Context Matters More Than You Think

A common refrain amongst those who write on fiction, in whatever medium, is that the art is a product of its time and place. What is curious about this idea is that what the speaker intends is a disclaimer toward the piece’s ethics or technical refinement, rather than a notation of something that makes a book or film special (beyond, perhaps, an insight into a historical moment). I think this casual dismissal of the ways in which the era of a production can improve the product is nonsense propagated by an era of remixed studio blockbusters, where the primary questions of quality are milquetoast critiques of representations or what new kind of giant CGI being the graphics engine cranked out this time. Rather, I believe that the period, place, and people involved in creating a film are fundamental to its best and most memorable elements.

As a case study, I want to explore the creation of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, exploring the ways in which the various contextual factors for the production were in large part unintended or unconscious on the part of the creators, but vital for the product we have today. Even if you yourself do not have any particular interest or passion for these films I think this project is worth your consideration, if only because of the principles it demonstrates.

When Peter Jackson first encountered the Lord of the Rings in the 1978 animated adaptation, he reportedly loved the story and wondered why nobody had pursued a more involved live-action production. The answer, as it turns out, was twofold. First, there was a question of what it meant to make a high-fantasy film in the era of Matrix films and a rumored series of Star Wars prequels. Fantasy did not mean financial success or even viability to almost anyone, and even the much-diminished original pitch that Jackson envisioned had very little historical basis for expecting a profit. Second, the contractual status of the intellectual property created by Tolkien was tied up by a variety of competing interests who had no real intent of pursuing a major project. Having resolved to pursue the project himself by the mid-90s, Jackson and his romantic and professional partner, Fran Walsh, reached out to Miramax. The studio agreed to float the project for two films, which was the bare minimum Jackson and Walsh believed they needed to tell the story well. This version was remarkably truncated, including composite characters, spliced storylines, and highly accelerated pacing. When Miramax reneged on their initial offer and insisted on limiting the production to a single film, Jackson was forced to look elsewhere. He found his backer in a newcomer to the major film field, New Line Cinema. New Line’s previous productions were as far from the sweeping Middle Earth epics as you could imagine, including such gems as The MaskDumb and Dumber, and Rush Hour. When Jackson pitched them on an expensive 2-film deal he wanted to film concurrently prior to releasing the first, New Line’s response shocked him. Not only would he have the backing he wanted, the series would be a trilogy filmed and produced almost entirely in Jackson’s homeland of New Zealand. What I must stress is this: no other studio with the financial weight needed to create such a piece had the remotest interest in pursuing the project. This relatively new studio backed not one, not two, but three bank-breaking blockbusters in a genre with no proven market, with the majority of the budget for all three spent before the first film even debuted, and directed by a man from a country with no major film industry and whose experience was predominantly limited to B-grade horror flicks. All three of these elements would end up leaving their mark on the final product.

One of the ways that films tend to be positively shaped by their era is in the unique and constantly changing world of production technologies. When production finally started on the series in the late 90s, the film industry as a whole had not taken the turn into digital environments as they would over the course of the early 2000s. Digital resources were available, but they were largely limited to producing specific models for placement within scenery and doing stitching work for scenery as a whole. As a result, compared to today’s standards, a staggering number of the character and special effects in the series are practical in nature, turning to the expensive and often less convincing digital tools in their arsenal only when absolutely necessary. Treebeard, the walking, talking tree seen in the second and third films and the explosion at Helms Deep were primarily practical rather than digital effects. The production even built the hilltop city of Edoras in Rohan in its entirety on a remote hill in one of New Zealand’s nature preserves, having first removed and preserved the endangered moss on the hill in greenhouses located behind the hill from the camera’s perspective. In nearly every case, the production took pains to work out practical solutions to their challenges, and the result is a series where the digital elements age as poorly as digital effects tend to while the practical effects invariably hold up as excellent craftsmanship. I argue that the specific five-or-so years over which the bulk of production for the Lord of the Rings occurred were key to the quality of the final product. Any earlier and the elements that really did demand extensive and complex digital solutions would have been noticeably poor or left out, while any later and the culture and economics of filmmaking would have pressured Jackson into a much more digital cinematic approach.

Edoras going after the Edoras discussion

There is likely nothing that is more iconic to the Lord of the Rings films than the stunning New Zealand setting. The country had somewhat of a history with documentaries, particularly nature and environmental projects, but in many ways any Kiwi film industry that exists today is an indirect result of the work New Line and Peter Jackson put in over the course of the films’ production. Jackson has stated more than once that there was no other country with the landscapes he wanted for his film, but the role New Zealand had in making the Lord of the Rings excellent goes far beyond its physical attributes.

At the heart of that effort was the onboarding of Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop, now one of the premier special effects and production design companies in the world. Founded in the late 80s, the company was responsible for creating sets, costumes, including true-to-life versions of weapons and armor, digital and practical characters, and the miniatures that would underpin some of the most stunning shots in the series. Weta completed many projects with onerous budget and time constraints, developing creative solutions for problems such as the demand for literally hundreds of sets of chain mail armor for leads and extras. Conscious of the impossibility of building the armor using traditional means and disliking the cheesy cloth varieties used in contemporary pieces, the team developed a method for using rings of PVC pipe instead, which cost a few production assistants their fingerprints in order to create the needed millions of rings. In some cases, the workshop eschewed thrift and simplicity for their particular project to make broader film-level goals viable, such as in the construction of ‘bigatures,’ relatively vast miniatures of major buildings and settings. Some were more than nine meters tall, and all were painted, carved, and textured in painstaking detail so as to stand up to even the closest of camera shots. Never before or since has a production put so much effort toward practically creating such refined and other-worldly representations of the source material.

More than any other element of time and place, however, I find the collection of people who were involved in the project to be the most special. Many were relatively new to the world of major blockbuster productions, and very few of them had extensive reputations outside of their particular niches. The aforementioned Richard Taylor of Weta Workshops was a Renaissance man for the ages, developing concept art, designing sets, solving production issues, overseeing new digital techniques, directing actors and stunt workers in fight sequences, and helping recruit rare talents to the production. One such talent was Peter Lyon, at the time the solitary professional swordsmith in New Zealand, who developed and constructed the ‘hero’ versions of all the major swords used in the films and offered insights on their use. It was not, however, just specialists who were recruited from across the country to work on the film. Several sequences required hundreds of extras to do relatively complex work. For instance, many of the ‘Riders of Rohan’ seen in the third film are women from across New Zealand’s ranching regions. Many of the stunt workers and combat extras were Maori tribesmen whose passion for their roles would end up giving life to the films in new and unique ways, such as the inclusion of the spear pounding outside Helm’s Deep in the second film. The films were a matter of pride for everyone who worked on them and helped shape a national cultural pride in the cast and crew. This pride is no more visible than in the sendoff the fight extras offered Viggo Mortensen: a customized haka or traditional celebratory dance. These accidents of time, place, and culture may have been unintentional, but they certainly shaped the heart of the films in a way that simply cannot be replicated.

Female riders of Rohan to place after that discussion

A discussion of how context played into the beauty of Jackson’s films would be incomplete without mentioning the primary cast. For one, many of the cast were new to major films and some of them would not develop significant careers even after their tenure on Lord of the Rings. Orlando Bloom was an unknown 17-year-old theatre school graduate, John Rhys-Davies had not been in a major film since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, and Viggo Mortensen had only ever had supporting roles in a smattering of films before being cast as Aragorn the day before principal photography began. One of the most beloved and iconic characters in the trilogy, the only reason Mortensen accepted the job in the first place was the urging his son, a fan of the book, gave when he heard that the role had been offered. It is hard to say what part of the brilliance the ensemble brought to the films is due to the casting decisions made by the directors and what was a happy accident, but in either case, the result was an utterly unique set of performances and relationships from the actors.

There are literally dozens of hours of material included in the special features of the Lord of the Rings, and I can honestly say that much of that content is highly worth your time. The insights offered there into how films can grow organically in a way that no amount of Disney’s money can buy ought teach us a lesson regarding the upper limits of money as a pathway to meaningful art. The beauty of these films is much more in the improvisation of production techniques, enthusiasm of the thousands of cast and crew involved at all levels, and the very real relationships formed over the intensive years of filming these three movies back-to-back than anything you could bottle up and reuse. This reality is perhaps nowhere more evident than in another ‘trilogy,’ released years later, that Jackson built from Tolkien’s writing. This time, with a budget that doubled that of the original films, technology that Jackson could have only dreamed of ten years earlier, and a marketing campaign for the ages, the result was a trio of soulless, cynical, bloated pieces that have tended to repel the very fans who adore the original.

Jackson has always been a lover of spectacle. In creating the Lord of the Rings films he managed to work that passion in places that were at least arguably fitting to the source material, such as the sweeping charge of the Rohirim in the third film, or even the utterly extra-textual but undeniably cool addition of Haldir and the elves in the Helm’s Deep sequence. I suspect that he wanted that same sense of grandeur out of his Hobbit adaptations, but either he or those in positions to pull his strings failed to appreciate just how different the heart of that story is in scope and ethos. I think it is fair to say that once made the magic of a particular film cannot be truly recreated. If the Lord of the Rings series had followed a similar sequel pattern to other franchises, with years between productions, decisions spurred by a desire for ever-escalating profit margins, and significant personnel turnover I suspect that even if they had ever been made they would never have fit together in such a meaningful way. There is no question in my mind that franchises can be rebooted in a fun and even truly worthwhile way, I am thinking here particularly of additions such as Mad Max: Fury Road or Blade Runner 2049. That said, I think the extreme rarity of films within the same franchise really feeling like seamless and coherent continuations demonstrates just how powerful the conditions of filmmaking are in creating a final product. This is demonstrated in the attempt of another film adaptation of a beloved Inklings story, the 2000s film adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tales, to imitate precisely that spirit. Coming in the wake of the Lord of the Rings’ commercial and belated award successes, the Lewis renditions came across as blatant money grabs seeking to ride the coat tails of Jackson’s work in a painfully paint-by-numbers fashion, going so far as to hire Weta Workshops to do their costume and digital design. One way to short-circuit this difficulty, of course, is to pursue the Disney/MCU model of mitigating the uniqueness of any given film in pursuit of a media empire that is coherent by virtue of its general blandness. The commercial success of that model, however, comes at one of the dearest prices art can pay: the loss of character.

Painting from Alan Lee to put after that discussion

In so many ways overdetermination of a film as a product is what murders the role that the unintended can play in giving soul to art. Aragorn screams in agony when he believes Merry and Pippen were lost because when he kicked a helmet toward the camera he broke his toe. The scream was legitimate; that is the shot that made it into the final film. The art for the films is as stunning and cohesive as it is largely because John Howe and Alan Lee, by far and away the most prodigious Tolkien artists to work in visual mediums, were far enough along in their careers to have a long backlog of art to work from, but young enough to be willing to spend years in New Zealand working to make their visions become physical realities. Howe, by trade an artist and illustrator, even happened to be an amateur medieval reenactor, designing and testing the practicality of many outlandish armor and weapon designs. The entire character of Gollum, played by Andy Serkis, is the product of a team of innovators in motion capture, a director open to taking a chance on a very untested technology, and an actor willing to risk hypothermia in a thin body suit to make shots as excellent as possible. The Lord of the Rings films, like so many other masterpieces, are the impossible product of happy coincidences, dedicated but inexperienced creators thrown into the production of the decade, and accidents of time that could not have been better arranged even on purpose. You cannot can chemistry, you cannot script spontaneity, and you cannot, ever, purchase passion.

If you take nothing else from this article, I hope that you come away with an appreciation for the beauty that context itself offers a film, and come to appreciate the humanity of films that dare to allow their time and place to be shown as part of their fabric. There is a space, of course, where films ought to push the technological envelope, to do what others thought could not be done. In the era of digitization, however, the marks that make films classics are not in who has the bigger CGI creature or longer list of A-list actors (a designation that means less and less in a world of Disney-owned actors pumping out calculated money trees). What sets films apart, especially today, is giving audiences an experience which is not only unique in degree, but in the very heart and face of the production itself.

Put at the end

Jackson De Vight

Jackson De Vight has dedicated his life to the end of becoming a professional dabbler.

He currently works as a researcher, debate coach, and instructor at Texas Tech University where he is pursuing his graduate studies and is an alumnus of Biola University and the Torrey Honors Institute. Much of his time not spent writing or reading is committed to improving his cooking, woodworking, outdoorsman, and artistic appreciation skills.

Twitter: @JackDeVight
IG: curmudgeonlyjack

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