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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 archive.org.

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.

How The CIA Overthrew Iran’s Democracy In 4 Days (NPR) – NPR podcast Throughline published (back in Feb. 2019) this look at the history of US’s CIA role in the fall of the Iran Democracy. Even more important for Americans to understand given the politics of the last few days. Don’t just read the article, listen to the 38-minute podcast.

The most awesome space images of the decade (Vox.com) – Some truly stunning images from space. This one from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, landing on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, still blows my mind. We captured that from the surface of a comet.

ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

With 2020, one of my big goals is to be more of a maker. Of which, this blog is a big part of it for me. But also, I want to do more physical stuff. Adam Savage is one of my major sources of motivation and his one day builds series on YouTube is a constant source of enjoyment for me. Here’s the newest video which is much more of a how-to than his normal videos, which are as he puts it more of a “here’s what I did” sort of video.

Happy Public Domain Day – With the start of the new year, a whole host of new items enter the public domain.

IRS Reforms Free File Program, Drops Agreement Not to Compete With TurboTax (ProPublica.org) – “The IRS announced significant changes Monday to its deal with the tax prep software industry. Now companies are barred from hiding their free products from search engines such as Google, and a years-old prohibition on the IRS creating its own online filing system has been scrapped.”

Two fascinating links I came across nearly simultaneously.

Center for Policing Equity – A new organization I was introduced to by Adam Savage, via his YouTube video of favorite things for 2019. This is an organization dedicated to partnering with police organizations to remove bias from them. The organization’s tagline is “Data Science for Justice.” I need to do more research before I officially recommend them for donations, but definitely interesting.


Second, a video by Tom Scott, who is among my favorite ‘infotainment’ channels on YouTube. I find his videos highly informative and entertaining. This video is no exception. As a coder I had seen the ISO date functions, but I didn’t know what it was and had never used them. Now I know.

Links – 23 December

Optimists For The Win: Finding The Bright Side Might Help You Live Longer (NPR.org) – “A Boston study published this month suggests people who tend to be optimistic are likelier than others to live to be 85 years old or more.” Take results with a grain of salt, survey size was over 71,000 but it was a self-reported study and of those surveyed, less than 2,000 were men.

Visualization of AirBnB listings around NYC (Reddit discussion) – I love good visualizations, especially of mundane topics I would never see otherwise.

Becoming Eli (Washington Post) – An excellent look into the life, trials and challenges of a young person embracing their happiness identifying as non-binary.

Since eighth grade Eli had attended three schools and been hospitalized for depression and anxiety five times, twice after attempting suicide. Eli’s forearms and thighs were marked with thin white scars from slicing through skin to tamp the pain of a lifetime of profound discomfort — with the birth name chosen by Susan and Scott, with the pink sequined dresses grandma used to buy, with having to inhabit a female body. And with the fact that the other option, being male, also felt wrong.

For as long as Eli could remember, gender dysphoria had hung like a fog, obscuring any solid sense of self. The discomfort became so severe in middle and high school that it had been hard to even get out of bed. “I won’t make it past high school,” Eli had often thought.

Then in the past year or two, life had begun to brighten. After trying and discarding various gender and sexual identities, one had finally clicked: non-binary, meaning Eli didn’t identify with being fully male or female.

Riley Howell, the student who tackled the gunman during the April 30 UNC-Chapel Hill shooting, is now a canon Jedi Master and historian – He was a big fan of Star Wars, and this thread popped up as soon as the Star Wars reference book for the Rise of Skywalker was released. Such a cool tribute to a hero that could be forgotten.

This Twitter thread starts with the real timeline of Disney’s growth and taking over of the entertainment world. Then they go into a theoretical and humorous future timeline.

Sony’s proto-Walkman that went to the moon* – A fascinating video from one of my favorite niche YouTube channels that dives into a brief history of what came before the Sony Walkman cassette player.

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