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Teaching Tolkien to 'Hobbit' Actors

U's Sarah Shippobotham on coaching orcs


Sarah Shippobotham
  • Sarah Shippobotham

Sarah Shippobotham, associate professor and head of the University of Utah’s Actor Training Program, was a dialect coach in New Zealand on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. She helped actors perfect their lines in Tolkien’s invented languages of Elvish, Orcish (The Black Speech) and Dwarvish. Shippobotham spoke with City Weekly from England about orcs and her favorite Tolkien language.

How do you teach an actor to speak a language that is made up?

We’re not teaching the whole language, we’re really teaching the dialogue. It’s a very practical, pragmatic approach—teaching the lines. [We needed to] understand the sounds and make the sounds correctly and understand how the words fit together and help the actor embody that and understand that and feel that. It would be like me doing a film in Spanish or doing dialogue in Spanish; I never did Spanish in school because it was French and German over in Britain. I know nothing about the grammatical structure of Spanish, I don’t really know the sounds of Spanish, so if I had to do a scene in Spanish, I’d totally rely on someone to teach me the sounds, how the words sound together, about the rhythm and help me understand what I’m saying.

Did Tolkien publish enough information about his languages that they could be learned by anyone, just like French or Spanish?

I think the language that would be the most available to learn would be Elvish because I think that’s what he wrote the most about. He wrote very little about The Black Speech and Dwarvish, partly because Dwarvish was a secret language.

Are there connections between Tolkien’s languages and real-world languages?

Elvish, to me, sounds like it’s Welsh, or like it’s got Celtic or Gaelic in it, even though Welsh is not a Gaelic language. The thing I liked about Elvish and what helped me get in tune with Elvish was the fact that it reminded me of Welsh, which I studied for a while in school because I was born in Wales. I’ve found Dwarvish has got a sort of Yiddish flavor to it, and [with] The Black Speech it’s easy to get stuck in Russian. It just feels like that in the mouth, the way the consonants are, but [The Black Speech and Dwarvish] are not based on Russian or Yiddish, as far as I’m aware. They just remind people of different languages.

What was your favorite Tolkien language to work on?

I really liked The Black Speech. I really liked [the words] because they’re so ugly, but they’re so beautiful in their ugliness. And I always really enjoyed the feel of the words in my mouth. I did work with the orcs quite a bit. I loved hanging out with the people in the prosthetics. They were just wonderful.

How did you get the job?

I happened to email a friend about another friend’s work in The King’s Speech at the right time, and then she told me she was working on The Hobbit. And [the production team] found they needed a third dialect coach, and because I’d e-mailed her, my name was in her mind. So when they were talking about a third dialect coach to come on to the team, she thought of me.

What was it like to work on the set of The Hobbit?

It was quite amazing. I think one of the most special things was how wonderful everybody was. Everyone was very friendly and warm and supportive. A lot of the crew had worked on The Lord of the Rings, so they were old hands at what they were doing—nevermind the fact that they’re the best in New Zealand and often the world. It was just amazing to sit and watch and see how much I’d always taken for granted. In terms of watching television and watching film, I was very naïve about exactly what happened. It’s interesting to watch films now and think the scenes that run together in the film were probably filmed or possibly filmed days apart if not weeks apart, in perhaps [other] parts of a country, and may well not had everything that we see onscreen in them. The CGI in the film, obviously that was put in afterward, so sometimes there was green screen, which I had never seen before. The art direction, the greens department, all the people who constructed the world, were amazing—the level of detail that’s in each scene is just spectacular.

Kolbie Stonehocker Twitter: @VonStonehocker