It has been almost 70 years since the first edition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit was published. From there, Tolkien followed it up with the book’s sequels, the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, Two Towers, and Return of the King), a fantasy series that paved the way for all fantasy-based novels to come. The series gained a faithful fan base and following of both young and old alike. It was adapted to radio for the BBC, and then an animator Ralf Bakshi created a cartoon version of the first two stories of the trilogy. But in the end, it was a young filmmaker in New Zealand, a lifelong fan of the series, who would ultimately create one of the world’s largest cinema franchises. Peter Jackson is one of the most renowned and inspirational directors, and his work on creating the epic trilogy of Lord of the Rings is considered by many what will seal his name in cinema. His attention to detail and his lifelong passion for telling the story through the eye of the camera lens has helped him make his mark in film history.
I first heard of The Lord of the Rings through articles and reviews that continually compared it to my favorite series at the time, Harry Potter. In the early 2000s, the Harry Potter series was just a fledgling phenomenon but as it built steam the question was, would it ever reach the heights of Tolkien’s trilogy? As a devout Potter fan, I swore off ever watching The Lord of the Rings as if to show my allegiance to the boy wizard. But in sixth grade I received my first exposure to the story of Frodo and the One Ring, when one of my best friends insisted that we watch her favorite movies at her sleepover. Much to my amazement, we watched all three extended versions of The Lord of the Rings in one night—a total immersion into the series! Her plan worked and I found myself fascinated by the trilogy and a growing fan of Peter Jackson.
As I got older I found that I wasn’t just a fan of watching the movies. My interest in how movies were made and the process behind them increased too. I also grew to have a greater appreciation for cinema in general. I had always told myself that every film has to be created from scratch at one point. Why couldn’t I be the one to create similar productions then? This motivated me to try to understand what it took to make these movies that I cherished. Special features have always been the first thing I watched on a DVD and it was no exception with The Lord of the Rings’ DVDs. It was then I felt the true power of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and fully realized how well made the movies were. The special effects and character design were complex and extensive, and it was intriguing to watch how such epic movies were put together.
Moving past the incredible franchise Peter Jackson built, I discovered how he inspired me as a person too. I was surprised to learn that he was an only child, something we have in common. It was his quote about being an only child that I found relevant to myself and a possible explanation for the creativity that I feel I possess as well.
“Being an only child does make you more imaginative, I think, because you have to create your own games by yourself, with whatever props come to hand – matchbox toys and building blocks and that sort of carry-on. You don’t have anybody else to bounce off of, so you’re creating it in your own head. I think it certainly helps exercise the mind. It trains you to be imaginative. (Pryor 27)”
Jackson’s love of film and directing came from his early years when he was dependent upon creating his own games and worlds. He was eight years old when he received his first camera, a birthday present from his parents. From there it evolved to making short films with his friends and testing out different story lines and effect. Childhood friend Ian Middleton noted that “he [Jackson] was always the director – it was his camera” (Pryor 28). This reminded me of myself; always running around with a camera and documenting things from our family outings and every day happenings at our home, to different TV shows and making short videos with my friends who I managed to rope into helping me. Directing became second nature for Jackson, learning to create special effects by the simple technique of merely using the on and off button of his camera. By learning to keep the camera still and witching the subject in front of the lens, he could create all sorts of different scenes involving a cat disappearing, a person turning into a watermelon, and a teacher using an umbrella to disappear as well (Pryor 28). From there, he experimented with the use of time lapse and using point-of-view (POV) filming to enhance his scenes. His exploration of these different techniques and his desire to create films increased as he became older, “his imagination … nurtured through storytelling and another roll of film stock” (Pryor 31). These simple but creative effects were merely a precursor to what Jackson would eventually use in his films.
As Jackson continued to work on creating his own small films, he continued to dabble in the idea of special effects. It was in his short movie Curse of the Gravewalker that he first began working with different types of facial makeup. Along with makeup, Jackson also “created swords, costumes … [and] took turns … acting and operating the camera” (Pryor 38). However, Jackson eventually shelved the footage of Curse of the Gravewalker when he realized it was probably time for him to upgrade his equipment from the 8mm camera that he had held onto. His transition to the “secondhand 16mm Bolex camera” unknowingly helped catapult his projects into bigger and better ideas, eventually leading to the concept of possibly receiving profit (Pryor 39). His innovativeness even as an unpaid director on a budget, creating homemade camera mounts and cranes, shows that dedication and passion can help take an aspiring director as far as they want to go. This dedication led to the creation of his first big film, Bad Taste. The film had been in the works for years, and it combined his talents in both directing and special effects in a mix of science fiction and horror. It was with this film that he became an entrepreneur, “establishing his production company, WingNut Films” and essentially “built the equivalent of an independent film studio in a Wellington suburb” (Margolis et al. 100).
Jackson was eighteen when he first read the Lord of the Rings series, and his first thought was that he couldn’t “wait until someone [made] a movie of this” (Jackson, the Fellowship of the Ring). He had no way of knowing that it would eventually be himself who would be the mastermind behind bringing the trilogy to life. This journey, from waiting for a movie to be made by someone, to being the one who makes it, resonated deeply with me and inspired me. Maybe things I am passionate about are things that rather than waiting for them to be made, are things that just maybe I can go out and create myself.
The road to Jackson being able to make the movie of his dreams was a long one. After the amateurishly done animated version by Bakshi, the rights to Lord of the Rings remained with Saul Zaentz, the original producer who had bought the rights for Bakshi as a favor (Pryor 243). But Jackson remained passionate about the project, and helped push Harvey Weinstein from Miramax to continue talking with Zaentz about obtaining the rights. Finally, in January 1998, Zaentz consented and sold the rights, giving the green light to Jackson to begin working on it. As both a devoted fan of the story and a committed director, Jackson had elaborate plans for what he decided would be a two-part movie of the series. However, Disney (the original company they had turned to for assistance) wasn’t on board with the estimated $75 million it would take to finance the project. While all hope could have been lost (due to the wavering support), Jackson persevered and insisted on making a reel of the shots to prove that he could make these movies. It was when he reached out to New Line Cinema and spoke with Bob Shaye, that Jackson finally got his break. It was during these conversations that Shaye said, “Why would you only want to do two Lord of the Rings films?” His affirmation was the ticket to getting the budget they needed, a budget that would eventually amass to a total $281 million (Margolis et al. 269). With the ability to make all of the movies at one time, “Lord of the Rings became a unique project: three films filmed simultaneously, but finished and released separately” (Margolis et al. 4).
When I began researching information on Peter Jackson for this paper, it struck me how inspirational he was as a leader and as a director. Part of what is inspiring to me is that Jackson’s passion for the film caught on like a flame amongst both the actors and his film crew. In the behind the scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring, Brian Sibley, author of the Lord of the Rings Official Movie Guide, commented that while he was astounded that anyone would try to even make the books into movies, he discovered that while talking to the cast and crew, that they “cared about the book in the same way [he] did and that their commitment was to make a film that really reflected Tolkien’s world.” This wasn’t just a movie that was being made for the box office, Jackson was creating a whole new type of movie and everyone was on board with him, instilled with the same passion and excitement as the director. Maybe it’s just a personal opinion, but I don’t know if I see that same type of passion when it comes to “traditional” films coming out of Hollywood. Your average box office film is just a film; the actors might be passionate about acting and the director might like making movies. But with Lord of the Rings, everyone was fully invested in the essence of the story. This unique characteristic is what I think helps catapult his films above all the rest. In our class I commented that one of my absolute favorite genres of movies is fantasy. With the genre of fantasy, I feel that the cast and crew are much more intertwined into the story genre and the creation of the film than with other thematic movies. Yes, those movies will make money during their weekend premiere, but fantasy films are often created from stories. This genre has loyal fans, often dedicated readers of the book (if one pertains to the movie), moviegoers who are just as passionate about the story as the people are about making the film. It’s much more about the final product than it is about the numbers at the end of the day. Christopher Lee, the actor who played Sauron, even commented, “I knew, in the first 48 hours, that we were involved in making cinema history” (Jackson, Two Towers).
The amount of detail involved in the making of the films can be traced back to the original creator, J.R.R. Tolkien, elaborate details which Peter Jackson recognized and respected. His filmmaking goal was to mirror the world Tolkien created for his readers. This goal was no easy task when you consider Tolkien’s background and writing. Using his skills as a signal officer, Tolkien was able to create intricate maps and descriptions of the lands. He created family trees of all the Hobbits, as well as the histories for various characters and different background pieces of information. It may not have fit in with the story, but it helped explain certain characters as well as flush them out to be as realistic as possible (Thompson 84). Tolkien, who also happened to be a historian of languages, went as far as to create languages for all the different groups of people and creatures in the series. For instance, the Elves speak Sindarin. To stay true to the creation of most modern languages, Tolkien then created the Elvish version of Latin, Quenya, from which Sindarin evolved from. Throughout the novels, other languages such as Dwarvish (Khuzdul), Ocish, Entish, and the Black Speech of Mordor are sprinkled throughout to give the characters even more authenticity (Thompson 85). Middle-earth wasn’t just a setting for his series; it was a fully developed world with no stone left unturned when creating it. It was from here, the novels and all of the other supplemental material from Tolkien, that allowed the film’s production crew to delve into making the most accurate representations of the stories.
There’s so much detail in the books. But rather than write it off, the talented and creative team that Jackson was able to assemble came together to bring every bit of it to life on the screen. One example is the armor used in the film. Each type of creature and race in Middle-earth had a different style of armor based off the history of each group and how they evolved throughout the story. This required researching different types of armor from different areas. A small but integral detail that might go unnoticed is the change in helmets from the prologue at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring to the Battle of Helm’s deep, some three thousand years later. Historically, this is something that would have occurred within the armies and the film’s designers paid attention to the fact that as times went on, the armor evolved too. Along with keeping the armor historical and realistic, the designers made sure that the creatures were realistic as well. This involved making sure that “real-world principles of anatomy and physics” would still apply. As an example, the design of the Nazgûl’s Fell Beast (first seen in Two Towers) is based on the fact that this creature was roughly going to end up the size of a 747 Boeing airplane. Unlike other film movies that have inaccurate body proportions for their creatures, the Fell Beast’s wingspan is anatomically correct to lift a creature of its size (Thompson 90). This helps the movies maintain their fantasy qualities in a realistic way.
Under Jackson’s direction, this type of detail was applied to every aspect of the filming, even using real wood to make all the furniture, designed with intricate precision. Art director Dan Hennah related this back to Jackson being “an organic director … he is going to go in for a close up and a piece of chair is going to be in focus. It has to be as good as everything else in the film.” This attention to detail creates an entirely authentic mise-en-scene, as if the characters and settings are an actual world, not just something created for the big screen. Every little detail to the sets created a sort of texture for the film, so that even if the camera only scanned over it for a second, it helped complete the background (Thompson 92). Another detail, another possible “overdesign” maybe to some, related back to the use of the characters speaking the elaborate different Middle-earth languages in the film; again Jackson’s nod towards Tolkien’s hard work in creating the languages. He went even as far as to hire David Salo, a Lord of the Rings enthusiast and credited at the end of the films as “Translator: Tolkien language.” He would send translations and recordings of himself speaking different texts for the language coaches to then use in New Zealand. His attention to detail, such as the engravings on each sword and the chanting on the film’s soundtrack, often goes unnoticed. It is this very attention to detail though that helps resonate the authenticity of the film and the scenes (Thompson 95-96).
Watching the movies is like entering another world. The sweeping camera angles of the movie, such as the helicopter shot over the epic battle scenes scattered throughout the films. The editing is fluid, a seen in the first fight scene between Gandalf and Sauron in The Fellowship of the Ring where we can feel the confusion and energy put into the fight. The grittiness of the film is extremely realistic as well, as demonstrated in the scene in Two Towers when the main characters Sam and Frodo are in the Hills of Emyn Muil. The quick cuts between the landscape and the close up shots of Sam and Frodo help create an agitated feel to the scene, intermixed with the fog and the jagged rocks they are climbing. Outside of the tension-filled scenes, the films also have a lot of continuity editing, a smooth camera angle from the characters to the incredible settings of the story. Along with camera angles, we discussed in class the importance of the position of the camera in regards to characters and what type of feel that gives the audience. Throughout the series, the camera is often at a low angle when it comes to shooting Gandalf. This helps not only establish the illusion of him as a giant to the Hobbits, but also helps show the power that he has as a wizard. Conversely, the Hobbits are often shot from high camera angles to help show how small they are in perspective to their surroundings, or from mid-level angles to help give them their human qualities so that we the viewers can sympathize with them. It’s impossible to deny the brilliance of the landscapes and backdrops that Jackson chose, and it’s in the behind the scenes of The Return of the King that the cranes and moving platforms are shown, displaying how precisely Jackson was able to capture the massive scale of everything.
In the first movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, one of the most iconic scenes is when Frodo first arrives at Rivendell, the home of the Elves. It begins with Frodo awakening from his coma like state, and it’s here that there’s a small detail that helps add to the scene. If watching the movie with headphones on, Gandalf’s voice is only in the right ear as Frodo wakens, and slowly goes around to both ears once he is fully conscious. This helps create the feeling of us waking up with Frodo. The coloring of the scene is very warm; everything has a golden tint to it. Likewise, while Gandalf and Frodo are talking, there is the soft chirping of birds to add to the peaceful ambience. The extreme long shot that establishes Rivendell’s setting is a dramatic one, the Elven outpost tucked away amongst the trees and waterfalls deep in the Misty Mountains. As it slowly zooms in, the shot is able to show the tranquility and beauty of the area, helping depict those characteristics in the Elves who live there. Jackson’s attention to the intricacy of the setting is shown through the couple different close up shots followed by zooming out to see all of the different buildings. Words almost can’t even describe the beautiful architecture designed for Rivendell. The rest of the scene plays out with slow motion, helping us take in the surroundings at the same pace as the Hobbits and helps create the ethereal feeling of how the place transcends reality.
Jackson did anything but shy away from what is probably one of the biggest battle scenes in movie history. That final fight in The Return of the King, The Battle of Black Gate, first begins with over an hour and a half of the movie left to go, and it ends an hour later. The battle features many long shots and extreme long shots, showing exactly how many soldiers there are fighting. What appears to be thousands upon thousands soldiers fill the screen, a tribute towards the talent of the special effects department. A computer-generated storm is moving in as well, increasing the tension and darkness of the scene. Once the battle begins, the shots begin to cut quickly from soldier to soldier, creating a mass feeling of tension and confusion. Some shots, such as the horses charging the Orcs, repeat from different angles to prolong the scene. It also mixes close up shots of the different characters we have gotten to know through the movies as well as vast crane shots that sweep over the army covered landscape. Inner mixed with the battle are scenes of Frodo and Sam finally reaching Mount Doom to finally destroy The One Ring, as well as the concluding scenes for many of the characters. The battle is used as a dramatic backdrop to conclude the series, but keep our hearts racing.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was more than just a series. It became an event film, a type of film defined as “global phenomena, not a genre itself … often [with] origins and histories, transcend[ing] any individual film” (Margolis et al. 2). After all the years of effort and time put into the project it had paid off. It took off worldwide, one of the first film movies to do so. And what was so interesting was that it was a fantasy film—especially when you consider all the other movie genres out there in the cinema world. Even bigger was that Jackson had pulled off such a stupendous feat outside the walls of Hollywood, and stayed true to his roots and his passion for the story. With this comes the amazing fact that “after Canadian-born James Cameron’s chart-topping Titanic, the first two Lord of the Rings movies clock in as the second- and third-highest grossing films ever made by a non-American” (Pryor 11). His influence on filming in New Zealand was immense, drawing many more movies to film there including Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia in 2005. The rugged landscape provided a unique backdrop to Jackson’s films that until then had rarely been seen. By staying in his homeland, Jackson gained not only recognition from the people of New Zealand but from the government as well. In regards to Jackson’s promotion of the country and the boosting of its popularity, Prime Minister Helen Clark made her feelings of gratitude clear.
“Set against the spectacular and diverse New Zealand landscape, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has the potential to be a major tourist promotion and investment tool … by highlighting the country’s natural beauty and the creative talents of its people across a wide range of knowledge-based industries. (Margolis et al. 95)”
Jackson was described as a “maverick up against the Hollywood machine” and that “the physical distance of New Zealand from Hollywood became a symbolic one as well” (Thompson 100). We’ve discussed in class the freedom that comes with being away from Hollywood and the calculated churning out of movies for the public. It’s also been mentioned that studios and producers often keep their nose in the business of the film, making sure it goes exactly as planned. Away from those restrictions and him being essentially an unknown director, Jackson was able to create the biggest franchise to date. He’s in fact admired for his detachment from Hollywood, having it said that “talent, ingenuity and a strong sense of self-belief … all played vital parts in Jackson’s rise to fame, as has his refusal to bow to the expectation of either fans or the film industry” (Pryor 12). With this element of truth in mind, he mentions on the behind-the-scenes for the films that, “If I was going to sum it up, I’d say it was the biggest home movie in the world.”
Almost ten years after the last of Lord of the Rings movies were released, news broke that Jackson was returning to direct the film version of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, Tolkien’s original story that started it all. Once again, the story was broken into three parts, each to be released separately to the fans who had excitedly returned to the theaters to see Jackson’s work. The dedication to the first three films is mirrored in the efforts of the prequel to it all, and it’s with great anticipation that we wait for the next two installments to come out.
There’s a beauty to these films, something that remains unmatched by other movies that have come out since then. As someone who is passionate to create, the story of Peter Jackson’s directorial talents, his attention to detail, loyalty to the story, and his leadership qualities, the crafting of the trilogy provides me the inspiration to follow my own directing aspirations and dreams. Sometimes we are the dark horse director, waiting to make the biggest franchise ever in cinema history. Or maybe we are the small Hobbit, destined for greatness. At the end of the day it’s what’s inside each of us that can help push us to achieve our dreams.
Sir Ian McKellen said it best at the end of a segment from the special features of The Fellowship of the Ring. “Lord of the Rings is a fairytale—it’s an adventure story, it never happened, except somewhere in our hearts.”
Margolis, Harriet, Sean Cubitt, Barry King, and Thierry Jutel. Studying the Event Film:
The Lord of the Rings. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2008. Print. Pryor, Ian. Peter Jackson: From Prince of Splatter to Lord of the Rings. New York: Thomas Dunne /St. Martin’s, 2004. Print.
The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring. Dir. Peter Jackson. Prod. Barrie M. Osborne. Perf. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen. New Line Home Entertainment, 2001. DVD. The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. Dir. Peter Jackson. Prod. Barrie M.
Osborne. Perf. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen. New Line Home Entertainment, 2003. DVD. The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. Dir. Peter Jackson. Prod. Barrie M. Osborne.
Perf. Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen. New Line Home Entertainment, 2002. DVD. Thompson, Kristin. The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood. Berkeley: University of California, 2007. Print.