When back in 1999 filmmaker Peter Jackson took it upon himself to adapt J.R.R Tolkien’s massive, and considered by some, unfilmable book to the big screen, he would embark on a filmmaking journey that would take him, and all those involved, the better part of five years to complete. It would end up being one of the biggest cinematographic endeavours achieved by a single filmmaker, as the decision had been made really early on to film all three movies, one for each part of the book, back to back.
A daring enterprise
Jackson came to the public attention with the movie Heavenly Creatures (1994), starring Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey. The film gave Jackson the sufficient notoriety for producer and filmmaker Robert Zemeckis to give him a leg up to direct his first major Studio picture, The Frighteners (1996), starring Michael J. Fox and Trini Alvarado. Jackson’s very striking visual and storytelling style soon came to the fore, and he began to be noticed by the Industry, but that sadly didn’t give him the creative and financial clout necessary to embark on his next proyect; the adaptation to the big screen of Lord of the Rings.
Being as he was a huge fan of J.R.R Tolkien’s seminal literary masterpiece, Jackson had acquired the rights to adapt the books. He’d written, along with his wife Fran Walsh, and screenwriter and collaborator Phillipa Boyens, a draft of the script, and had some Conceptual art at the ready to show to the Hollywood Execs to try and shop his proyect around the Studios. He would get lots of doors slammed in his face, as most producers thought the proyect too expensive and risky to undertake. It would be New Line Cinema, with Robert Shaye at its head, who would find the idea interesting, but insisted in there being three movies instead of just two, as he thought that the material wouldn’t be given the proper justice when compressed into just two movies. The idea of shooting just two movies came because Jackson didn’t think that any Studio would want to invest the amount of money needed for such a large production, and extend it for three movies in total, as the production was already expensive and ambitious enough as it was. Alas, with New Line’s backing, Jackson was free to expand upon his original ideas, and not be creatively constrained to bring about the books to the big screen in the proper manner.
Off to the races
With the necessary financial support in place, Jackson went about rewriting and expanding upon his original draft, and started assembling the best creative team around him that would enable him to bring his grand vision to the silver screen.
The first stepping stone was to enlist the help of Illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe as Conceptual Designers; as they were the official Tolkien Illustrators for all the different books and Tolkien related media over the years, and would have the best appreciation of Tolkien’s visual world to translate it to the screen.
It didn’t take Jackson too much convincing to get both Lee and Howe in, and once they were, Jackson and his team of Production and Set Designers started flying all over Jackson’s home turf, New Zealand; scouting for locations to shoot the movie with Lee and Howe in tow, with a sketch book, drawing designs for the movies. It had always been Jackson’s desire, from the very beginning, to shoot all three movies in his home country; as he’d imagined growing up, reading the books, that New Zealand was the ideal setting for Middle Earth. First ideal location they came upon for the movie was that of Mata Mata, a rural area on the north of the island, which Jackson thought would be perfect to build Hobbiton. Access to the location was very difficult, and roads had to be constructed to bring in all the set materials needed for the construction of the entire town. The construction crew took over the entire area with an idea that once the shoot was finished, everything would have to be put back the way it was, to preserve the area as a place of astounding natural beauty. The crew of set designers went to great lengths to make Hobbiton look the way Tolkien had described it in his books, and how both Alan Lee and John Howe had drawn it. It’s a wonderful piece of set design that is a testament to the great work done by Richard Taylor and his team from Weta Workshop.
Weta Workshop and its visual effects counterpart; Weta Digital, had been founded by Peter Jackson a few years back. It was a relatively small Effects Company that was based in Wellington, New Zealand, and the bulk of its employees were native New Zealander craftsmen and women, who were very proficient at their job, but there was some doubt on New Line’s part that this small Effects company could handle the massive amount of Effects work that the movie would need for all three movies. Weta proved nonetheless to be up to the daunting challenge, and endeavoured to rise to the occasion everytime it was needed. Under the supervision of Richard Taylor; who oversaw, at the behest of Peter Jackson, everything from Miniature building, to costume and prosthetics, and makeup design, gathered around him a very competent team of technicians who gave it their all. The use of miniatures, or as the crew would lovingly call them given their size; “Big-atures”, was extensive throughout the shoot, and gave the movie such a scale and an old school feel, which resulted in some of the most striking and beautiful images seen in the movie, like the elf cities of Rivendel and Lothlórien, the mines of Moria, the Tower of Barad Dûr and Isengard, and its massive array of underground tunnels and pits, all of this enhanced with the use of visual extensions and matte paintings. The makeup and costume design, which were handled by both Richard Taylor and Ngila Dickson is a work of Art encompassing the worlds of men, orc and elf, giving a distinctive look to them and being faithful to a fault with Tolkien’s descriptions in the books.
Alongside Weta Workshop, its Visual effects counterpart; Weta Digital do a wonderful job marrying the practical elements such as set design, miniatures and matte paintings with digital enhancements like the bowels of the mines of Moria, and complete CGI creatures like Gollum and the fire monster Balrog.
It is the combined efforts of all these departments, and people like Production Designer Grant Major, Visual Effects Supervisors Jim Rygel and Christian Rivers, and Set Designer Dan Hennah; to name just a few, who worked tirelessly to bring about the best possible product. And they succeeded. But all of this couldn’t be possible without the right cast.
The perfect cast
Rarely is a filmmaker afforded the opportunity of finding the perfect cast for a movie, but that’s exactly what happened with the Lord of the Rings. The original idea was to cast British actors for the main roles, especially those of the four hobbits, but when American actor Elijah Wood learned of the casting for this movie, he recorded a tape of himself reciting lines from the book as Frodo, and putting on a convincing British accent to sale his audition. He was immediately cast upon Jackson watching the tape. Another American actor portrayed his faithful companion, Sam Gamyi; Sean Austin, better know for his role in the 80s cult classic The Goonies, Richard Donner (1985). The other roles were filled by Scottish actor Billy Boyd as Pippin and British actor Dominic Monaghan as Merry. For two of the most important roles of the movie, two great British actors were enlisted; both Ian Mckellen and legendary Hammer star Christopher Lee would portray the roles of wizards Gandalf the Grey and Saruman the White. Lee was actually, at one point, in the run to portray Gandalf. Being an avid reader and very knowledgeable about the source material; as he’d read the book once a year ever since he was a teenager, and had been acquainted with Tolkien himself, he regretfully had to step down and take the role of Saruman as the physical demands for the part of Gandalf, given his age at the time, would have been too taxing.
A relatively unknown young British actor, Orlando Bloom, was chosen to play the part of the elf Legolas and the role of his bickering companion; the dwarf Gimli would be played by larger-than-life John Rhys Davies, who would end up having a hard time with all the facial prosthetics involved to portray his character. He could only play the part for a day with the makeup on, and then take a three-day rest, as he proved to be allergic to the glue used to apply the makeup. On those occasions, a double would step in to shoot some of the long shots, and to help with the more strenuous fight scenes.
Other roles fell on the shoulders of British actor Sean Bean as Boromir, Hugo Weaving as Elf king Elrond, Liv Tyler as his daughter The Lady Arwen, Cate Blanchett as The Lady Galadriel; but one of the most important roles would be one that would come very late in the game, when principal Photography was already a few days in. The part of Aragorn was going to be played by another actor with whom there was a problem at the last minute. Jackson and his team were pushed into a corner, but they’d heard good things about Viggo Mortensen, and decided to get in touch with him and offer him the role. After a lengthy conversation with Jackson over the phone, Mortensen accepted the role on the basis that his son was a huge fan of Tolkien, and had overheard the whole conversation. Mortensen was reluctant to accept it because that would mean spending months away from home, and plus, he’d never read the books or knew anything about them. As it turns out, he ended up being the best possible choice for the role.
Long and arduous shoot
As all three movies in the saga would end up being shot back to back, over a period of several months, and with a hectic shooting schedule; that meant that the physical and mental demands on both the actors and crew would take a toll on all those concerned. The actors portraying the hobbits, orcs, dwarves and elves had to endure extensive makeup sessions that would normally start very early in the morning, and last for a few hours; most of them having to have prosthetic feet and ears attached to them, some of them, like in the case of those portraying the orcs, having to wear whole body rubber suits, complete with heavy armour and prosthetics. Not to say anything about the hours dedicated to Costume fittings, combat training (for which Jackson brought in legendary swordsman Bob Anderson), horse riding and, in the case of some actors, even Elvish lessons. It was important to Jackson to be respectful of Tolkien’s novel, and so a Tolkien linguist; David Salo, was brought in to make sure that the actors speech was as accurate as possible to what Tolkien had envisioned. Dialogue coaches were brought in to assist the actors in that regard. Hundreds upon hundreds of all kinds of weapons and armours were forged at Weta Workshop by actual Blacksmiths to give them a sense of realism. The process was both expensive and time consuming, but yielded astonishing results.
The movie was shot in both location; whenever possible, taking advantage of New Zealand’s remarkable landscape, and in the Studio, in Wellington, New Zealand; where huge sets were carefully put together to match up with the live action footage. The close proximity of the Studio to the local airport meant that shooting would often be disrupted by the noise of huge commercial airliners engines, rendering most of the on-set sound recording to be unusable, and most of it would have to be re-recorded and looped back in, later on in Post-production.
The movie succesfully uses a different blend of techniques, both practical and visual effects throughout; but some of the most innovative have to do with the way forced perspective shooting techniques, (which consists in shooting two actors in the same scene at two different angles to give the illusion that one of them is shorter than the other), along with the construction of the same sets in different sizes; replicating even the props in it according to the size of the set, for both men and Hobbits, and blue screen filming (where the actors will shoot their part in any given scene separately in a soundstage, and it’s edited back together later on using, either digital or filmed background plates); is used to highlight the height differences between the hobbit and dwarf characters to those of the men. They used practically every trick in the book; resorting even to the use of scale doubles to get the job done, delivering amazing results.
Piecing it all together
Things wouldn’t get much easier in the editing room, as Jackson would have to juggle between being on the recording studio in London; supervising the soundtrack recording sessions, and back in Wellington, where the sound mixing and editing was being done. As he couldn’t be in two places at once, a remote satellite communication system via computer was set up in either London, or New Zealand, so a direct line could be created for Jackson to supervise both teams at the same time. That meant that all those involved would get very little sleep in order to deliver the movie in its allotted premiere date. This would be a trend that repeated itself in all three movies.
Critical and box office reception
The movie premiered on December 19th, 2001 to great acclaim. The movie proved to be a huge critical and financial success, grossing a worldwide total of $883.726.270. Was critically praised everywhere it premiered, proving to those nay-sayers that Tolkien’s book could succesfully and faithfully be adapted to the screen. Peter Jackson became a household name overnight, but the bar had already been set too high for the two upcoming movies, and it was up to him to back those expectations up with something even more spectacular and daring.
On December of the following year, and to tie in with the release of the second instalment; The Two Towers, an Extended Edition of The Fellowship of the Ring was released on DVD including 40 more minutes of unseen footage that had been trimmed from the theatrical release. In the words of Jackson himself, he didn’t style this new cut as a Director’s cut of the movie, rather an alternate version of the movie to be enjoyed at home. Most of the new scenes further develop some secondary characters, and even main ones, and dig deeper into the rich history of Middle Earth. Given that some of the additions had an important significance on things that would happen in The Two Towers; this version of the movie would end up being the preferred version to watch for those of us who are fans of the movie
The first installment of the Lord of the Rings is a masterpiece, there are not two ways about it. It ticks all the right boxes; it’s beautifully crafted, acted, with a superb score by Howard Shore, who proved, for the first time in his life, that his range as a composer could extend beyond musically reimagining David Cronenberg’s twisted cinematic worlds. His score is epic, sweeping and heartfelt. The Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie is magical; giving the world of Middle Earth an otherworldly but, at the same time, grounded look that befits Tolkien’s world. Everything from makeup to costumes and set design are top notch. The visual effects department at Weta Digital deliver some truly epic imagery; like the entering of the Fellowship into the mines of Moria and the escape over the Bridge of Kazad Dûm from the Balrog monster. Many moments that seem to be taken right out of the books. It’s a truly remarkable visual and storytelling landmark that proves that Jackson was the man born to usher Tolkien’s words into the big screen. All of this topped off by a wonderful cast who seem to creep right out of the pages of the book. Once you’ve seen the movie, it’s difficult to separate these actors from their characters. That’s how good a job they did. To me, the defining fantasy movie.
Thanks for reading.