Return to Table of Contents
THE LAST SAMURAI page 2page 3
A Prized Bundle
page 2 DVDpage 2page 3
A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
The Fate of Middle-Earth
The Return of the King, shot by Andrew Lesnie, ACS, brings an epic trilogy to its thrilling but bittersweet conclusion.


by Simon Gray
Unit photography by Pierre Vinet and Grant Maiden

The conclusion of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return Of The King, tells of the Fellowship's final confrontation with the forces of the Dark Lord Sauron in the climactic War of the Ring, and of the mental and physical struggle of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) to reach the heart of Mount Doom, into whose fires the One Ring must be thrown. Despite the ultimate triumph of good over evil, the story has bittersweet overtones, in that it concludes with the departure of Frodo and the Elves from Middle-Earth. "These films are about so much - friendship, loyalty, betrayal and destiny - that it's impossible not to be affected by them, especially when they've been a part of my life for so long," remarks the trilogy's director of photography, Andrew Lesnie, ACS. "I know the experience I've had on this production will never be repeated."

During a break in the filming of pickups in Wellington's Stone Street Studios, director Peter Jackson told AC that "the third part of the trilogy has always been my favorite because now we're heading directly toward the climax. We've had six hours of exposition, and now we get the intensely emotional payoff. All of the characters having been pushed to a point where life or death depends upon what they do at this time. The third movie is really the point of doing the entire trilogy; it's the reason why I made the first two."

For Lesnie, The Return of the King is a "very different story and film than the previous ones. That's what I like about the trilogy: the films don't repeat themselves. Rather, the story undergoes constant and consistent transformation. The Return of the King isn't as linear as The Fellowship of the Ring [see AC Dec. '01], which was very much about the different moralities of each place the Hobbits traveled to. The Two Towers [AC Dec. '02] introduced narrative complexities and provided different photographic opportunities by virtue of opening up the landscapes and showing new cultures, such as the Rohirrim. The Return of the King, however, is much more about the subtext within each of the characters, and despite its scope, it's an intensely personal story. It's in this final film that the story really focuses on Frodo, Sam and the unfortunate Gollum. The physical ardor of their journey isn't as important, story-wise, as their need to find the inner strength to fulfill their quest. As the title suggests, the other important narrative thrust is the ability of Aragorn [Viggo Mortensen] to acknowledge his destiny. So there's a lot going on."

Lesnie feels that one of his most important contributions to The Return of the King was "to be responsive to what the actors brought to a scene. For a film like this, as much as you plan your shots, the staging should always be actor-driven. You have to be receptive to what the actors offer when the scene is blocked through. They may offer something much, much better than what you'd imagined. I find that at the point of blocking, I come to understand the full strength of what the scene is about. Consequently, the technical choices become clear."

A scene that has particular emotional resonance for Lesnie is the coronation of Aragorn as King of Gondor. "That scene is a great example of how there can be numerous emotional layers of subtext, some even apparently contradictory," he explains. "The newly crowned Aragorn approaches the Hobbits, who kneel before him and declare, 'You bow to no one,' and Aragorn then bows to them, as does the whole crowd. On one hand, the scene is an uplifting, festive celebration - the war has been won and a new king crowned - but it's also tender and poignant, perhaps even sad, because the Hobbits and the world they live in have changed forever. So although the scene has a vibrant look, it's the action within that drives such moods. Return of the King delves into emotional complexities and layers that are very hard to quantify, so the best option was often to avoid crowding the performances with overt lighting. The audience needs to find their own meanings in what's happening. We didn't want to drive people so hard in one direction that they wouldn't see any others."

Much of the film's action takes place in the Gondorian city of Minas Tirith, with Sauron's armies attacking the multileveled city in the mistaken belief that Pippin is the ring-bearer. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is keen to exploit this situation, because with Sauron's will bent to the destruction of Minas Tirith, Frodo and Sam are temporarily forgotten. Lesnie describes Minas Tirith as "a clean, pristine-walled city that's about to be corrupted by an invasion. The city is built out of white stone, and we gave the whole of Gondor a classic, graphic, pewter look.

"However," he continues, "if you let images become too monochromatic, it can create problems if there are color aberrations from different labs. The image reacts very quickly to a point of magenta or two points of green one way or the other, and the whole thing begins to fall apart. To avoid that, colorist Peter Doyle and I selectively boosted some of the earthy, warm colors and blues in Minas Tirith. When you have nicely saturated colors, it takes a lot to move them, so aberrations tend to be hidden."

The spectacular nighttime sequences that show Minas Tirith under siege are punctuated by fireballs that are catapulted over the city walls by Sauron's army. These were achieved through lighting as well as special effects. "To represent the fires caused by such an attack," the cinematographer details, "we set up several Dinos that were gelled with half and three-quarter CTO, as well as some strips of #30 Red CalColor, and then patched into dimmer boards so they could be programmed to pulsate. We used the Dinos in conjunction with big flame bars, which were either sources or compositional elements in the foreground of particular shots. During principal photography on the set, we catapulted real, 4-foot-wide fireballs of compacted hay that were soaked in accelerant. It was quite dangerous. There isn't really a flat surface anywhere in Minas Tirith, so sometimes those balls would splinter upon impact and start spot-fires, or they'd simply roll, often directly toward us! We didn't bother with interactive lighting for the fireballs because the light they threw out was strong enough."

In keeping with his philosophy of being responsive to actors' performances, Lesnie approached the travails of Frodo, Sam and Gollum through the landscapes of Mordor on a scene-by-scene basis. "Tolkien's trilogy is a prehistory of our world that we've always presented as real," he notes. "Within that reality, even such a violent and turbulent place as Mordor has to be believable. Mordor is made up of several distinct places: Minas Morgul, Shelob's Lair, Cirith Ungol, the Plains of Gorgoroth and Mount Doom. Each of these places has its own look in that they're production-designed differently, but in terms of lighting, they don't stray much from the basic parameters I've established. I didn't want the lighting to detract from the human - or Hobbit - aspect by imposing too strong a style." Colorist Doyle agrees that "the challenges of the Frodo and Sam story was to keep the frame looking interesting, while at the same time not departing from the color palette [that governs the look of] this part of Middle Earth." The main colors used for these sequences were blue-greens for night scenes, and light green, contrasted with the reds and oranges from the fires of Mount Doom, for day.

As the Hobbits enter the lands of Mordor, they fall prey to Gollum's trap and are attacked by the giant spider Shelob. The spider's lair is a labyrinth, with claustrophobia-inducing tunnels twisting and turning for miles. Scattered throughout the tunnels are the remains of Shelob's previous victims, who were either caught in her many webs or cast aside on the floor. During pickups for the Shelob sequence in Wellington, Lesnie points out that the lighting of these scenes takes on the tones and texture of classic horror movies. "I played the lighting from the floor as much as possible. That helps to create the feeling of an ever-present roof, enhancing the sense of claustrophobia. In situations like this, you're lighting the walls and not the actors." Lesnie combined hard, low-angle backlight with Kino Flos as soft key lights. Shelob's lair is rendered in blue-green tones, which Doyle describes as "a fantastic cyan-green. There are shots where the camera tracks around the wall of the set, and as it does, the colors shift a little toward the green or blue end, depending on the direction of the move. It creates a wonderful sense of interactivity."

Page 1


© 2003 American Cinematographer.