The Lord of the Rings

A Closer Look Into The Lord of the Rings Cinematography: The Fellowship & Two Towers

By: Domonique Salberg

Complete with a surplus of iconic shots, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most visually arresting fantasy epics ever made, with the Fellowship’s Oscar-winning cinematography surpassing the others. Though not award-winning, The Two Towers cinematography did achieve impressive techniques and gorgeous shots worth discussing. The artist responsible for capturing these iconic moments is cinematographer Andrew Lesnie. Where later in his career, he lent his talents to The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-2014), The Lovely Bones (2009), and King Kong (2005). Therefore, this article will discuss a few scenes from The Fellowship and The Two Towers cinematography, the thought process behind Lesnie’s choices, and how they served the film’s narrative.

Quick jump to the following sections:

So, thanks to Lesnie’s imagination, The Lord of the Rings films are audacious, scenic, and whimsical with compositional confidence. He managed to capture scenes that evoked intimacy and grandeur of Middle-earth, which is an essential element of balance for a story so vast and this human. Being able to film intimate moments and then pan out into the big picture shots of Middle-earth’s world is no small endeavor. The Lord of the Rings cinematography captured the personal suffering among the characters and soldierly upsets with equal care. By effect, the audience gets to enjoy being guided by the camera as it whips across the open plains, weathered hilltops, and lush forests of its land. However, there is a method to the brilliance, which we will see in this closer look. 

One Ring To Rule Them All

The prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring is undoubtedly among the most iconic film openings. Galadriel speaks of the events that passed while foreshadowing what is to come. It comprises defining moments as when three Elves, seven Dwarves, and nine Men were gifted, powerful rings. And we are reminded, the race of men, “above all else, desire power,” and that their hearts are easily corrupted. Thus, among the Elves and Dwarves marked praise and marvel, but the men, something sinister shone.  

To best express the events that would shape the fortunes of all beings of Middle-earth, Jackson chose dynamic blocking in combination with Lesnie’s dramatic, ethereal lighting. The Kings, however, stand-out as they should; evil endured because of their desire for power. In knowing this, when given the rings, it prompts us to wonder how the Race of Men will function in Middle-earth.

Are they good or evil? Will one of the film’s most fundamental themes, power, compromise them? The prologue manages to incite those questions and more. New viewers or old, we are reminded contrary to the Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits, the Race of Men have an unpredictable nature because of their strong affinity for power. By The Fellowships conclusion, the prologue’s message is even more compelling and clear. Men have succumbed to evil and have redeemed themselves as seen with Boromir, that by the end, their complexity is fully realized.

But besides the darker arcs and themes of The Fellowship, Lesnie’s cinematography still is one of stylized magical elegance. Especially when compared to the purposely fractured story and look of The Two Towers. Lesnie’s lighting is much more controlled in the first film, where he says, “I was very conscious of modeling with light, applying a black-and-white philosophy in using the tonal scale to create separation, rather than [doing so] through color.”

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And even during a sobering, seemingly simple moment between Gandalf and Frodo when they talk about Gollum in the Mines of Moria, the lighting and effects are thoughtful and fashioned amid the incandescent, prying eyes of Gollum and conflicted blocking of the two heroes. Where Frodo realizes that Gollum represents what he may become and a thought on the nature of compassion. It is the moment that also establishes the woven theme found in all the films: essentially everyone is good, but there are dark forces in life that affect us. It is how we deal with those forces that are the measure of our character. 

The Two Towers: Edoras

Nonetheless, like most of The Fellowship and The Two Towers, its cinematography operated to establish character arcs, beginnings, places, and more places. To introduce and make a vast new world and the beings that inhabit it concrete. The difference, although, are that The Two Towers enhanced cinematography by way of its (Oscar-winning) visual effects from the first. Together with shifting from the first films lush images of The Shire, Lothlórien or Rivendell into darker and grittier images.

Also, Lesnie decided to incorporate less controlled light to impart Middle-earths entering into a dark time while the characters battle to find the light at the end of the tunnel. Accordingly, much of the action in each narrative thread of The Two Towers occurs against the backdrop of aggressive and dramatic landscapes for a visual scheme of “hardened reality.” The visionary work put into Edoras, Fangorn Forest, and Helm’s Deep, for instance, are some of the films best.

Edoras (pictured below), the city where Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf met with King Theoden, features technically striking, beautifully medieval shots. Edoras was built on a life-size set on a solitary hill in a relatively flat valley on New Zealand’s mountainous South Island. The Southern Alps formed a natural, dramatic backdrop. Lesnie stated that Edoras’ mountain range was around 18-percent-gray exposure and acted as the grain test for the entire background and the foreground actors, who were lit by the hard New Zealand light. They further built filters that acted as a lens with all of its color coating ripped off to achieve the look and color they wanted. Vital places introduced in The Two Towers, like Edoras, exemplified the medieval look Lesnie wanted; one of earthy greens and browns.

Fangorn Forest & The Shepherds of the Trees

In addition, there is the most fantastical element of The Two Towers: Fangorn Forest. Inhabited by creatures known as Ents, their forests were the first major studio element in The Two Towers. It was achieved through a combination of full-scale live-action and miniature sets. Treebeard, for instance, was accomplished through a blend of large-scale animatronics and digital facial animation. Additionally, strategic lighting played a role in its look. Lesnie and his gaffer put the lighting for the forest in ahead of the set build.

He is quoted saying in the American Cinematographer magazine, “We installed space lights in the ceiling of the studio and placed huge silks underneath, creating a large, soft toplight. Underneath that, we ran a fine grid of wire from which we hung camouflage nets, and when the art department built the set, they hung their foliage from that wire. The soft light was considerably reduced in exposure, resulting in a dark, ambient light, which I enhanced by running a slight atmosphere throughout the set.” 

He then created a contrast ratio since a real forest often defies the film stock’s ability to capture it. All these choices were made to convey a spooky but not scary Fangorn Forests.

Lesnie expands on how he wanted the audience to experience the Ents home in the American Cinematographer Magazine: “You have to intellectualize these things to a certain extent. For me, Fangorn is one of the oldest places on Middle-Earth, and it has a mystique. Just the mention of the name strikes fear into the hearts of the people of Middle-Earth, but no one knows why. We were therefore trying to create an eerie atmosphere where you want people to step into the unknown, but you don’t necessarily want them to immediately become scared, because that’s simplifying the character of the Ents too much.”

Faramir Captures Frodo

Lesnie knew how to enhance the intimate, intense scenes as well. Like when Frodo and Sam journey into Morder and are interrupted when Faramir and his Rangers from Gondor seize them in The Two Towers. The honeycombed channels of caves hidden by a boisterous waterfall capture the moment Faramir, who seeks answers to Boromir’s death, unexpectedly find the answer to his brother’s death: Frodo. While, simultaneously, recounting the critical relationship Frodo has reached with the Ring. Therefore, to capture this very intense moment for both characters, Lesnie chose to keep the shadow areas in the cave considerably dense.

The Battle At Helm’s Deep

Finally, besides the character-driven moments and the fantastical, Lesnie’s work on the Battle at Helm’s Deep is outstanding. A fortress constructed at the end of a deep ravine, this battle is the centerpiece of The Two Towers. 10,000 Uruk-hai and 500 defenders. Hence, challenging since it was filmed at night, and the sequences’ sheer scale, Lesnie did extensive lighting tests to avoid losing the detail of the battle’s brutality. 

Overexposed backlight to render the battle’s savagery in striking detail was done, plus several large sources (Musco light, Etc.) that could be moved quickly, along with practical fires, flaming torches, and braziers. All in all, there are countless amazing shots because of Lesnie that we could discuss in this closer look. However, even when referencing only a few scenes, we can conclude through the challenges of working on films this large and stories this vast, Lesnie more than rose to the occasion.

For more of my Lord of the Rings content you can check out these articles: How ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ Changed and Improved High Fantasy, How Costume Design Shapes Characterization in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

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