After the massive success of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s intended trilogy based on J.R.R Tolkien’s literary masterpiece, all those involved knew that having set the bar so high, both creatively and artistically, for the first movie; it was up to them to deliver something equal to, if not even better than the first film. The task ahead was daunting, to say the least; even more so when compounded by the fact that the middle chapter of the trilogy had always been, from the outset, the trickiest to adapt.
Upping the ante
Jackson and Co had several facts playing against them. The structure of the book was set out in a way that half the book was devoted to the characters of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and their attempts to rescue the two hobbits, Merry and Pippin, kidnapped by the Orcs of Isengard in the previous book; and the other half was devoted to the characters of Frodo and Sam on their journey to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring, and their various interactions with several new characters. It was decided from the scripting stage that in order to make both story arcs flow dynamically within a cinematic medium; they would intercut back and forth between all three storylines (Merry and Pippin end up being cut off from Aragorn’s group, and go on their own personal journey with Treebeard and the Ents). That way the action and pace would be smoother. One other difficulty was the creation of Gollum, a totally CGI rendered character that was a complete head-scratcher, the creative heads at Weta Digital didn’t have the faintest idea how to tackle. Motion Capture was in its relative infancy back then, and it forced the Animators to come up with solutions, and the creation of a whole new Digital rendering software from scratch. The increase of the scale of the production in the use of Visual Effects and the number of Production units filming in different locations all over New Zealand and more characters in the story, added to the logistical nightmare that this mammoth production was coming to.
Breaking new ground
Of all these concerns, the one that the production team lost more sleep over was the rendering of Gollum as a tangible, believable CGI character. Fortunately for them, one element came into the picture that would be of great help for all those involved. In the early stages, British actor Andy Serkis was hired to merely voice the character of Gollum in Post-production. His approach to the character, however, was that of a hands-on physical presence on set with which the other actors could interact. He literary threw himself into the role, giving the character, not only his unique and identifiable voice, but also giving it a physicality which the Computer Animators could later on use as a model to bring about the nuances of the character in its CGI form. With the help of a skin suit, he would act out his scenes with the actors, giving them a template on which to base their own performances. Such was the success of Andy’s work on set, and the physicality he brought to the character, that Jackson decided to model the final CGI outlook of Gollum on Serkis’ own physique; something that would come in handy, and pay off much later on towards the latter stages of the story. Serkis would later on re-shoot most of his scenes in a green stage in a Motion Capture suit, so that his movements and facial expressions could be added to those of CGI Gollum. The final result was the most believable, interactive and complete CGI character seen on the big screen to date; a major breakthrough in Visual Effects, and one of the biggest selling points of the whole movie.
Return of the Big-atures
Big-atures was an endearing term that had been coined during production by the crew on the first movie, on account of the huge size of the miniatures used in the movie. This time around, however, the use of these, and their increase in size, would double due to the added sets that had to be recreated for the increasing number of locations and action set pieces. The crown jewel among all these was the miniatures used for the creation of Helm’s Deep. The ancient Rohan fortification was recreated on an abandoned quarry outside of Wellington in two different sizes for both the use of close ups and long distance establishing shots. The biggest one was so massive that the crew could crawl their way in to set up the different shooting equipment. This quarry would also be the site on which a full size portion of the wall was recreated, within which the actors could shoot the elaborate fight scenes. But not all sets built for the production were miniature sets. In addition to the use of the Wellington back lot to recreate most of the interiors of places like the Grand Hall of Rohan’s palace, and the interior of Isengard’s tower, the crew went scouting for locations and found a hill, with a 360 ° view of the valley surrounding it in a rural area of New Zealand’s southern hemisphere. There they proceeded to build the entirety of Rohan’s palace on top of the hill and the town’s cabins and other structures at its feet. The place was also notorious for its high winds, so the construction crew had to make sure that the carefully constructed set would not be blown away, and had to nail it down to the rocky surface without causing any lasting damage to the landscape afterwards, as it was imperative that they left everything the way they’d found it. The whole set was a feat of engineering, and although the interior for all these sets were recreated in Weta’s back lot in Wellington, it was until that point; the biggest set that had been constructed for the production. A fairly large miniature set of Isengard had also been constructed in an open area outside the stage in Wellington for filming miniature background plates of the Orc pits and Founderies underneath it. The miniature could also be flooded for the sequence in which the Ents attack Isengard. Although much of this sequence would be achieved with the use of Visual Effects, the crew tried to do as much in camera as they could.
Pushing the digital boundaries
Given the scale of the production, and the increase in the use of CGI, due to the mounting quantity of action set pieces, the filmmakers came upon a company that had created a software that would multiply the amount of extras seen on-screen. Not only that, but the A.I of said software allowed for each digitally recreated soldier or digital stand-in to have a mind of their own, and being able to perform a series of set action/reaction body movements, and interact not only with other CG recreated counterparts, but with their virtual environment too. The use of stunt doubles for the close-up scenes was still much prevalent, but the use of this software dubbed “Massive”, on account of its ability to produce CGI environments and ”virtual people” on a large scale, proved to be a much needed money-saving tool for the scenes like the battle of Helm’s Deep in which the filmmakers needed to have hundreds upon hundreds of Uruk-Hai and Rohan warriors on-screen. The final result was a seamless blend of Digital and Practical Effects. Another new character that complicated things for the technical crew was Treebeard. The tree-like Wood shepherd was a tricky one to translate from the book. Jackson didn’t want it to come across as goofy-looking, but he also wanted it to be as close to how it was described in the book as possible. After numerous attempts by the Conceptual Designers to come up with a suitable design, they settled upon one design that depicted Treebeard as pretty much a walking, talking tree with some human features etched into its bark. A life size puppet model was constructed onto which the two hobbits, Merry and Pippin could sit and perform their in-camera scenes. It was a cumbersome and uncomfortable task for both actors, as they had to stay on it for hours on end, take after take. Several puppeteers were also needed to operate this massive on-set contraption. To give the whole character more fluidity in its movements, it was decided that his walk would be digitally recreated, as the bouncing and gait of the life-size puppet came off as too unstable and jerky on-screen; something more akin to a stop-motion puppet than anything else. Digital facial replacement was also done to give the character’s face a more life-like quality. Finally, to give it its characteristic booming voice, Jackson asked actor Jonathan Rhys Davies to voice the character in Post-production. To give a wooden-like quality to it, Davies’ voice was tweaked by having the actor recite his lines through wooden tubes and barrels to give it the right feel.
New players come into the story
In addition to those actors and crew members who came back (pretty much all of them); a few new additions were added to the Lord of the Rings family. For the parts of the Rohirrim, two Australian and New Zealander actors were cast; Miranda Otto as Éowyn and Karl Urban as Éomer played the parts of King Théoden’s niece and nephew. American actor Brad Dourif was cast in the role of Wormtongue, the king’s twisted advisor and British actor Bernard Hill for the part of stout and regal king Théoden. For the new Gondorian characters in the piece we got David Wenham as Faramir, Boromir’s brother and son to Denethor, Steward and keeper of the throne of Gondor, who makes a surprising cameo along with Sean Bean’s Boromir in one flashback scene that was added to the DVD Expanded Edition of the movie. Australian actor John Noble makes a lasting first impression as Denethor, paving the way for what we would see a year later in Return of the King. As was the case before with all the other cast members from the previous movie, the newcomers perfectly melded within the ever-growing Lord of the Rings family, creating a lasting friendship bond between all of them after having endured the hardships of such a trying shoot.
In the thick of battle
One of the standout action set pieces of the movie was that of the battle of Helm’s Deep. It was an arduous shoot that went on for several weeks in which the cast and crew worked mostly at night under the incessant downpour of rain produced by huge rain machines hanging from big cranes. In addition to the exhausting shooting in the wee hours of the morning, the cast, and mostly stunt doubles, had to contend with full-on rubber suits for the Uruk-Hai, created by Richard Taylor’s team at Weta Workshop. Temperatures inside the suits were extremely high, which also helped to stave off the freezing temperatures the cast and crew had to endure. The not least important matter of risk to life and limb while the actors and stunt doubles were enacting the fight scenes, was another thing that had to be taken into account. Most nights the cast and stunt doubles would come away with cuts and bruises, to be stitched up and come back again the next morning for another round. Several actors would sustain severe injuries during the shoot; like Viggo Mortensen, who broke one of his toes during a dramatic scene, and Orlando Bloom, who broke a rib when he fell out of his horse, and had to be digitally doubled for the scene in which he jumps onto a horse. Said injuries would prevent both actors from performing the scenes in which they’re chasing after the Uruk-Hai who’ve kidnapped Merry and Pippin, to the best of their abilities. They managed to pull through, though. The second unit would fly them to a remote location, shoot them running across a plain and stop. The arduos and hectic schedule wouldn’t allow for Jackson to be in two places at once, and as he did on the previous movie, he had to supervise the shooting of all the different units all over New Zealand via a satellite monitor feed. It was an all out effort on the part of all those involved, but as it had on the previous movie, the fun didn’t end when the cameras stopped rolling. There was another battle against time to be had in Post-production.
Assembling the jigsaw puzzle
It was known from the very beginning that the middle chapter in the trilogy would present the biggest challenge when it came to editing. The disjointed nature of the story, presenting numerous story threads; each of them necesitating their fair amount of screen time to be properly developed, and the urge to keep the movie’s running time to less than three hours, made it the trickiest one to edit. Jackson had the foresight to predict this, and so he’d hired a different editor for each one of the movies. This time the role fell on Michael Horton. Many of the scenes that Jackson really liked, that better fleshed out the characters, or were a direct call back to events that had happened on the previous movie, had to be lifted. Mostly for pacing reasons. Fortunately, the scenes were rescued for the commissioned DVD Expanded Edition, and re-integrated into the original footage. Most of these scenes were expanded versions of already existing ones, but two of these scenes really come to the forefront. The first one deals with a side plot that has to do with king Théoden’s son that was almost completely disregarded in the Theatrical cut of the movie, and the other one is a flashback scene that takes place in Gondor between Denethor and his two sons Boromir and Faramir, that’s a direct call back to The Followship of the Ring. All the added scenes amount to what I think is a more cohesive whole in which the story, and especially the actors, have more room to breathe. A breath of fresh air, if you pardon the pun, but the best way in my opinion to watch the movie. Jackson’s woes didn’t stop there, though. In addition to supervising editing, he also had to go back and forth between the different Post-production units to make sure that the final product was to his liking, which is pretty much what he had to do on the first movie.
Financial and critical success
The movie was a huge success, making even more money than the first one; which was surprising given that sequels don’t usually outperform the original at the box office. It garnered a worldwide total of $936,689,735. Critical reception was also very good, leading it to be nominated for several Golden Globe and Oscar Awards, winning two for Best Sound Editing, and another one for its groundbreaking Visual Effects.
The Two Towers is an amazing fantasy movie. To me it’s difficult to talk about which one I consider best, for I see each one of them as part of an amazing whole. They’re so tightly edited together, and have such a flow together as to consider them inseperable. To be viewed back to back. Right from the get go, Jackson had the difficult task of topping what him and his crew had done in the previous movie, but I think he passes the test with flying colors. The movie grabs you by the scruff of the neck from the very beginning and never, ever lets go. The opening sequence of Gandalf fighting the Balrog while they’re plunging to the depths of the Mines of Moria is breathtaking. The perfect clincher. By the nature of the second book, this installment is more action-driven than the first one, but that doesn’t mean that it leaves its characters by the wayside, and forgets completely about them. Quite the opposite. We start to see the toll that carrying the Ring is starting to have on Frodo. We witness Sam’s transformation into what is pretty much a moral and emotional anchor for Frodo.We also have a clearer view of Aragorn’s purpose in the story. The bond between him, Legolas and Gimli is stronger than ever, especially between the last two. Gandalf’s presence here serves more as a narrator and someone to move the story along by moving the characters in place like pieces on a chessboard, than anything else. Merry and Pippin are left with no much else to do, that’s true; but it’s great to see the chemistry between Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd. All the rest of the new cast members perform their roles beautifully; especial mention to Brad Dourif’s Wormtongue and Bernard Hill’s Théoden. Miranda Otto perfectly embodies the fragile, but at the same time, strong willed and corageous Éowyn. Karl Urban’s Éomer has little presence in the story, but what he does, he does very well. All the returning cast members fall back into their roles. It does help their performances that all three movies were shot back to back. But if there’s one actor and character that stands out for the rest is Gollum. Andy Serkis seems to have crawled right out of the pages of J.R.R Tolkien’s book. He’s the perfect Sméagol/Gollum. The voice, the physicality; all beautifully rendered in CGI form by the magicians at Weta Digital. With every passing movie, they were getting better and better at their craft to become one of the top Visual Effects houses in the world; their work ranging from the virtual environments of the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s CGI fest, Avatar (2009), to the Motion Capture marvel that is Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Steven Spielberg (2011).
The action set pieces, like the battle of Helm’s Deep and the Flooding of Isengard look like they’ve been taken directly from the book. Brilliantly planned, choreographed, shot and edited. Thematically is an even darker movie than the first one; which was to be expected. Andrew Lesnie is, once again on point reflecting this aspect of the story in the colour palette chosen for the movie. Even Howard Shore’s score has a more somber tone to it. Not much else to say about it. The Two Towers is a towering achievement, but only the second piece of a magnificent puzzle that is the cinematic adaptation of Lord of the Rings.
To be continued, and thanks for reading.