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Getting Up Close and Personal with Orcs and Dwarves

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Sarah Shippobotham, associate professor and head of the Actor Training Program in the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre recently returned from living in the Shire for eight months.  While hobnobbing with hobbits and wizards, Sarah’s job was to be a coach in several British accents as well as an expert in the languages of Elvish, Dwarvish, and Black Speech.

Sarah was chosen as a dialect coach for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit Trilogy starting with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opening Dec. 14th.  She most often worked on the second unit, directed by Andy Serkis, yes, Gollum himself.  “It was an amazing experience to work on such a huge production,” said Sarah. “This was the first film I have worked on and the sets were incredible. I am used to elaborate sets at the Shaw Festival, but nothing like what I experienced with The Hobbit.”

Sarah has been working at Canada’s Shaw Festival for thirteen years and built a reputation for not only great dialect work with actors from all over the world, but as a person who works well collaboratively.  So when the Hobbit needed an extra dialect coach, an old friend and classmate of Sarah’s from the Central School of Speech and Drama, who was already working on the film, remembered Sarah and the rest is history!  Sarah loved the people she got to work with.  “Everyone was amazing from the top down- from Peter, Fran, Philippa, Andy, Sir Ian, Martin to Chris, Sam, and Joel on the second unit.”

But Sarah’s favorite was the Orcs. “I loved working with the Orcs. I loved the language- Black Speech. I love the ugliness of it. You have to be careful to not go too Russian because it had a sort of Russian feel, but the “L” wasn’t as dark, like Russian. I was always thrilled when there was an Orcish scene.”  Sarah worked with one of the main Orcs, Stephen Ure. “We would get together and go over the sounds, words and intonation for the Orchish and the English and then we would have to rework it when he had his makeup, prosthetics and teeth in!”

Being an expert in three languages that never actually existed is a daunting task. “The comfort for me, ultimately, was that I just had to know the rules of pronunciation and help the actor to interpret the lines so it sounded right and had meaning,” said Sarah.  “It is more that just knowing where the stress of the words would go and to make sure they made the sounds correctly, there are so many factors that go into a scene. You have to keep the bigger picture in mind.”  On the other two languages, Sarah said, “Elvish sounds very Welsh to me and it works a bit like Italian, where every syllable has weight.  Dwarvish has a sort of Yiddish feeling to it.  Two of my favorite actors I worked with played Oin (doctor dwarf) and Gloin (Gimley’s father).  They had to be Scottish- so I worked with them to inhabit the accent.”

Being slated as the largest production in film history (with 750 people working on it), The Hobbit movies will be a huge box office hit satisfying the throngs of Tolkien enthusiasts- not bad for Sarah’s first film.  She has returned to the Theatre Department this fall and directed “Tis Pity She’s a Whore” which ran Nov. 9-18th in the Babcock Theatre, possibly taking a few directing tips from Gollum himself.

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