DERRY, NH — This past Friday I was privileged to learn a couple of fun facts about New Hampshire that truly surprised me. Did you know that the world’s preeminent expert on all things J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings founded a university on the subject that, though entirely virtual, is based in Hollis? Or that there is a world-class, state-of-the-art motion picture studio in Derry?
These two seemingly random facts came together wonderfully on Friday. Allow me to explain.
Just off Route 28 in Derry, in a nondescript office park, is Studio Lab. From the outside it could house any number of local industries, but looks can be deceiving. Inside is a state-of-the-art production space purpose-built for modern creatives to ply their trade. Studio Lab houses a motion-capture “volume”(think actors in green suits with ping-pong balls attached), a massive LED video wall (modern-day rear projection), traditional video and still photography studios, a sound studio, podcast studios, voice-over booths, dressing rooms, offices, a full kitchen, etc. Essentially everything you would need to make a modern motion picture lies under this one roof. In an earlier life, this reporter spent a lot of time in Hollywood’s various stages and production studios, and I can safely say this place rivals them all. It is a tech geek’s Disneyland.
On Friday, however, Studio Lab took a turn as Middle Earth. This is where Dr. Corey Olsen comes in. Dr. Olsen is the founder of Signum University, a virtual learning facility that grew out of Olsen’s The Tolkien Professor podcast, which specialized in academic discussions of Tolkien’s work.
Today those discussions surround Amazon Prime Video’s new The Lord of the Rings prequel spinoff series Rings of Power, which aired its season finale on Thursday night. As a companion to Rings of Power, Dr. Olsen and Studio Lab joined forces to produce an analysis show for the series entitled Rings and Realms. Together with his co-host Dr. Maggie Parke, Olsen takes to Studio Lab’s soundstage to dig into and analyze each episode of Rings of Power after it airs.
I don’t know about you, but when I heard “Tolkien scholar” I pictured grumpy elderly wizard conjuring spells before a group of eager elves. My estimation couldn’t have been farther from reality – Olsen is a big, affable, smiling guy with a quick wit and an obvious passion for his craft. Like most really good professors, he put me at ease instantly while describing the day’s activities.
“We are filming the final episode of Rings and Realms, which is a weekly analysis show that we do following the Rings of Power show – there’s a lot to unpack and explain from thinking about the relationship with the source text The Lord of the Rings and some of the other things going on in the episode so Maggie and I, my co-host, do this weekly show and we’ve been delighted to be able to do that here in partnership with the folks at Studio Lab who’ve let us use this awesome facility, so it’s been a really fun collaboration together,” Olsen said.
Parke broke down Rings and Realms more specifically for me. “Corey and I teach at Signum University- my specialty is adaptation, his is Tolkien lore, and we have a podcast, so when we heard Rings of Power was coming out, it just grew into this lovely thing, and got the attention of Studio Lab. They asked if they could produce a show of us providing analysis, so for every episode of Rings of Power on Amazon, we film an episode of Rings and Realms. I do scene analysis and talk about the film production and how it was shot and what that means story-wise and he does a deep dive into what happened regarding Tolkien.”
Director of Studio Lab Benjamin Davis shed some light on how the collaboration came to be.
“I have been a large Tolkien fan for many many years, and I worked with Corey’s younger brother Andy recently on a podcast. When I learned the ‘Tolkien Professor’s brother was my friend I was very excited to learn more – so this came about from me calling up Corey and saying ‘hey, I love what you do, I have a studio that you can have access too, Amazon’s Rings of Power is coming out, there’s gotta be something we can do,'” Davis said.
In many ways, this collaboration is the offspring of Studio Lab Owner and CEO Tim Messina’s driving mantra about the creative space he and his team created.
“Basically, my thought is anything you can do where you bring people together and you build something that will positively impact a group of people – an event, a film, whatever it is you’re impacting them in some positive way hopefully. And so if we were to build a space that worked in supportive creativity and gave those tools to build for music, for film, or any creative outlet, what could they create?” Messina said. “New Hampshire has so much potential because it’s an untapped area we have many creatives that live here, people that want to be creative, but there are not many outlets- places they can go and really do that – and it’s not so much about the space as it is about the community that is created when you bring creatives together.”
Suffice it to say that that community was in plain evidence on Friday. Dr. Olsen, the hardcore Tolkien fans, and the creatives at Studio Lab joined forces to create some special, unique material for all involved and many more watching at home (Rings and Realms has 13K+ subscribers on YouTube and averages nearly 40K views per episode).
One of the exciting elements of Friday’s shoot was that for the first time, Dr. Olsen invited The Lord of Rings fans to watch the filming of Rings and Realms in person and to help him and Dr. Parke work out the subject matter for their episode.
“It’s been really fun especially today having them here live in the studio,” said Parke. “There’s a bit that I haven’t filmed yet, and I haven’t quite figured it out, so we were just all spit-balling with like 30 people in the room, who all know more than I do about Tolkien lore, and it was just a great dynamic conversation. The facilities are beyond anything I’ve been in before and I’ve worked on some pretty big productions, so it’s phenomenal.”
One of The Lord of the Rings fans who traveled to Studio Lab for the filming was Lynn Schlesinger, and she expressed her excitement at seeing fellow fans and Dr. Olsen in person. “I’ve known Corey and a lot of these people virtually for years through taking courses at Signum and being a staff person there, but this is like Corey Olsen is a real being – he’s not just a virtual entity!” And in turn, Olsen himself has had some exposure to people he admires: The show-runners, cast, and crew of Rings of Power have reached out to him regarding his analysis show and had nothing but kind words and encouragement to pass along!
Overall, it was a very interesting and satisfying day inside a little-known but very impressive creative space right here in New Hampshire. I would encourage all Tolkien fans to explore Signum University and Dr. Olsen, and I’d also encourage local creatives to check out Studio Lab for cutting-edge filmmaking technology and a fostering, creative spirit right here in New Hampshire.
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