Dickson, costume designer for the mammoth traveling circus known as Lord of the Rings, checks the warriors from head to toe.
Their ragged clothing is a mass of strips--Irish linen, cotton, silk, muslin--all dyed in rich reds, browns and terracottas, then aged, ripped and layered (no Armani for this crowd). As techies attach horsehair to mess up the lines of the outfits, Ngila makes a few adjustments, then sends the warriors off to be muddied up.
It's just another day on the set for Dickson, who can tell silk brocade from sackcloth at 40 paces and has handled more Orc underwear than you care to know.
Stylishly arrayed in black (and a surprisingly sexy green smock), Ngila is down-to-earth, no-nonsense and dry-witted--all attributes that serve her well on this massive undertaking.
Dickson's a long-time collaborator with director Peter Jackson. More recently, she handled the New Zealand-based TV shows Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules.
While the latter might seem like good training for turning out Middle Earth wear, as Ngila says, "It's best to forget your former work and start afresh on each new project. Of course, I never think that. I'm an optimistic fool."
A healthy dose of optimism is critical when you're in charge of creating costumes for multiple civilizations and characters. Dickson runs a workshop of more than 40 tailors, designers, cobblers, embroiderers and jewelers.
Back in her office, she takes a phone call, and I have a look around. Early sketches of Arwen's costume hang on a wall. Bookshelves are crammed with fashion magazines, books and videos.
The massive warehouse workshop is filled with the buzz of sewing machines and the bang of jewelers' hammers. There are drafting tables, huge boxes and rolls of fabric everywhere. And Lauryn Hill on the CD player.
Dickson looks tired. Last week, she flew to Melbourne to fit Cate Blanchett for outfits before the actress arrives in mid-June for filming. ("Cate is gorgeous!" she sighs.) Then Ngila was up for two days straight getting a last-minute costume order ready.
"Our deadlines often get pushed forward, as they'll need costumes for backup filming if location weather is bad," she says. "It's the ultimate factor of filmmaking, really. The camera will turn around on a certain day, and you have to be there, on time, with a frock for the actor to wear. It just has to be done."
Dickson's costumes have a notable lack of fussiness and froufrou--just beautiful fabrics, neat tailoring and meticulous attention to detail. "We've never tried to be fantastical," she explains. "Right from the beginning, Peter and Alan [Lee, Tolkien illustrator and LOTR's conceptual designer] wanted the costumes to look as real as possible."
Dickson started with the Hobbits, "who are so central to the story and the look of the production." She put them in green- and brown-paletted tweed coats and waistcoats with brass buttons.
It's a look inspired by 18th-century England, "but with quirks," she says. "We wanted to make them seem not quite right, so they would jar the eye."
So, trouser legs and sleeves are too short, buttons are slightly misplaced, and collars are a little too big--like when children try on adult clothing. "Strangely, it all seemed to work when they put on their huge Hobbit feet," Dickson says.
Her greatest challenge was the Elves. "From the beginning, we imagined these beautiful, androgynous creatures. But dreams are hard to realize."
The original concept of glittery elves looked too Disney, so Jackson suggested a more medieval look. That gave Dickson inspiration to make the Elven fabrics look antique.
Collars and bodices are made from Indian silk brocade, "which we wash, bleach, dye, sandpaper and do all the things you're not supposed to do with brocade," Dickson explains. Washing brings up the metallic wire, giving the fabric both texture and a metallic gleam.
Another Elf must-have fabric is silk velvet, which has a luxurious drape and sheen. "My team hates working with it, as it bruises, but it looks amazing." Dickson's crew uses art-nouveau techniques like acid-etching leaf and floral designs onto the velvet. It's then hand-embroidered and edged with silk or metallic thread.
Sleeves are made in leaf shapes, which coil around the actors' arms. Rivendell Elves are more luxuriously fitted in rich golds, scarlets and greens, while wood Elves wear brown woolen cloths designed to look like tree barks.
Jewelers handcraft buttons, floral- and leaf-motif headpieces and belt buckles. The result is a combination of strength and beauty. "We want to emphasize the impression of Elves as extraordinary, radiant people," Dickson says.
But her team saved the really fabulous stuff for LOTR's women. Since there are only three main female characters--Arwen the Elf princess, Eowyn the cross-dressing woman and Galadriel the prophet queen--they're pulling out all the stops here.
Arwen's frocks, for instance, were originally designed as warrior woman ready-to-wear for the horse-riding Elf chick on the move. "But Peter wanted something more feminine," Dickson says.
So, they went back to the drawing board. "I think the resulting outfit made it more difficult for Liv to move in. It's a classic conflict between visual concept and workability--you wonder sometimes how an actor is going to do what's in the script in that frock. But the actors respond very well. We've had no 'I don't want to wear that.' "
Dickson doesn't like to plan a costume too precisely until the actor tries on a muslin template (called a toile). "Usually we get them straight off the plane, when they've got jet lag, and whip them into the toile," she says. Then, after discussions with Jackson, the outfit is made with the fabric and modeled again by the actor.
"We like the actor to contribute to the process," she says. "After all, it's their way of getting to grips with their character." Dickson recalls that when Hugo Weaving put on his costume, "he just started to stand and move like Elrond."
She also salutes Viggo Mortensen, "who has such integrity for his role, and has just made his costume live, wear and smell." Mortensen reputedly wears his costume horseback riding off the set, and he offered to wash and repair it himself so he could literally grow into it.
Seeing Stars Inside Rivendell
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND--With just a few weeks before the cast and crew pack up for a one-month summer break, Stone Street Studios is buzzing with activity.
The studio's soundstages house the interior sets for Rivendell, and a visit in late May reveals the same vaulted pillars and leaf insignia seen on Rivendell exteriors at Kaitoke National Park--but with furnishings the Kennedys would kill for.
Bookshelves are filled with leather- and velvet-lined books with Elvish gold script. Half-finished Elvish parchments lie on tall drafting tables near hand-blown glass ink pots and quill pens. Candelabras and side tables with velvet, star-shaped covers share wall space with fearsome swords and armor.
Up a sweeping staircase straight out of a Cecil B. DeMille flick, we step onto a landing, where (fake) afternoon sun streams in. I look at a mural of Isildur fighting Sauron, drawn by Tolkien illustrator Alan Lee, then head below to watch the action.
The set is a feast of star power, collected for the Council of Elrond scenes. Around a table sit Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Boromir (Sean Bean) and assorted dwarves and woodmen. They're here to fight over the future of the Ring and entrust Frodo with the job of destroying it.
The cameras focus on Bean. His Boromir is keen for his people, the Gondorians, to use the power of the Ring. (Later, Boromir's pride and ambition will lead him to attempt to steal the Ring from Frodo.)
Shooting is hard work, periodically interrupted by director Peter Jackson and the crew adjusting focus or measuring distance from the camera and other actors. Bean, a lanky Englishman, seems flustered and has trouble with lines.
Around 2 p.m., everybody breaks for lunch. That's when I catch up with the cast, who are eagerly discussing plans for the upcoming vacation. The Hobbit boys, who've recently fallen in love with surfing, talk about Southeast Asia.
I seek out Bean, only to find he's asleep in his trailer at our scheduled interview time. Oh, well, we'll catch him later.
Out with a Bang: Filming finished in the Ruapehu mountain range last month, with a doozy of a farewell party in the normally sleepy ski resort of Ohakune. Sources report cast and crew ran up a $15,000 (New Zealand) bar tab and enjoyed many a drunken frolic. No doubt they were thanking their lucky stars to be alive. Filming had taken place in old army training areas, and hundreds of extras playing Gondorian, Elven, Rohan and Orc soldiers had signed "death contracts," releasing production company Three Foot Six from liability for anyone straying onto landmines. And here we thought those severed limbs were just prosthetics...
Who's Hot: Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) is due to arrive in mid-June and will film all her scenes on studio sets over 10 days...In another casting shocker, New Zealander Karl Urban has signed on as Eomer, nephew of King Theoden and brother of Eowyn. Urban, best known for playing a gay ambulance attendant on the local TV series Shortland Street, joins the growing number of young Australasian unknowns chosen by Jackson over more established Hollywood playthings. Also cast last month, Australian actor Bruce Spence, best known for his work in the Mad Max film series, joins the cast as the evil Black Lieutenant.
It's a Date: Release plans are coming together for film one, The Fellowship of the Ring. New Line has scheduled the movie for December 14, 2001, and it will open simultaneously worldwide. A full-scale LOTR merchandising effort is expected to launch soon.
Running Man: If you see a bearded maniac running through the streets of Wellington with a torch on June 6, don't panic--it's probably just Peter Jackson. The director, who's known for wearing gym shoes with everything, is participating in a celebrity marathon that will carry the Olympic flame through New Zealand on its way to Syndey for the 2000 Olympics.
What a Drag: Ian McKellen celebrated his [61st] birthday onset with a rousing congratulations from cast and crew--and a drag queen. Bob from wardrobe arrived in a hastily put-together ensemble to present McKellen with birthday wishes and a cake.
Horse Sense: LOTR horse wrangler Dan Reynolds denies recent allegations of mistreatment of stunt horses, following bizarre rumors that some horses had been tackled, spray-painted white, put down or even turned into blankets for Liv Tyler. LOTR producers assure that their animal treatment has been approved by both the International Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Horses and New Zealand's own Conservation Ministry. At a press conference last week, LOTR allowed the media to inspect stables, revealing a team of happy horses. In other horseplay, Gandalf's steed, Shadowfax, caused a stir on location when he dumped Ian McKellen, who squashed the Little Person playing Pippin on the way down. Despite many heated words, there are no plans to put Shadowfax down.
Any word yet if the Ents will appear in the films? I seem to remember these treelike creatures being pivotal to the overthrow of Saruman and his forces at Orthanc.
The Ents have been given the green light (as they say in Hollywood). The creatures, which Tolkien describes as 10-foot-plus moving trees, will be computer generated. WETA Workshops apparently played around with a number of ways to bring the Ents to life (including having actors walking on stilts, as seen in the trailer), but they settled on CGI to make them seem real.