A Shimmering Hideout

Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mordor is interrupted when Rangers from Gondor capture them. The Rangers take the Hobbits to a honeycombed network of caves hidden by a roaring waterfall. The set, which consisted of caves elevated some 30' from the ground, incorporated a live waterfall cascading past a large opening in the cliff. "You couldn’t hear yourself think!" Lesnie recalls. "For the shot in which the Rangers first bring Frodo and Sam into the cave, we fired 20Ks through the waterfall, creating a high-speed, shimmering effect," Lesnie says. "To ensure that the effect would carry to the interior of the caves, I provided an ambient soft, cool light. When we did pickups for that sequence, more than a year later, we recreated the shimmering pattern without water, using spinning mirrors through diffusion material instead."

The leader of the Rangers is Faramir, whose unit is assigned to protect the borders of Gondor; he is also seeking answers to the death of his ill-fated brother, Boromir. Given that the ensuing scenes between Faramir and Frodo are a very intense part of the story, Lesnie kept the shadow areas in the cave quite dense. "Faramir realizes that the answer to his brother’s death is sitting in front of him," he says. "At the same time, Frodo has reached a critical period in his relationship with the Ring."

Deep in the Night

Helm’s Deep is a fortress constructed at the end of a deep ravine. Across the ravine runs the 24'-high Deeping Wall, the Deep’s main defense against attack. The nighttime battle between 10,000 Uruk-hai and the 500 defenders, which is the centerpiece of The Two Towers, took four months of night shoots to accomplish, and there were also day scenes depicting the arrival of refugees from attacks by Saruman’s forces. For the filmmakers, two critical issues were the sheer scale of the sequences and the fact that the battle takes place at night. "Our research showed that very few big film battles have been staged at night," Lesnie recalls with a laugh. "The biggest slab of the night shoots were done by the second unit, directed by John Mahaffie and photographed by John Cavill."

Full-scale exterior sets, including the Deeping Wall, a façade of the Hornburg Castle and the front courtyards, were built in a quarry north of Wellington. Parts of the wall and the castle were also constructed as a forced-perspective set, with the full-size wall curving away to a 1/4-size scale model of the castle, which Lesnie says "was still quite huge. Production designer Grant Major incorporated many of the quarry’s natural rock formations in the placement of his sets. Brian Bansgrove, second-unit gaffer Stewart Sorby and I worked out the logistics of the lighting and power placement, and we also had safety lighting in place."

Given the complexity of the set construction and the logistics of staging a night battle involving hundreds of dark-clad extras, some previsualization was required. "The entire sequence was very carefully storyboarded, because we knew that we were going to have to break it down," Lesnie says. Weta Workshop built a fully rendered, 100-square-foot model of Helm’s Deep that was utilized by Lesnie and Cavill to establish an overall look to the sequences through extensive lighting tests. It was important to Lesnie that the battle be depicted with strong definition. "I didn’t want to lose the detail of the battle. I wanted to keep the darkness for the mood, but the audience needs to see the battle’s brutality. Helm’s Deep was an opportunity to make a point about the barbarity of the Uruks, who are intent on complete genocide."

With strong moonlight as the motivation, Lesnie used overexposed backlight to render the ferocity of the battle in striking detail. He used large sources that could also be moved quickly: a Musco light, three 50-ton cranes supporting 18Ks, and track booms mounted with Dinos gelled with 1/2 CTB. In addition, there were practical fires, flaming torches and braziers. The battle scenes were shot uncorrected, providing Lesnie with the stops he needed, typically T2.8 1/2 to T4.5. During digital grading, he pulled back the blue while retaining a cool look.

The sets weren’t the only large items in use at Helm’s Deep, however. "We had an 80-foot crane that was built in New Zealand," Lesnie recalls. "Because the sets were so big, we built the rails for the crane on top of 20 containers stacked two high. This meant we were able to start a shot in front of the main wall and, while major fighting was going on, crane over the top of those guys and push on another 30 or 40 feet right up to where Théoden was directing the battle." Achieving the shot practically, rather than creating it as a digital move, was important to Lesnie. "It’s not so clear-cut what are effect shots and what are real," he states.

Marshalling the Dead

The Dead Marshes are an extensive, exposed plain that Frodo, Sam and Gollum must cross on their journey to Mordor. The Marshes are doubly treacherous – if an unsuspecting traveler takes one wrong step, he sinks like a stone, and the area is also haunted by the souls of dead Orcs, Men and Elves who fought a battle there long ago. Small wonder, then, that Lesnie sought to imbue the Marshes with a mystical feel. "While the Dead Marshes are an eerie environment, I didn’t want those sequences to be insipid or clichéd, but rather uncomfortable and ominous," he explains. "Anyone who walks through the Dead Marshes is prone to fall under the influence of the trapped souls, which Frodo does briefly. We therefore depicted the Marshes as a misty, unnatural environment, with sunlight weakened by the atmosphere. In the grading, Peter and I ran a slight amount of magenta through those scenes as well."

Lesnie emphasizes that unit cinematographers Cavill, Richard Bluck, Allen Guilford, Alun Bollinger, Simon Raby and Nigel Bluck were invaluable collaborators on The Two Towers, just as they had been on The Fellowship of the Ring. "When you have a good group atmosphere, you start to come up with a lot more exciting ideas," he says.

"There aren’t many projects that give you the opportunity to examine your craft with this type of storytelling," Lesnie concludes. "Peter Jackson has a very clear idea of where he wants to go with the trilogy, and he provides his key people with the opportunity to contribute to that direction. When you have a hand in the storytelling, it encourages you to rise to the occasion."


Super 35mm 2.35:1

Arriflex, Moviecam and Mitchell cameras

Zeiss and Angenieux lenses

Kodak EXR 50D 5245, Vision 200T 5293, Vision 500T 5279, SO 214

Digital Intermediate
Scanning/Recording by Weta Digital
Digital Film Grading by The PostHouse AG

Printed on Fuji 3513D

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© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.