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Grant Major

Production Designer

Grant Major, MNZM, argues that his career has been much influenced by the rising trajectory of Peter Jackson. Having said that, Major had already shown his mettle on a wide range of projects, long before entering Middle-earth: everything from kidult classics to Janet Frame adaptations, to the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games.

Major studied graphic art at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT). It was the golden age of guaranteed jobs for all who made it through the course. Uninterested in advertising, Major decided to study for a fine arts degree, once he'd spent a year making some money in television. "At that point it was such a good way to earn a living. And since I was earning a living at it I just kept at it".

Three weeks after joining TV2 as a set designer, he was sent to Stewart Island to design and build sets for Castaways of the General Grant, part of ambitious shipwreck series Castaways. "It was pretty much on-the-job-training ... having a graphic arts background at the time was very useful because back then the set designs were a lot more painterly."

After three and a half years with the state broadcaster, including production designing historical drama Children of Fire Mountain, Major began his "true apprenticeship" in the early 80s: studying and working in set design for the BBC, in London and then Belfast. In London studios worked on 24-hour shifts, and the 100-strong art department dwarfed anything he had seen.

Major returned home four years later, in time to work on acclaimed historical series Hanlon (1984) and then redesign the set for TV One's primetime news. The industry was in a state of transition. State television had closed down its in-house design departments, and many of Major's old TV colleagues had now moved into film. Major assisted one of them, working under production designer Rob Gillies as art director on 1984 movie Other Halves — one of the first local films to make Auckland look stylish — and TV movie The Grasscutter. He worked on classic short Kitchen Sink, and drew plans for the strange creature which emerges from it.

Needing to diversify to pay the bills, he also did some graphics work and helped Logan Brewer design the NZ pavilions at the Brisbane and Seville world expo. Later Major and Brewer worked together on the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1990 Commonwealth Games.

Major's first big movie job sprang from television: a demanding assignment as production designer on three-part Janet Frame bio adaptation, An Angel at My Table (1990). Shot on a tight budget, in varied locations — including England and Spain — the Janet Frame adaptation would win international acclaim as a feature film.

In the 90s there were more television projects — redesigning the various news sets for TV3, production designing mini-series The Chosen, and helping out on the original Hercules tele-movies. But feature films were about to take over his life. That decade Major production designed nine movies, all mining dark and/or fantastical themes. Among them was award-winner The Ugly (1997), with its memorably blue-tinted, neon-lit prison set, and twisted family tale Jack Be Nimble, made for only $1.6 million.

The 90s also marked the decade when Major began to work on increasingly bigger budgets, for two highly visual directors making ripples overseas. In 1996 he designed troubled love story Memory and Desire, the feature debut of longtime colleague Niki Caro. The film won acclaim, and invitation to Cannes; but Caro's commercial breakthrough would come later with Whale Rider in 2002. Major compared the latter film's Māori design elements, especially the village meeting house, to Japanese architecture: "huge, heavy, wooden, beautifully carved sculptures which have ancestral resonance to them ... fantastic. I think visually it's going to be a very strong film."

Back in 1994 Peter Jackson had invited him to production design Heavenly Creatures. Accuracy was a by-word for the film's 50s-era locales. When the interiors of teen murderer Juliet Hulme's house were rebuilt in a studio, Major used architectural plans from the period to ensure accuracy, though the sets were shrunk by around 15 per cent from their original size.

As the scale of Jackson's movies grew, Major joined Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk as a key player in bringing the director's increasingly grand visions to the screen. Big-budget ghost tale The Frighteners saw Major recreating contemporary North America in Wellington and Lyttelton.

Then Major signed on as production designer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, whose scale dwarfed anything else shot on New Zealand soil. "There's a certain thrill in making big sets and doing these big production-design set-ups," Major later told fellow production designer Tom Lisowski. "We have huge teams of people working with us and under us. On the big films you have a lot more technical toys to play with. The visual effects work and special effects work are amped up so it's a greater rollercoaster ride."

Working alongside Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe, Major got busy designing practical, filmable sets. Among many others, he oversaw the creation of life-size exterior sets of Rivendell, Hobbiton, and the hilltop town of Edoras, plus sections of Minas Tirith, the seven-tiered city that is attacked in the final film. Aiming for a "sense of mystery" in the Elvish kingdom of Rivendell, he designed 40-foot towers which shimmer in the background.

Realism and durability were key mantras. With hundreds of crew underfoot, sets had to be built to withstand a lot of wear. "We were always trying to make every set as real in time and place as could be imagined".

Major and his crew were nominated and awarded multiple times for their work on the Rings trilogy — the final film alone won an Oscar, plus further design gongs from the American Film Institute, and the country's Art Directors Guild and National Board of Review.

Next came Jackson's King Kong, (2005), which was brought to life almost entirely inside studios, and via computers. Well aware that the design process refuses to come to a halt at the end of the shoot, Major by now had a mini art department at Weta Digital, allowing him to keep a hand in design through post-production.

Keen to explore beyond Wellywood, Major then worked on PBS television series Wired Science and Australian-shot horror movie The Ruins. Since then he has rejoined Niki Caro for the season and nation-spanning The Vintner's Luck, and costume designer Ngila Dickson, for comic strip adaptation Green Lantern.

In 2011 he was back in Auckland, working on Mr Pip, based on the acclaimed novel by Lloyd Jones, and Emperor, set in Japan directly after the end of WWII. Next came Hillary on Everest docudrama Beyond the Edge. In 2014 he was nominated for his work on te reo action film The Dead Lands. He was also production designer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel Sword of Destiny, which was partially shot in New Zealand. 

Major has also written and directed moody, dialogue-lite short Undergrowth (2009). Playing in New Zealand's yearly round of film festivals, the film revolves around an agoraphobic man (Ian Hughes) whose life and house has literally become overgrown.

Sources include
Grant Major
Grant Major website. Accessed 25 October 2016
Scott Kara, 'Major undertaking' (Interview) - NZ Herald, 9 July 2009
Tom Lisowski, 'Grant Major' (Interview). Artstars website. Loaded 14 November 2011. Accessed 5 June 2012
Ian Pryor, Peter Jackson - From prince of splatter to lord of the rings (Auckland: Random House New Zealand, 2003)
Brian Sibley, Peter Jackson - A Film-Maker's Journey (Sydney: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006)
The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring press kit
The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers press kit