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A Flexible Finish
American Cinematographer Magazine
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For a night scene in which Frodo is captured by Orcs, Lesnie used strong, aggressive colors. "Frodo is taken to the top of the tower of Cirith Ungol in Mordor, where an Orc and Uruk end up having an argument over his possessions," he explains. "To create a strong sense of color contrast running throughout the scene, we lit the room with a red lantern in the center, which provides a few little splashes of color, and had blue-green patterned moonlight - a combination of half CTB and White Flame Green - coming through the broken roof. A hole in the floor provides the entrance to the watchtower from below. Under the hole, a group of Uruks is sitting around a fire, and to represent that I had a dimmed-down Dino bounced into a silver/gold reflector pulsing up through the entrance. It's an assertively colorful scene that's in keeping with the inherent threat of violence that characterizes Mordor.

As Frodo and Sam near the end of their journey, they struggle to climb the fiery surface of Mount Doom. Recalls Lesnie, "To film the location sequences for Mount Doom, we went to Mount Ruapehu in the North Island's Tongariro National Park, a volcano which only last century belched ash as far as Wellington. There, we shot scenes of Elijah and Sean climbing. We filmed in daylight with no 85 so the image would be blue. I added Dinos coming from low angles with various combinations of red gels on them for the lava effects. Once I'd desaturated the blue in the grade, I was left with almost monochromatic images, with strong reds providing color separation. To enhance the violent feeling of Mount Doom's surface, we had heaps of smoke pots and fans going - it looks like the mountain is about to erupt. Inside the mountain, at the Crack of Doom, we had a forced-perspective set of the narrow ridge Frodo and Sam find themselves on. Underneath them is the molten lava Frodo has to throw the ring into, so I played a lot of the lighting up from below; because the ring's presence in the place where it was forged sets off a metaphysical effect, we used a huge amount of interactive lighting. At the climax of the sequence, when Frodo puts on the ring and is attacked by Gollum, all hell breaks loose. We used red-gelled Dinos on a chase pattern in conjunction with other lights bounced into fabric reflectors being shaken by crewmembers. We also had Lightning Strikes units going off, and the cameras were being vibrated manually - virtually everything was moving. To suggest the heat created by the lava, we had an enormous number of steam pipes and hoses running throughout the set. Even when we were just standing there, it was a hot, dank environment."

Frodo's increasingly wretched appearance underscores his mental and physical struggle with the ring's malevolent power. "As Frodo gets filthier and filthier, his skin starts to look like that of a coal miner," says Lesnie. "I found that Elijah's eyes, which are very bright anyway, really started to glow. By the time he's standing over the Crack of Doom, claiming the ring as his own, he's glaring at Sam through the tops of his eyes, and with all the light coming up from below, he looks like he's bordering on insanity."

Ever-present in Lesnie's mind during exterior scenes was one of the film's main visual effects: the thick, black Darkness of Sauron spreading from Mordor, which threatens to demoralize the forces gathering against the Lord of Mordor. "Whether during principal photography or while we're doing these pickups in the studio, the visual metaphor of the black cloud billowing from Mount Doom is something I've constantly had to keep in the back of my mind," he says. "Given that a lot of the Gondorian armor is monochromatic, I was a bit worried that the imagery could end up somewhat bland, so I suggested to Peter Jackson very early on that we should always be able to see past the clouds at the horizon level. That way, there'd always be a strip of contrast running through those sequences. I could then make the images quite dark, despite the fact that it's the middle of the day, and still maintain contrast. I've tended to use backlight for those scenes, so when we were shooting up at the sky, the armor was always going to be delineated against the dark cloud in the background."

The main battle between Sauron's forces and those of Gondor and its allies takes place on Pelennor Fields. The larger setups of the scenes were filmed with hundreds of extras on several acres of farmland, while the smaller sections were shot on a prepared area roughly half the size of a football field at the Stone Street Studios. During the day, Lesnie placed 18Ks on Condors and boom lifts to provide backlight, while the low-angled sun, whose direct light was blocked by the large bluescreen, provided the ambient light. Key lights were provided by HMIs bounced into 12'x12' Griffolyns. In order to extend the shooting day into the cold New Zealand nights, Lesnie used a 50K Soft Sun to provide a broad ambient source. For tighter shots requiring more modeling, the Soft Sun was pushed forward to light the bluescreen, and smaller HMI units were bounced into Griffolyn to provide foreground ambience. "We had the usual turbulent New Zealand weather," Lesnie reports. "However, virtually all of the skies are going to be replaced by the dark clouds of Mordor. To replicate the light coming from the bright strip of horizon under the dark skies, we bounced 6K and 12K Par lamps into the soft side of shiny 8-by-8 board reflectors."

Doyle notes that "Pelennor Fields is also a good example of the image-sharpening techniques we've been applying since The Two Towers. The sharpening tools really get into all the metal and armor, providing amazing detail. We're also using them to give more definition to the frame by helping direct your eye to different areas." Adds Lesnie, "Because of the aggressively moving camera during the battle scenes, we've found that putting a selective power window just around the characters' eyes and sharpening them helps keep the audience's attention on the actors' performances. We're applying it only to the eyes, because sharpening tends to bring up the grain, which is more noticeable in the flatter areas, such as the cheeks. The performance is always in the eyes."

The battle's tide is turned by the timely arrival of Aragorn, who leads an army of the Shadow Host, the deceased Men of the Mountain who had broken their promise to Isildur to take up arms against Sauron many years before. To secure the services of the supernatural soldiers, Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas traveled through the infamous Paths of the Dead, a journey from which no man had ever previously returned. While inside the Paths, Aragorn entreats the Host to ride to battle with him, promising he will release them from their curse. "When we were first looking at the Paths of the Dead sequence, we had the notion of the spectral corpses emanating their own light so that when they appeared, they would fill out the dark underground caverns and provide fill light for the actors," says Lesnie. "We decided, however, that such an approach would quickly negate the malevolence we wanted to build into the sequence, so in keeping with the classic horror look of Shelob's Lair, we instead chose to underlight the actors with 10Ks bounced into poly boards."

After Sauron and his armies are defeated and the Fellowship's victory is properly celebrated, the Hobbits head back to The Shire, where they find life virtually unchanged - a significant narrative departure from Tolkien's book. "Everyone remembers The Shire from the beginning of The Fellowship," says Lesnie, "but the difference is that the four Hobbits are not the same. Each is now a very different person. Should you attempt to make Hobbiton different because they now perceive it differently? I thought this was something that could best be realized through performance rather than look." Lesnie says that for these scenes, he and Doyle sought to emulate the quality of late-afternoon light found in works by classical English landscape painters (such as Gainsborough) and some of New Zealand's landscape photographers.

"The final departure of Frodo and the Elves from Grey Havens happens a long time after they've all gotten back to The Shire," Lesnie explains. "People suffer through ordeals, but they continue living their lives. In the time between, Sam has married Rosie Cottontail and they've had children. One of Sam's great virtues is that he's forever optimistic. When you see his family situation, you realize that he's achieving his hopes and dreams; in spite of what he has been through, he has seen good prevail. That's an important message of the film. The actual departure of Frodo and the Elves at Grey Havens is another Elvish 'beautiful moment' - even in their demise, they go out with style. As the story is now coming to a close, it seemed appropriate that the look for that scene be late afternoon, with a fantastic, golden sky. The reference for Grey Havens was a painting by Ted Nasmith of the Elvish ship on the harbor dock; it represented everything I wanted to do. We built several buildings of Grey Havens and the jetty on a greenscreen in B Stage. When we shot the departure with the actors, I asked for a great length of stage to be left clear. I cobbled together about six Dinos, made a full 85 frame to cover all of them, and just gunned that light straight down the studio from about 100 feet back - that was our late-afternoon sunlight. I also added some ambient light created by space lights, and when the actors were directly facing the Dinos, I applied a bit of diffusion to the lights. The whole scene was lit primarily by one source."

Offering some final thoughts on his epic cinematographic undertaking, Lesnie says, "This trilogy has been a life-changing experience for everyone who has worked on it. The same crews have returned each year for the pickups, with New Zealander Dave Brown providing valuable support as chief lighting technician, along with the excellent cinematographers Richard Bluck and John Cavill, and key grips Tony Keddy and Harry Harrison. Everyone's proud to be part of such a momentous piece of storytelling as The Lord of the Rings. These films show that love and the tender compassions of friendship, loyalty and courage can overcome a world of hate and fear. In the cycles of human history, the salient lessons expressed in Tolkien's trilogy have made the films a timeless adventure."

  • Super 35mm 2.35:1
  • Arriflex, Moviecam and Mitchell cameras
    Zeiss and Angenieux lenses
  • Kodak EXR 50D 5245, EXR 200T 5293,
    Vision 500T 5279, SO214
  • Digital Intermediate by The PostHouse
  • Printed on Fuji 3513D

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.