The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

How 'The Fellowship of the Ring' Changed and Improved High Fantasy

By: Domonique Salberg

The Fellowship of the Ring is not only a superior high fantasy epic but a cinematic achievement in every sense of the phrase. Being the first film in the franchise—as with Tolkien for the fantasy novel; Peter Jackson evolved the fantasy genre within film and disrupted how critics and audiences regard it. The trilogy has left an impression on millions to this day, even in the age of tremendously advanced technology and more competition. Some critical factors to consider that support this are the film’s brilliant efforts in cinematography, the profoundly layered world and character building, and defining high fantasy elements delivered with ingenuity.

Quick jump to the following sections:

Practical Effects in the Fantasy Genre

Thus, a landmark in filmmaking, The Fellowship of the Ring, won four Oscars that were all of the technical categories. In which, Jackson and his crew made use of digital, practical, and make-up effects to create the epic adventure. Their decision to approach the fantasy world in this way is what continues to set the film apart within the genre and other works that use heavy CGI and effects to tell a story.

If we look at the current fantasy and sci-fi films being made today, there continues to be a number of them that do not measure up to what The Fellowship has done. With the use of practical effects and the talented creators that worked on the film not having access to the advanced technology of today, ingenuity was encouraged.

The pay-off led the film to be an inspiration for current works like the massively popular Game of Thrones (2011) that is heavily reminiscent of the beloved world of Middle-earth. Furthermore, the Tolkien universe changed the course of special effects and proved that less is so much more.

Their most groundbreaking effects centered around the look and movement of the character Gollum (who became a phenomenon) are often noted most. Before Gollum, no other visual effects team had done a CGI creature mixed with live-action where it was to be believed it was in the scene. None were done to the level of Gollum, where they functioned as an actor on screen rather than only a monster, like the other CGI creatures before him.

How Gollum Became a Phenomenon

While they were designing the creature, they were also inventing the technology to implement him into the film in a realistic way, further showing the talent of these creators. An example of there work involved writing muscle systems since he was extremely skinny to take care of making the muscles move under his skin. The supervisor on the film, Eric Saindon, was apart of the team that created Gollum but also pioneering Subsurface [Scattering], which won them the Oscar for that technology. To best describe the Subsurface effect, it is similar to lighting a wax candle and seeing the diffusion of the light through it.

Essentially, spreading the light as it goes through a surface to get the skin-like feel. What also worked to create unforgettable characters and effects throughout were the creators emphasize on ensuring the effects were always in service of the story and never compromised in its visual conception. As a result, the audience was less conscious of the effects. They took away from the film, not the realistic settings of Rivendell, but instead resonated with Sam’s loyalty to Frodo, the fearlessness of Aragorn, or the tragic duplicity of Gollum. So to this day, the basic concept developed by the effects team for The Fellowship is still applied and remains to represent the greatest triumph of visual effects.

Forced Perspective in The Fellowship of the Ring

As we can see, CGI is vital to the world of high fantasy filmmaking. It allows the creators to bring their creatures and monsters to life with realism and tremendous detail, especially in high fantasy since the worlds are to be based entirely in a universe with no attachment to our own with dominantly fictional and esoteric features.

Moreover, the cinematography of the film gives us scenic grandeur that is to be commended as the locations and how they are presented are essential for high fantasy as well. Jackson’s efforts in world and character building are what make this a pioneering high fantasy work, for which we see in the look of Middle-earth and how it is filmed.

As a result, every frame in The Fellowship leaves an imprint on the viewer due to the creator’s use of forced perspective, superbly built sets, and strategically chosen New Zealand locations. One of the most iconic forced perspective shots takes place at the beginning of the film when Frodo and Gandalf are riding in a carriage together. Gandalf appears to stand out large in the frame next to the small Frodo—yet both are in the same carriage in the same live, two-shot scene.

This effect was accomplished by having Gandalf’s side of the carriage built smaller than Frodo’s and rests closer to the camera. From here, both actors can converse with the help of Jackson and crew, providing reference points for where each actor is supposed to look, appear to be looking directly at each other. Hence, there we have it, the illusion of a Hobbit.

Peter Jackson and World-Building

The forced perspective is likewise skillfully displayed during the beautiful shots of the towering pillars of the kings at the gates of Argonath. The two large and highly detailed models were combined with live-action footage and digital backgrounds to convey the proper sense of scale. To this effect, Aragorn, Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the fellowship pass through the mammoth appearing pillars and the glistening waters with realism putting the audience in awe.

Additionally, the representation of the characters is what adds to the world-building and the film’s status among the finest in fantasy. We have otherworldly creatures of several familiar races like hobbits, dwarves, elves, and trolls that are fleshed out and executed with thoughtfulness and mastery—from their designs and clothing to how they speak and function within their world. Such as the hobbits who are dressed in earthly tones and button-ups with trousers, while being a group that is dominantly farmers that keep a simple existence.

Their only yearning is for an unadventurous life with great food and leisure with friends and family. Therefore, detailed descriptions could be said for all the characters that Jackson has brought to life, adding to the richness of a world that is needed to tell a fantasy story effectively. We have the chosen ring bearer on a quest with fantasy races, wars, magic, a real threat to their world’s existence that is truly unlike ours, and godlike creatures and demons (Balrog).

This kind of world-building and attention to detail of the genre is what allows the film to age so well and remains a reference of what high fantasy is at its best. Lastly, we cannot forget the art-house like closing scene that is rarely done within the genre. It speaks beautifully to human nature, adding to The Fellowship’s charm and impact on not only fantasy but storytelling.


What fantasy elements do you enjoy most about The Fellowship? Do you agree with me labeling it the pioneer of high fantasy in cinema?

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