Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
There’s really no way to do justice to the enormous accomplishment that is the physical production of LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RINGS. This four-disc special edition comes pretty damn close, though.
For the record, and just to reemphasize, I said it upon release, and I said it at the end of the year, and I’ll say it again anytime the question comes up: the best film of 2001 was FELLOWSHIP. Period. No film last year was more involving, more accomplished, or more of a reminder of what it is that initially made me fall in love with the movies. “The biggest low budget film in history,” as Andrew Lesnie refers to it, impresses me more with each viewing.
Unsurprisingly, the expanded edition of the film that Peter Jackson created for this release enhances everything that was good about the movie upon release, and genuinely stands alone as a separate work of art. It’s tremendously satisfying to see this film and these characters given more room to breathe. In addition, the wealth of supplementary material packed onto disc three and disc four of this set is almost overwhelming. I’ve spent the last week or so working my way through it, determined not to write about this thing until I’d had a chance to experience it all for myself. I don’t know about your schedule, but unless you plan to just set aside an entire day to watch it and do nothing else, this disc is going to keep you busy for a while. I’d like to imagine that these extras are going to be some kid’s lightning bolt to the forehead. Ten years from now, I fully expect to see some hot new director in his early 20s making the rounds on the talk shows, telling everyone how the supplementals on LORD OF THE RINGS inspired him to become a filmmaker. They’re complete enough that by the end of the six hours worth of documentaries, you’ll feel like you’ve taken the same journey that this amazing creative team has.
Before we discuss the extras, though, let’s back up. Let’s talk about the new version of the movie.
The film still begins with the haunting narration of Galadriel, and the battle against Sauron is still the same. The first new footage comes when Isildur is riding home, the Ring around his neck. When they are attacked, Isildur uses the One Ring to turn invisible. Things play the same then all the way to the place where Bilbo finds the Ring, and then the film launches into a radically different introduction to The Shire, with the actual title card no longer appearing over that shot of Frodo sitting against the tree, reading. Now the title is shown over a shot of Bag End, where Bilbo is sitting down to finally start work on his book. He works on the chapter “Concerning Hobbits,” and we see the denizens of the Shire through Bilbo’s eyes. It’s a warm and gentle opening for the story, a gradual immersion into things, and it really sets a tone. This is a life worth protecting, a world that matters because of its simple pleasures, and the darkness that threatens to destroy this place is genuinely disturbing, no empty Hollywood threat. The stakes are overwhelming, and I think the place Peter Jackson’s background most benefits the series is in the way he portrays the forces of darkness. I can’t think of a more iconic symbol of evil than Sauron’s Eye, the most perfectly realized villain since Darth Vader first stepped onto the Blockade Runner, and the Nazgul are effectively brought to life, the best companions to Sauron that we can imagine.
Oddly, the film feels shorter now. There may be more footage included, but because of the way it’s been incorporated, the flow of the film has been substantially improved. This is more akin to James Cameron’s work cleaning up and finishing THE ABYSS than it is to the interesting but unwieldy APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX. None of what’s been put back into the film feels like it belonged on the cutting room floor. Far from it. Instead, every addition seems to be carefully considered. When you look at the menus for “Scene Selection” on the discs, you’ll see that each chapter with footage added has a double asterisk, and each chapter that’s completely new is marked with a single asterisk. This makes it very simple if all you want to do is go through and make quick comparisons to see what’s new and what’s the same. The first two chapters, “Prologue: One Ring To Rule Them All...” and “Concerning Hobbits” are both filled with new material.
That’s really just skimming the surface, though. Out of the 27 chapters on that first disc, there are 12 of them with additional footage. Some of the highlights include “At The Green Dragon,” where we get a glimpse of the Hobbits at their most social, drinking and singing. I’m particularly pleased with the way Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd have benefitted from this re-edit of the film. They’re given a lot of room to make Merry and Pippin live and breathe now. There’s also “The Passing of The Elves,” the first night that Frodo and Sam are on the road together. They watch as the Elves head for the Gray Havens, and they discuss the fact that an age is ending. This strengthens the sense of melancholy that hangs over the entire movie. No matter who eventually wins the War of the Ring, this will no longer be the Middle Earth that it once was. Much of the magic is fading as Man ascends. There’s something very strange and beautiful about a film that mourns the world that existed before we came into power, and Jackson’s done his best to paint a picture of what it is that the rest of Middle-Earth is afraid of when they picture a world run entirely by Men.
”The Nazgul” and “The Midgewater Marshes” both add to the peril and the physical demands of the journey that the Hobbits undertake, and Viggo Mortensen is also given a few quiet moments that really add up to a richer, better drawn portrait of Aragorn. When he sings the song of Luthien and Beren to himself late at night, he is interrupted by Frodo, who asks what it is. Aragorn explains, and there is the most haunted, shattered quality about the simple description he offers: “It is the tale of Luthien... the elf-maiden who gave her love to Beren... a mortal.”
”What happened to her?” Frodo asks.
Mortensen says so much with the simple hesitation before his next line, with the emotion that makes his eyes shine so bright in the night. “She died.” So much is set up in that simple moment, and suddenly we understand the stakes in his love of Arwen more than we ever did before. In one of the last altered chapters on disc one, “The Sword That Was Broken,” there is additional conversation between Boromir (Sean Bean) and Aragorn that also adds real weight to the character. Considering how crucial Aragorn becomes to the overall trilogy, these choices on the part of Jackson are crucial and more than welcome.
The second disc of the film contains quite a bit of the balance of the new footage with 14 out of the 20 chapters featuring something new. “Gilraen’s Memorial,” the first chapter on the disc, immediately gives us new information about Aragorn, and it also shows how esteemed he is in the elven world. I love the additions to “Moria,” showing a more human side to Gandalf. Don’t think that the only additions are character moments, though. In “Balin’s Tomb,” there are some wonderful new moments with the Cave Troll that show off even more of the work that WETA did in creating such a realistic CGI creature. He’s the greatest Harryhausen monster that Harryhausen didn’t create, and giving him more room to prove it is delightful. Both “Lothlorien” and “Caras Galadhon” benefit from additional moments, creating a more fully realized environment and giving us additional glimpses at Tolkien’s most idealized culture.
If there’s any one chapter worth paying special attention to, though, it’s “Farewell to Lorien,” in which the gifts of Galadriel are bestowed upon the Fellowship, gifts which will help them along the hard road ahead. Gimli’s wistful recollection of his gift, shared with Legolas once they’re actually out on the river, is perhaps the finest moment for Rhys-Davies in the film now, and there’s a fall-down funny new moment between Legolas, Merry, and Pippin that I would be a monster for ruining. Just look for what Orlando Bloom refers to in the commentary as his “bread commercial.”
That brings us, I suppose, to the commentary tracks, four of them in all, that run the entire length of the film. Three and a half hours times four. I’ve sat through fourteen hours now of cast and crew discussing LORD OF THE RINGS, and my first reaction is that I can’t wait for a similar edition of the next two films. If they’re half as illuminating as this one was, then this could well stand as the finest record of what went into creating an epic ever put together.
The commentaries break down as follows:
COMMENTARY ONE: THE DIRECTOR AND WRITERS, featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens.
COMMENTARY TWO: THE DESIGN TEAM, featuring Grant Major (Production Designer), Ngila Dickson (Costume Designer), Richard Taylor (WETA Workshop Creative Supervisor), Alan Lee (Conceptual Designer), John Howe (Conceptual Designer), Dan Hennah (Supervising Art Director/Set Decorator), Chris Hennah (Art Department Manager), and Tania Rodger (WETA Workshop Manager).
COMMENTARY THREE: THE PRODUCTION/POST-PRODUCTION TEAM, featuring Barrie Osborne (Producer), Mark Ordesky (Executive Producer), Andrew Lesnie (Director Of Photography), John Gilbert (Editor), Rick Porras (Co-Producer), Howard Shore (Composer), Jim Rygiel (Visual Effects Supervisor), Ethan Van Der Ryn (Supervising Sound Editor/Co-Designer), Mike Hopkins (Supervising Sound Editor), Randy Cook (WETA Animation Designer and Supervisor), Christian Rivers (WETA VFX Art Director), Brian Van’t Hul (WETA VFX Cinematographer), and Alex Funke (Miniature Unit Director Of Photography).
COMMENTARY FOUR: THE CAST, featuring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Liv Tyler, Sean Astin, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, and Sean Bean.
There’s no way to convey the wealth of information you’ll gain from listening to all four commentaries. I can say that each has its own personality. The first one feels intimate, due in large part to the fact that you’re listening to only three people for the entire time. Peter is exactly what we’ve become familiar with from everything we’ve seen over the last few years. Keenly intelligent, always seeming to be just on the verge of making a joke, and passionate without ever becoming overheated, he makes a great case for his film. Even Jeffrey Wells, The Most Hideous Man Alive, would have to be impressed by the way all three collaborators discuss the art of the adaptation. Fran Walsh is like Peter’s other half, just as focused and clear about the goals of the film as he is. For fanboys, I’m betting the real highlight of this particular track will be the intense crush they develop on Philippa Boyens after listening to her bright, slightly teasing enthusiasm bubble up in a soft caress of a New Zealand accent. Three and a half hours with her in your ear is enough to drive you to distraction, particularly because she seems to be mad in love with the material. Anyone with this much passion for something becomes more appealing to me.
The Design Team track is great because it features quite a bit of the Mad Genius of WETA, Richard Taylor. I have grown to be an enormous Richard Taylor fan as I’ve listened to this disc and watched all the documentaries (which we’ll get into later), but there’s no denying it: this man is deeply off his nut. He’s daft. Touched. There’s no other way to explain the scale of the ideas he put forward to solve each of the problems that arose in bringing these books to life. He’s like Wile E. Coyote, but everything he designs works. He also sounds like Robin Leach after swallowing a thesaurus. I genuinely love the way he doesn’t just say, “Well, this is how we did this.” Nope. Not Taylor. Whenever he moves on to a new subject, he hypes it up like PT Barnum. “I knew when I first heard of the enormous opportunity given to us by the illustrious and brilliant Peter Jackson that it would take the single greatest effort ever made by film artists to do justice to the absolute perfection of the work of the untouchably great JRR Tolkien. I assembled a team of the greatest artists currently working in film, and together we created the single greatest workshop ever, where we turned out roughly 500 bazillion individual makeups and miniatures and costumes and armor and swords and other assorted items in the greatest adventure ever shared by anyone in this industry ever.” Coming from anyone else, it would be intolerable, but Taylor’s so goddamn charming about it, and so inarguably right when you actually start to dig into the work done on the film, that it becomes part of what makes him so much fun to listen to.
And isn’t that a large part of what we listen to these commentaries for? Personality? Anyone can put together a dry recount of events that went into the production of a film, but what the makers of this supplemental material have done so expertly is craft something that gives you a full-blown portrait of the personalities that combined into the magic that finally resulted. I’ve know the names Alan Lee and John Howe, for example, for many years now, but I’ve never had any idea what kind of men they were. Now, after seeing them and listening to them and hearing about the enormous craft that each of them brought to the project, I’ve got a totally different picture of them, one that’s both more personal and that also places them in the proper professional perspective. They’re not just names anymore. They’re people, proud of what they’ve done and just as amazed by it as we are.
There’s a great thing they’ve done here for the commentaries that helps make the experience far more enjoyable than some overstuffed commentaries in the past. In the letterboxing at the top of the screen, there’s always a caption to identify who’s speaking at any given time. When you’ve got the comments of 13 people intercut, that’s crucial, and one would think logical. Still, it looks like an innovation, no matter how obvious an idea it is, and it’s used to perfection here. It spoiled me. I want and expect the same from other discs now.
My absolute favorite of the commentaries is the one that features the cast. It shouldn’t be a surprise... it is, after all, the difference between listening to professional performers and behind-the-scenes artisans. The cast is just as engaging and charismatic here as they are in the film. Obviously, not everyone was recorded at the same times, but it sounds like the Hobbits were together, based on the genial interplay between them. They talk about how they bonded, how they entertained each other on the sets, how they started to take on the roles they were playing in terms of their dynamics with each other. Sean Astin, in particular, talks about how he appointed himself the caretaker of Elijah while in New Zealand, always ready to step in and take care of things so that Elijah could simply enjoy himself. When you have an experience like this one, something that took place over 15 months of location work, these people become your family, your whole world. The enormous affection between them is impossible to miss. The way they tell stories about each other is very funny, particularly Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies, who seem to both have issues arising from a boating accident in which the Dwarf claims to have been sunk by the Elf, who claims that it was the Dwarf’s fault they both got wet. The Dwarf takes particular delight in recounting the story of another boating accident, one that also involved the Elf, in which the Dwarf played no part at all, as if it proves his point completely. I found myself profoundly entertained by the way people would digress, like when Ian McKellen keeps becoming distracted by the old age makeup on Ian Holm as Bilbo. McKellen keeps saying how much Holm looks like the mother of Dame Judy Densch, and every time he sees Bilbo, he comments on it again, eventually prompting himself to laugh. “She was a very... severe woman,” he says, barely able to contain himself.
And then there are the documentaries.
My god... the documentaries...
”Written, produced, and directed by Michael Pellerin.” That’s the credit for the overall production of the DVD, but there were so many people involved in putting this together that it seems unfair to single anyone out. In its own way, this supplemental section appears to have been just as intense a labor of love as the making of the film itself.
Disc One of the Appendices is called “From Book To Vision,” and it traces the development of the property over 2 ½ hours. There are four main sections: “J.R.R. Tolkien – Creator Of Middle-Earth,” “From Book To Script,” “Visualizing the Story,” and “Designing and Building Middle-Earth.” Within those sections, there are a total of nine sub-sections. There’s also an interactive atlas of Middle-Earth and a section called “New Zealand As Middle Earth” that shows you where exactly in New Zealand was used for each specific section of Tolkien’s world. The entire development process is detailed on this disc, and it really drives home the importance of a good strong pre-production on any film. If you do your work early, and you do it right, then the shoot itself is simply a matter of accomplishing the tasks you’ve already set up for yourself. Trying to imagine the overall creation of LORD OF THE RINGS as one single task is impossible, but when it’s broken down into the thousands of smaller tasks that are required, it suddenly becomes possible. And have I mentioned yet that Richard Taylor is a genius? Because he is. He’s a genius that would make most geniuses feel stupid to be around. He’s got one of those brains that simply appears to be tuned to a different radio station than anyone else. He’s absolutely hilarious to watch and listen to. He seems to simply take in stride this accomplishment that he and the WETA workshops were part of. He’s so nuts and bolts and matter of fact about it all, but you’d have to be insane not to be awed by the work these guys did. Look at Isengard and everything that went into building it, or watch the scenes of Alan Lee coming in to actually paint the Rivendell sets himself. There’s such an overriding almost maniacal love of what they’re doing and a drive to make it something you’ve never seen before.
More than anything, I get the idea this was a point of pride. These New Zealanders were going to make the films that no one else could ever hope to make, and they were going to prove once and for all that it’s not about where you make the film, it’s about who you’re working with. New Zealand is a phenomenal natural backlot for Jackson to use in creating a new fantasy landscape for viewers, and much of what we see is brand new to us. Despite having accomplished such an enormous task, there’s nothing affected about the people you see here. In the introduction to the supplemental documentaries, Peter Jackson addresses the camera directly. It was obviously shot as the introduction to this, the archival record of this amazing effort. This is the way Peter will be remembered for all time, and do you think he combed his hair or changed that one shirt we all know and love by now? Hell, I’m not entirely sure he’s even wearing shoes. He’s still exactly the same person he was at the start of all of this, and that makes me root even harder for him to pull off the next two films, making each one better than the one before it. I want RETURN OF THE KING to be a masterpiece that towers over the genre, because it feels to me like Jackson and his collaborators have earned it.
Go ahead. Watch Disc Four, “From Vision To Reality,” and try and argue with me. Tell me these people aren’t remarkable, each and every one of them. There are six major sections here: “Filming THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING,” “Visual Effects,” “Post Production: Putting It All Together,” “Digital Grading,” “Sound and Music,” and “The Road Goes Ever On...”, and the thirteen sub-sections add up to over 3 hours of material if you opt to just watch it straight through. Go watch the documentary on “Scale” and try to tell me that this isn’t one of the most ambitious and carefully crafted things you’ve ever seen. The number of different tricks they use, and the sure eye with which Peter approached each moment combine to create an illusion that is nearly seamless. I think there’s only two scale composites in the whole film that bother me, and they’re both at the Council of Elrond. For two shots to stand out when there’s literally hundreds of them in the film involving scale is a pretty remarkable thing. In both cases, all that bothered me were small lighting issues, things that betrayed the illusion to me. In most other cases, Andrew Lesnie and Brian Van’t Hul did such a remarkable job of blending the real and the not-real that it became invisible work.
I particularly love “Cameras In Middle-Earth,” a sixteen-chapter breakdown that traces the route of the Fellowship, showing you the way they shot each major set piece in the film. It’s ridiculously complete, and it’s nothing less than riveting at any point. The physical production of this film is just staggering, and each location is a separate adventure. Viggo Mortensen doesn’t appear on the commentary during the film, but he is an arresting presence here in the documentaries, both in the moments where he’s speaking and in the stories that are told about him by the rest of the cast. I thought he was remarkable in THE INDIAN RUNNER, Sean Penn’s debut as a director, and I liked him a lot in small roles in films like CARLITO’S WAY, but I never imagined Viggo as a heroic lead until FELLOWSHIP. His Aragorn is the most intensely heartfelt action hero I’ve seen in film in a long time. You know how Mel Gibson was a total raw nerve in THE ROAD WARRIOR, even with minimal dialogue? You remember the way he gradually reached out to the Feral Kid, or the way he was affected by his encounters with the people working that oil rig? Or you remember that moment in RAIDERS where Harrison Ford is sure that Karen Allen’s dead, and he finds himself drinking with Belloq, entertaining some very dangerous thoughts? It’s movie star acting, the sort of thing that goes beyond what is said. I can’t help but wonder as I watch FELLOWSHIP what would have happened if Michael Blake had hooked up with Viggo, a close friend of his, to make DANCES WITH WOLVES. His John Dunbar would have been a thing of savage glory. Seeing him laugh as he tells a story involving Frodo’s scale double and a boating trip, it’s a glimpse of a Viggo we’ve never seen onscreen before, a break from that intensity that marks all of his work. He seems to have struck up some great friendships on the film, as did each of the cast members, and one of the real kicks is hearing everybody tell stories about everybody else, but actually seeing them, as opposed to just hearing the stories. These guys love to bust each other. All of the hobbits are greatly entertained by Astin’s near-obssessive attention to safety detail. They particularly relish the story of the time he spent a full day directing helicopter traffic. Astin takes all the teasing in stride, and the one thing that shines clearly through is that these people all shared something particular and special, and no matter how hard they try to convey the weight of it all, they can’t quite. But it’s in their eyes, and on their faces, and it’s beautiful.
The section about the miniatures, or the “bigatures,” as they call them, that were involved in some of the major scenes is an eye-opener that critics of the film’s FX should be required to watch. I’ll be a lot of what you thought was CGI in the film wasn’t. I’m amazed by the models they built, and by the thought processes that went into them. Watch the section on the Argonaths. They talk about how the actual Argonaths would have been built. They worked out this elaborate process by which the cliff face was actually mined and turned into blocks which were used to build a certain section of the giant figures. When you look at the detail work that goes into this thing that is simply one sight along the journey, you can’t help but be a little humbled by just what WETA accomplished.
The technical specs on the disc are outstanding, and I played all the various soundtracks on different equipment. In the end, I think the DTS track is the warmest and most organic in design. It’s a slight degree better than the 5.1 mix, but it’s noticeable on the right equipment. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be any Macrovision encoding on the discs, which is a plus in my book. There’s always some signal loss on discs that have the copy guard turned up to high, and here, the picture is actually better than what we saw in most release prints of the movie. Splitting the movie in half allowed them to use as much storage space as possible for picture signal, and the consumer is the real winner here. For any serious fans of these films, or for the casual viewer who loves a great DVD set, this is one of the must-haves in any collection. This is not just a strong case for why FELLOWSHIP is one of the finest mainstream adventures ever produced, it’s also a testament to just how wonderful and complete this particular home video format can be.
I’m going to go write my review for FEMME FATALE now and transcribe that Johnny Knoxville interview from last week, and then I’m going to spend the rest of this week and all weekend catching up with several more installments of MORIARTY’S DVD SHELF. I’m going to be talking about titles like THE BIG KNIFE, CQ, THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER, A&E’s productions of THE LOST WORLD, LATHE OF HEAVEN, and their new release of SHAKA ZULU, SINGING IN THE RAIN and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, FINGERS, THE WRONG GUY, KOYAANISQATSI, POWAQQATSI, ONE GIANT LEAP, and a special all-anime column.
And it’s also time, I figured, to update the list of what’s coming up in the months ahead that we’re going to want to cover here on the site:
BABYLON 5: The Complete First Season
BAND OF BROTHERS
THE ITALIAN JOB
SPORTS NIGHT: The Entire Series
THE POWERPUFF GIRLS MOVIE
TO CATCH A THIEF
The Complete MONTEREY POP Festival
SOUTH PARK: The Complete First Season
STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES
GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS: SPECIAL EDITION
REIGN OF FIRE
LOVELY & AMAZING
MEN IN BLACK II
SUNSET BOULEVARD: SPECIAL EDITION
LILO & STITCH
THE PRODUCERS: SPECIAL EDITION
SERPICO: SPECIAL EDITION
MTV JACKASS, Vol. 2 & 3
BACK TO THE FUTURE: COLLECTOR’S SET
THE KING OF COMEDY
xXx: SPECIAL EDITION
ALL ABOUT EVE
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: The Complete Third Season
THE GOOD GIRL
IMITATION OF LIFE
OZ: The Complete Second Season
THE SHIELD: The Complete First Season
ABOUT A BOY
THE BOURNE IDENTITY
ONE HOUR PHOTO
THELMA & LOUISE SPECIAL EDITION
SPY KIDS 2
WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? Buena Vista Series