think, I want to know what their experience is. 

Hawley: You look at other television shows, and a lot of that language when “The Lord of the Rings” came out was unique … When you come back to revisit it, you’re going, okay that was then, and now it’s almost become a pastiche. People take that language and it’s everywhere, so how do you make it feel fresh again?

Howe: That’s one of the things that’s hard to do in a project like this, is to separate your own personal experience from the actual sources. I kept going back in and rereading something, and that’s not how I remember it at all.  It must have come from the movie, or it must have come from somewhere else, or something I dreamed up, you know? You really sort of need to keep questioning your own knowledge, which is healthy. 

Description: Morfydd Clark as Galadriel (Credit: Matt Grace/Prime Video).

I assume you guys probably discussed a lot of stuff that didn’t make it on the show. 

Avery: Not only stuff we discussed, there’s stuff that we designed. 

Is there anything that you wish made it in that didn’t?

Avery: It’s really kind of funny. Most of my favorite designs are the ones that didn’t get built. For some strange reason, the story would shift, so that idea would not be needed.

Hawley: Or you take something, and someone uses it in a different way to how you intended it. We offer up lots of concepts … The journey of that is once it leaves you, it’s shaped by someone else. You go, oh! That’s not how I imagined it. Sometimes it can be a fantastic thing. But it’s that letting go and just being part of the process, isn’t it?

To wrap things up, I’m glad John, that you brought up this idea previously of people coming to “The Rings of Power” first. I think “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” can be sort of a generational passing of the torch. In the panel, you three mentioned you all came to the text quite young, as a lot of people do. Forgive me for being cheesy, but I wanted to know how it feels to work on something that has had an impact on you and continues to have an impact on others worldwide? 

Howe: I had a very delayed, kind of progressive working my way into “The Lord of the Rings.” I did enjoy it when I read it the first time, and then when the first Tolkien calendars came out, I would buy those religiously. Every month, I would do the same subject in my own style. Thankfully, none of those have survived [laughs]. 

Then, actually going to work on the first trilogy was one, a dream come true, but as well, without any guarantee whatsoever of success. It was, on my level, without any risks, of course, because if it doesn’t work out you simply go back home. But then, seeing what it became, being followed by “The Hobbit” and now being followed by “The Rings of Power,” it’s definitely become this huge thing. 

I can only speak for myself, but when you’re working on it, when you’re in the midst of it, when you’re deep into it again, you’re not thinking of anything except trying to get the next thing done in time, and trying to remain fresh, and trying to bring in new ideas. Trying to stay faithful to what your experience of it has been, but also not to be bound by that, not to be shackled by that – to be able to do new things, and to accept that what you see is maybe not the way it should be. Even though you’ve been helping define that world, in my case, for 40 years now. It’s an exercise in ambition and humility. Ambition because you’re in this project, which is really huge. But also humility because you should never be sure of anything. Just trust your own intuition. And, you know, rely on that to carry you.

Avery: I’ve worked on projects that I thought, in the process, they were going to be the most brilliant thing ever. Then they’re a disaster. The exact opposite is you work on things like, this is just a piece of crap, and then it ends up being a wonderful piece of entertainment or storytelling. 

It’s always like, is this going to work? And to see those first couple of episodes with the music, and the editing, and the color correction, and all of it – the characters inhabiting those worlds that we built in a way that was compelling and interesting and evolving … as much as Tolkien has kind of informed my entire life, the idea wasn’t so much that I got to do this, it was that we did something that felt real and inhabited. That’s where the real joy came watching it.

Writer and Journalist Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.