Gandalf’s Notes

Sir Ian Mckellen has recently released his journal from the time when he was taking on the role of Gandalf during the filming of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

News of its release circled the web and his poor little blog was quickly crashed. I managed to get it pulled up thanks to the folks at

In his entry dated “12 March 2000” he shares these tidbits from the production. None of this was truly shattering as I’d seen the behind-the-scenes footage, but I still enjoyed his prose and perspective in this part.

Back to Hobbiton, which has not yet totally disappeared. Its interiors are all sturdily in place at the Wellington studios of Three Foot Six Ltd, which anyone could work out is the Lord of the Rings film company. Confusingly there are two Bag Ends. And here’s why. (If you don’t like reading about how screen magic is achieved, join me again two paragraphs down.)

Hobbits must appear smaller than the other characters in the film. When I, as Gandalf, meet Bilbo or Frodo at home, I bump my head on the rafters. (Tolkien didn’t think to mention it!) So there is a small Bag End set with small props to match. As Ian Holm and Elijah Wood would be too big within it, they have “scale doubles” who are of a matching size with the scenery and its miniature furniture. In the small set Bilbo and Frodo are played by Kiran Shah (Legend) who is in hobbit proportion to my Gandalf.

And of course there has to be a big Bag End, where the scale is human-sized and all the objects of the small set are duplicated but bigger. There the “hero actors” can play the hobbits but the camera expects a gigantic Gandalf and gets him in Paul Webster (a 7’4″ Wellingtonian) who substitutes for me. It is not easy acting, as you try to feed off your colleagues’ reactions during a scene; but we manage. By starting with the close-up shots (where the hero actor being filmed can see the expressions of another just behind the lens) we can remember the detail of that experience when confronted by the scale double’s face, which is sometimes masked, as the camera films a two-shot at longer range. Normally this master shot would precede the close-ups in a film’s schedule.

These technicalities need not be an audience’s concern but I appreciate any fascination with them. One of my most treasured paperbacks as a kid was a photographed tour of a film studio and as a schoolboy actor I was intrigued by the line or the moment which separates the reality of the wings from the dramatised reality onstage. It is one of the few binds about being a professional actor, forever wondering “how did they do that?” It doesn’t spoil the show but can be distracting from more important matters like the dialogue and the story.

The Bag End designs could not be bettered. Their colours are warm with lots of wood and signs of industry, writing and cooking and overeating. Simply, they are hobbity and to me very familiar. They are in accord with my own untidiness and need to be comfy. The kitchen table where Frodo pours the tea is akin to the family kitchen of my childhood. Yet it is all with a difference because Bag End feels like a hole in the ground. Why are subterranean books popular with children? Besides The Hobbit there are The Wind in the Willows, Knock Three Times! and, of course, Alice.

Through the circular latticed windows there is a backcloth of the Shire and entwined in the structure are the polished roots from the tree above, on which Gandalf parks his cloak and pointed hat. His staff is always at the ready leaning by the fireplace in the sitting room.

A fireplace means a fire and the fire in this case must look real enough to test any ring that might be thrust into it. Real fires produce heat. So here we all are — twenty or more dotty enthusiasts crouching on the smaller set in which only Kiran is laughing. We are blasted by the heat of the fire and of the lights, which Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Babe) and his head gaffer Brian Bamsgrove keep out of my eyes but not away from the few areas of skin that are exposed beneath Gandalf’s cloakings and beardings. It feels like madness but it is all part of filming. The second the camera rolls, I forget the discomfort, just as on stage ailing actors are temporarily cured by the intensity of “Doctor Theatre.”

Alan Lee, the films’ Conceptual Artist, is more usually a book illustrator. His style is romantic and rich with detail. His pencil impressions of Bag End and all the other varied locations were realised as three-dimensional models under the expertise of Dan Hennah, the Supervising Art Director. Once costed and approved by the director, the full-scale (and hobbit-scale) sets were built within the old warehouses that now house the production company. Under corrugated iron roofs there are offices, amenities, dining shed, trailers for actors, makeup, wardrobe as well three studios. We are settled amongst the flat suburb of Miramar behind the low ridge of hills that stretches into Wellington’s harbour. Real life is just through the gate. And my rented house is only five minutes away in Seatoun, where Peter Jackson lives permanently with his family on the coast road directly below me.

The good news is that air conditioning piping has rapidly been installed. I hope, come winter, this can double as a heating system.