An interview with Zan Campbell (Fell and Fair)

Close your eyes. Imagine Rangers of the North in their green hoods running through the dark wood with their bows ready. Imagine noble warriors of Rohan with the blades of their swords shining in the summer sun. Imagine a fair shieldmaiden of great beauty and courage equal to it. Now open your eyes and see how they all come to life. Zan Campbell and his fellowship, known as Fell and Fair, bring your favourite stories, legends and myths into reality. They make costumes and equipment, enrich their knowledge and gather people who share common passion, virtues and commitment. And they go on adventures. What are Fell and Fair? How did they come into being? Who can join them? The answers to these questions you will find in this interview. Zan Campbell will also tell you about Fell and Fair’s funny and dangerous moments, his first contact with Tolkien’s books, favourite literature and flying helicopters.

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Remote Talk: If you were to describe Fell and Fair in one sentence to someone who doesn’t know anything about you, what would you say?

Zan Campbell: Fell and Fair is about preserving that which was lost, and bringing to life that which never was.

“Meet each other and go on adventures”, was a message to the fans I once spotted on your FB page. How did you meet one another? How did Fell and Fair come into being?

Many of us grew up together. In fact, Fell and Fair really started with three core families. We played and made “movies” which, though we did not really realize it at the time, were just reasons to make and buy costumes and armor. Instagram changed the game though. Once we began posing some stills from some of our projects, we were able to access a community that had hitherto been unreachable. I joke that the Internet let all the nerds find each other, but it is true.

Do you remember your first adventure with the Fell and Fair fellowship? What was that? Did anything strange, surprising or funny happen?

The first true “Fell and Fair” meeting happened in late 2012. I had met this cool blacksmith and armorer, Charlie Ellis, over Instagram. When we realized that we only lived about an hour away from each other, we agreed to meet up and trade some hand-made arrows for a custom knife. I gave him the address and when he arrived he met my sister and my girlfriend dressed as elves at the house. They had instructions to lead him down the forest path to where we were throwing our feast. So after putting on his own elf armor, Charlie followed them into the forest. We decided to ambush them along the way so we found our favorite “ambush spot” (did I mention this is a bunch of people in their twenties?) and lay in wait for them. However, our plans went awry when my sister, feeling something was up, accidently triggered our ambush too soon. She whistled and everyone ran out only to find our victims fifty yards down the path and not in our trap whatsoever. Despite this poor display of woodcraft, we had a wonderful feast, and it encouraged us to find more people who loved the same things.

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Have you ever had any unexpected or dangerous adventures while roaming around with your companions?

I have a motto that goes, “It is not an adventure until something goes wrong.” So several times we have encountered issues that caused us to band together to overcome an obstacle. I remember especially when we found our usual river-crossing washed away in a flood and we had to get everyone, including three children and a pregnant woman, across in safety while keeping weapons and cameras dry.

And what’s been the funniest moment spent together with your fellowship so far?

The funny moments usually come in our battles. The one that first comes to my mind was when about five warriors from each side clashed while trying to defend, or slay, the bearer of a flag. Within about one second all ten were “dead” having struck each other with swords or arrows. The flag bearer was just standing with an amazed face as he looked at all the dead people laughing at how funny it was that no one survived to claim victory.

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You once mentioned on Facebook that you sometimes receive strange messages or are asked untypical questions by people interested in your projects. Do you remember any weird or funny messages you could share with us?

Most of the ones we find funny are people that try and debate us about our pictures or tell us how we got it wrong. We find these funny because we never make any claims that we are historically accurate or that we copy movies/games exactly. In fact we really enjoy creating new ideas and designs. One time someone commented accusing us of inaccuracy in one of the photos because we had paired a Tolkien quote and a picture of a shield that he said “no one in Middle~Earth ever used.” I simply asked him to go search all of Middle~Earth and if then he could still not find one I would use a different quote. He never replied.

Where do you wander most often with your company?

We are blessed to have about 500 acres of property near the mountains in South Carolina that we use the most. We love it because it has hills, fields, streams, rock formations, and a variety of trees. All of these make for better adventures and, of course, pictures.

In Fell and Fair people with different talents and skills come together creating something exceptional. You also share your talents with others, for example with movie industry. Could you say a few words about this cooperation? In which films or series can we see the effects of your work?

We currently work with three organizations by providing costumes, props and consulting regarding modern and medieval/fantasy weapons and warfare. You can find our costumes in several of the Assassin’s Creed Parkour videos by the famous YouTube star Devin Graham, and you will see more in the near future coming from The Forge Studios in their Rangers series, and several internet shorts and web-series by various studios. You can also see our work in the award-winning short film The Password written and directed by our friend Will Stewart.

You and other members of Fell and Fair seem to be real history buffs, delving deeper into certain topics, having fun enriching your historical knowledge. Have you always been interested in history or did it all start when you gathered Fell and Fair group?

Ever since I was a small boy I have had a love for history and historical fiction. In fact, I was devastated at the age of six when I was told that I could not grow up to be Robin Hood. Our love of history was certainly a motivator in our desire to learn the crafts required to create our costumes at Fell and Fair.

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You’ve already mentioned your cooperation with filmmakers. You also work as consultants for movies. Could you name a few titles you’ve worked on?

We are currently working on several independent films, nut we cannot disclose the names at this time. However, you can see our work in The Password from 9/8 Central and the world stage debut of Prince Caspian by The Academy of Arts (shows in the US and UK).

By the way, if you were to pick the most historically accurate movie or TV series you’ve ever seen, which one would that be?

In my opinion, there are two types of historical accuracy in film, costume and story. As to costumes, Master and Commander and Kingdom of Heaven to have done a particularly good job of costume design and by conveying the spirit of the times, although the characters are fictional. As to story, most productions fall somewhere on the scale of more or less accurate. I can’t say I have seen a historical movie that was entirely accurate in all the facts and dialogue. Often, because we have no way of recording everything, and often, shortcuts are needed for the sake of time. I understand this from a storytelling perspective, so it is far more important to me that a film convey the accurate costume, feeling and spirit of the period and people than actually being 100% factual.

And what about the one that has the most serious inaccuracies and mistakes?

The movie Braveheart. The whole thing. Still an awesome movie, but not accurate as to the people or to the costumes / sets / battles.

You make films and short videos with Fell and Fair, but they aren’t the only productions we can see you in. Some time ago you appeared as one of the main characters in UnSuper, “a comedy web series about the unfortunately normal people living in a world with super heroes”, a Flagship Comedy original series by Micah Taylor. You played a superhero named Speedfast (I think the name tells everything). How did you like portraying this kind of character, playing in a series that takes on a lighter tone?

UnSuper was a lot of fun to be a part of, but I definitely had to adapt from my usual surroundings. I played a character who was really not a very good person. Someone who was selfish, prideful and self-absorbed. I enjoyed it because it was so different. I got to act as Speedfast in a way that I would never act towards other people in real life.

As for superheroes, who is your favourite one? And if you could be a superhero yourself, would you prefer to be a speedster, like your YouTube character, or to have different superpowers?

Thor is definitely my favorite superhereo. A wonderful combination of history, myth and the modern world. I think if I could have any power it would be those of Wolverine. He can pretty much win any fight, is always in shape and can heal just about any wound quickly.

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Together with Fell and Fair, you have, so to say, been to a lot of different realms known from literature, movies, computer games. Is there any realm you haven’t been to so far, but you’d really love to visit?

One of my favorite movies and book series is Master and Commander (or the Aubrey-Maturin Series) by Patrick O’Brian. If I could get a crew of sailors and sail about in an eighteenth century frigate, I may just die of happiness.

From what I’ve seen, I can say you have a really impressive collection of swords. Which one is your favorite one?

One of the oldest and most trustworthy is my Agincourt sword. It has a short twenty-eight inch blade which makes it easy to use with a shield, and it is very light and strong.

By the way, legendary warriors often give names to their weapons. Do you give unique names to your swords?

I have not. I guess I am not quite legendary enough for one yet.

Let’s talk a little bit about the technical side of Fell and Fair’s activities. How difficult is getting all the materials, clothes and accessories needed? How much of your equipment (weaponry, costumes, props) do you make by yourselves and how much do you buy as ready-to-use items?

We now make or modify everything ourselves. Some things, like chainmail or boots, we buy pre-assembled, then we just modify them to suit our purposes, in order to save time and money. It definitely takes time to learn each craft, and part of that is learning the secrets of obtaining the proper materials. We are still learning so hopefully there are some tricks we have not learned yet!

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Do you remember the first element of costume, weapon or piece of equipment that you made on your own? And what was the first thing you created that you were really satisfied with?

I believe I made an archer’s hood. I had wanted one ever since my Robin Hood days as a kid, so I learned how to sew one. My first set of Gondorian Ranger bracers were the first thing I made that I could look as and say, “That looks just like the movie”.

You made costumes for the “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” (“Assassin’s Creed Unity Meets Parkour in Real Life”) and “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate”  live parkour trailers. How did that happen? How did the AC parkour team get in touch with you?

I actually met their lead costume designer over Instagram and she was having a baby the week they were needed. She had seen the Assassin’s Creed costumes I had made for myself and asked me to make them for the video.

Who can join Fell and Fair? What skills, what features of character should a good candidate possess?

Skills you can learn; character is far more important. We look for people who have a genuine desire to learn and a love for things that are good and wholesome. Often we find them because they do have skills and display them on Instagram. We meet people online or locally then after determining they would be a good match for the group, invite them to join us.

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For those who would like to start and try putting together their own costumes and equipment, could you recommend any internet shops / websites worth checking?

YouTube tutorials are the best resource I have found. If you want to make something, it is highly probable that someone had made a video about it on YouTube.

Fell and Fair is deeply rooted in Tolkien’s mythology. Do you remember your first contact with Tolkien’s books? Which book was that? When did it happen?

When I was nine years old my mother gave me The Lord of the Rings book trilogy for Christmas. I was really disappointed because I wanted toys. However, she forced me to read them before she would allow me to see the movie a few years later. I cannot thank her enough for forcing me to read those books.

And who’s your favourite Tolkienian character? Why?

Boromir, Eomer and Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth are probably tied for my favorite. All are young men charged with the protection of their people. They all are exceptionally skilled in combat and honestly desire to be good leaders. As a young man, I saw them as the embodiment of all the virtues that a true man should exemplify.

From time to time, different fanarts and memes appear on the internet, titled “What I’ve learnt reading Tolkien’s books” or “What I’ve learnt reading The Lord of the Rings”. If you were to answer such a question, what would you say? What have you learnt reading Tolkien?

Tolkien taught me that dragons can be conquered. That you don’t have to win to make a difference and that sometimes things that people dismiss as trivial, childish or petty can mean more to people than money, power or popularity.

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Talking about Tolkien, what do you think about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings? Some readers are big fans of it, some totally criticize it, some appreciate the effort and enjoy watching it, but nonetheless see some elements that are in complete opposition to the spirit of Tolkien’s story. What were your impressions when you watched it for the first time?

I was twelve years old when I first watched it, so my reaction was, “I want this to be my life.” Overall, I really do love it. Going back to the discussion about costumes and accuracy, I think Jackson and Weta Workshop did an amazing job with costume, set and character design. There were several important characters left out, and several that were changed. I can remember the horror I felt when the elves showed up at Helm’s Deep! Usually, when I think about the story, I think about the characters Tolkien created with the visuals, actors and places that Jackson made for the movie. I find that a very nice combination.

By the way, do you have your favourite scenes from Jackson’s trilogy?

The death of Boromir and the charge of the Rohirrim at the Pelennor Fields: to me those are the great moments of glory in cinematic history.

Were there any Lord of the Rings actors or actresses who enchanted you with their interpretation of the characters from the book?

I loved Sean Bean’s Boromir, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf and Karl Urban’s Eomer. While I wish Boromir had been portrayed in a more positive light as in the book. I just thought Sean Bean was the greatest warrior one could imagine. Let’s be honest, Ian McKellen IS Gandalf. Karl Urban played an Eomer that was a man, flawed, but determined to do right by his king and people. That is a man I would follow.

Apart from Tolkien, who are your favourite fantasy authors? What are your favorite fantasy books?

I love Lewis’ Narnia series. That was probably my first introduction to fantasy. I also read and enjoyed the Eragon series as well as The Chronicles of Prydain series and the Game of Thrones series. However I have always been a lover of historical fiction more than fantasy in general. What I loved about Tolkien’s fantasy or, one might call it myth, is that it is so real. It is not too fantastic. You feel as if you could walk through the woods and see a hobbit or an elf and they would not be out of place.

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And if you had to choose your top three (or top five if you prefer it this way) of your favourite books (of any literary genre), what would you choose?

The Silmarillian – Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings (that still only counts as one) – Tolkien

The Ballad of the White Horse – G.K. Chesterton

Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian

Henry V – William Shakespeare

What have you read recently (not necessarily fantasy or science fiction)? Can you recommend anything to our readers?

I recently read Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis’ autobiography. It really helped me appreciate fantasy and myth in a whole new way. It was also reassuring that an Oxford profession and world-renowned writer was just as much of a nerd as I am. I also recently finished Bernard Cornwell’s The Grail Quest series about archers in the Hundred Years’ War. It is most excellent if you want historical fiction about archery.

When I look at the photos on your page, they naturally remind me of my favourite books, but they also bring back the memories of RPG sessions I used to take part in. Do you play role playing games? If you do, what’s your favourite system?

I really do not. I have mostly stuck to tabletop games like The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (like Warhammer) and computer RPGs and games like Age of Empires and Total War. However, some of our battle scenarios do resemble LARP to some degree.

And your favourite character class?

Archer. Kill them with arrows and loot their pockets.

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You’re a helicopter pilot and because I live in a town famous for its helicopters, I’d like to ask about that part of your life, too. How did you become a pilot? How long have you been flying helicopters? What types have you flown so far?

I became a pilot in 2012 while serving as an officer in the United States Navy. I flew both fixed and rotary wing aircraft. As to helicopters, I flew the Navy TH-57 Sea Ranger (a military Bell-206) and the MH-60R Seahawk.

Do you remember the first flight you undertook on your own? How did it feel like sitting at the controls of the helicopter back then?

I remember thinking, “Well Zan, you have done it. Now don’t kill yourself.” It was a combination of terror and excitement. I have never been so scared or so proud of myself as behind the controls of a helicopter. I also may have hummed Flight of the Valkyries the whole time.

Are there any skills or habits acquired while serving as a pilot that come in handy in everyday life?

Well, you get know a lot about the weather actually. A large part of a pilot’s life is understanding how not to be killed by the elements, so you know a lot about weather patterns, storm fronts and how long different types of weather last and why. You also become very good at paying attention to detail and developing a “scan”. That helps a lot while driving and looking after your car/house.

As our interview’s coming to an end, let me ask a little bit different question. “So many times throughout history, the people of the day threw up their hands in panic and cried, “This is the end of the world”. Whether it was the people of Greece after the last Spartan died at Thermopylae or the people of Christendom when Rome fell or the folk of England when Alfred fled and they thought all was lost to darkness and despair. But day came again. And often the generation that lost the keys to the kingdom gave birth to a generation that would reclaim them. Even as Húrin, last to stand against Morgoth, gave birth to Túrin the slayer of Glaurung the father of dragons… Day shall come again.” These are your words. Great words, I must say – words that are always worth reminding. When you think about the history of the world, is there any such heart-warming story, a story of hope never lost, that you could share with our readers? A short optimistic history lesson?

As a student of military history and a descendant of Englishmen, I think my favorite example of what Tolkien called a “Eucatastrophe”, or a sudden and unexpected resolution to a story, would be that of the Battle of Agincourt. Henry V of England had been taunted and provoked into invading France to reclaim some of his ancestral dukedoms. However after a long and costly siege at Harfleur he and his small, weary and sick army were marching as fast as they could to reach Calais and take ship for England. He was cut off by the French army which at conservative estimates outnumbered him four-to-one and was fresh and boasted the greatest of Europe’s chivalry in its ranks. The French demanded his surrender again and again but he refused. Henry chose to take his stand on a small hill near the castle of Agincourt. There his peasant archers slew the nobility of France in their thousands. With losses estimated at less than three hundred, Henry won a victory for the ages. Not only saving his army, but he forced a treaty with France and to top it all off, he married the French princess. Sometimes thousands of years of cultural development culminate and decide the fate of a single day. The fact that the English had the unprecedented skill with the war bow, the fact that the French were so arrogant as to charge on horseback, or even that the fields had been plowed and it rained the night before bogging, the French knights down in the mud. Even though the whole world thought Henry was beaten, when the sun set on October 25, 1415 A.D. he stood victorious on the field of battle and his name lives on forever because he had the will to press on and to fight.

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Imagine a situation like this: on a cold, rainy, windy day, a company of weary travellers enter the tavern. They order a hot meal and a jar of ale and sit close to the hearth to get dry. Suddenly, an old man stands up and says, “Lo, listen to the song of an old bard, to the story of Fair and Fell!” What would this story be about? How would you like people to remember you?

I would have it be a story about people who found each other, saved things that were being lost and maybe brought a little more joy into the lives of people who would otherwise have remained alone in their love for history, myth and legend. That people were reminded through pictures, video and a few choice words that dragons may not be real, but that they can be conquered. That something does not need to be a fact to be true. Finally that people were reminded that nobility, truth and goodness were not lost to the world. But rather hidden in the hearts of a few bold folk, who were then able to remind the rest of the world of their existence.

Thank you very much. “A star shines on the hour of our meeting”, even though this talk is just a “remote” one.

by Łukasz Garbol, October – November 2016

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As usual, links worth checking:

Fell and Fair on Facebook

Instagram

YouTube

Photos:

Fell and Fair FB page

Nicolas Bruno (4, 14, 15)

All photo copyrights belong to their respective owners.