Suite101: Hey guys, how’s the weather down there? – Michael Martinez’ J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth

by Sep 17, 1999Lord of the Rings (Movies)

Suite 101 has posted their newest article in examining the upcoming Lord of the Rings movies. This one takes a look at the climate in New Zealand–from the ozone problem, to the occasional rainstorm, to the problems with filming at high altitudes. A very interesting article…

Hey guys, how’s the weather down there?

By Michael Martinez

Suite 101

As I write this a growing number of the actors and extras are in New Zealand getting ready for primary photography on Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Some of the actors expect to be there for 18 months. I sort of wonder how many group photos will come out of this production, and if everyone will be wearing their sunblock in all of them.

Although everyone agrees that New Zealand is a beautiful land and has a wide variety of landscapes in a relatively small area, what many people outside that region may not know is that New Zealand is one of the countries plagued by the Ozone problem. As environmentalists have been quick to point out over the years, we have foolishly flooded our waters and airs with chemicals the longterm effects of which are still being identified, and we know now that we have depleted part of Earth’s Ozone layer, especially in the southern hemisphere.

Actors for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess have to slather up in protective ointment when they are filming outdoors, and the stuff along with their makeup has to be waterproof, as there are frequent rains in the Auckland area where the two shows have mostly been filmed through the years.

I don’t think we’ll be seeing the Elves of Lorien offering the surviving members of the Fellowship vials filled with Elven sunblock, but Jackson’s makeup and special effects people will have to take the sunblock into account.

Rainstorms are not so bad for “The Lord of the Rings”. There are occasional rains in the story, so I don’t think it should matter too much if there are clouds in the sky or even the occasional drizzling mist or sudden downpour (although the best rainstorm, the one that traps the hobbits at Bombadil’s house, will sadly not be included in the movies). One must wonder how Jackson is going to portray the darkened Rohan and Gondor when Sauron’s cloud closes over them.

“Oh, that’s easy! CGI!” you say. Well, maybe not so easily. As I understand it, the CGI folks have to match the lighting sequences of the shots filmed with live actors. I don’t know how WETA’s people will do it, but George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic people used special cards with color slides on them. They’d take a shot and the CGI guys would use that to match up the lighting. Despite the many complaints I’ve heard about CGI in “The Phantom Menace”, I thought the lighting matchups were superb. I expect at least the same quality to emerge from WETA’s programming team.

But southwest New Zealand’s frequent cloud cover may prove a boon to Jackson in this department. After all, everything will be dark and shadowy if he films under cloud cover. Is it safe to do so? I suppose no one wants to be struck by a stray lightning bolt in a thunderstorm, but the Hercules and Xena folks tell me there is almost always cloud cover there. A good dark day shouldn’t be wasted. Maybe Jackson has figured the weather into his filming schedule so that he films the Rohan/Gondor sequences during the cloudiest part of the year. And there’s nothing like a wet, misty day to darken everyone’s mood. I’m not saying Method acting is the way to go, but it would help if people were already feeling dreary and gloomy when they have to film what is perhaps the gloomiest part of the story.

Weather is an important aspect of “The Lord of the Rings”, although it is seldom discussed among fans. In his superb analysis of the book (now somewhat dated), Paul Kocher writes in The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of Middle-earth:

...As for the day-by-day scenary and climate through which
his travelers move on their many journeys, no writer was
ever more constantly aware than Tolkien of all the details
of mountain, grassland, wood and swamp, of variations in
temperature, wind or calm, rain or cloud, the quality of
sunlight and starlight, the hues of each particular sunset.
He keeps our senses wide awake. Picking out at random almost
any one day during Frodo's tramp to Rivendell or Aragorn's
pursuit of the orcs, a reader is likelier than not to be
told exactly what the weather was and what their camping spot
for the night looked like....

Movies sometimes add a nice variation in weather to show the passage of time. Of course, rainstorms in the movies are often mechanically produced with water trucks and hoses, but nature is sometimes put to work to save on time and effort. There’s nothing like a good thunderstorm to provide footage of a good thunderstorm.

More difficult to work into the schedule will be snow. The only snow we actually encounter in the book is that which falls on Caradhras, the mountain the Fellowship attempts to cross to avoid going near the Gap of Rohan and Isengard. Although this is not a critical part of the story, many people expect to see it in the first movie. To get real snow on a mountain landscape Jackson may want to film the sequences during New Zealand’s winter (June through August). There is certainly real snow in New Zealand, and glaciers, but the best time for snow is usually in the winter. With mountains on both the main islands, I suppose New Zealand offers a lot of opportunities.

So Jackson may be able to use some local mountains earlier than winter, I suppose, but the higher you go the thinner the air gets and the more difficult physical exertion becomes. Taking a whole film crew up a mountainside doesn’t strike me as being a first option. The only alternatives are to fly everyone to the northern hemisphere during the other winter or to stage the mountain and snowstorm scenes in a studio. Maybe that will be more cost-effective.

Is it really vital that we see Legolas run on snow? I don’t believe so, but the snowstorm is one piece of evidence that Sauron is able to work his will hundreds of miles away from Mordor. Jackson may feel it deserves to be included in the storyline and we may therefore get to see some real New Zealand mountainscapes.

Something I have wondered about is how Jackson will handle the split story. As Frodo and Sam wander off into the east Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli head north in pursuit of the orcs who Hobbit-napped Merry and Pippin. The weather these three groups experience is different. Frodo and Sam run into another rainstorm. Aragorn and the others enjoy bright sunshine. This is a quite realistic effect. Storms don’t cover the entire world. I’ve read that at any given moment there are around 160 active storms around the Earth. Ulmo and his people have a lot of work cut for them!

In fact, it’s my understanding that there is less rain in the northern parts of New Zealand than in the south. So, Jackson could shoot the different parts of the movie as he pleases, or he could set up two primary filming units to shoot concurrently. This would require leaving much of the primary action in the hands of a second director, and I suppose few directors would be willing to do this. Normally a second unit only films characters and action sequences where the primary actors aren’t featured (stunt doubles or stand-ins may be involved, or just extras and/or stunt actors).

What would be the value of separate filming units? After all, they could film all the Shire scenes before they start working on Rivendell and leave Gondor, Rohan, and Mordor for last. But psychologically the characters will be widely separated from one another and the actors would be widely separated as well. Does it really make sense to keep Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) hanging around the set as Stuart Townshend (Aragorn), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), and Orlando Bloom (Legolas) meet the Riders of Rohan, Gandalf (Ian McKellan), the Ents, and fight their way from the Hornburg to Minas Tirith and then to the Morannon?

Frodo and Sam have their own story to tell, and they really need to be addressed separately as if they had their own movie, in my opinion. Of course, one solution is to jumble the story sequence a little. Keep everyone together in the first film and take the action up to the death of Boromir and Frodo’s flight. Then follow Aragorn and the others through the second movie and finish up with Sam, Frodo, and whomever joins them in the end.

I can hear people screaming, “Nooooo!!!” across the bandwidth now. I don’t think that’s how the movies will be handled, but it could easily be done that way. The sequences with just Sam and Frodo could be left for filming last (so, really, the ending would have to be filmed way before the end).

The vast differences in landscapes present a major challenge, too. Assuming only for the sake of discussion that all portions of the book would be included in the films, Jackson would have to show four forests before getting the Hobbits to Rivendell, three more before getting Sam and Frodo to the pass of Cirith Ungol, no less than five rivers, three lines of hills, two or three separate parts of the same mountain chains for two different chains of mountains, and a plethora of small woods, hills, villages, farms, and several Numenorean cities before everyone gets back together again.

As much attention as has been focused on casting the actors, fans seem to have overlooked just how much casting for the lanscape will occur. What little information has trickled out about various locations is just the tip of the iceberg, unless Jackson plans to make radical alterations in Middle-earth’s geography. Who will bring to light the first pictures of Fangorn’s forest? Where will Caras Galadhon, undoubtedly to be constructed mostly through models and CGI, be framed against? Will anyone pass through the valleys to be used for the Hornburg and Dunharrow’s villages and realize these are the locations?

We only get a really close look at Minas Tirith, so obviously Jackson will be most concerned about setting up that city, but he’s also going to have to show Ethring, where Aragorn joined forces with Angbor the Fearless and part of Gondor’s southern army (unless we are not treated to Legolas’ and Gimli’s account of how they got to Minas Tirith). Pelargir’s harbor filled with hundreds of ships and boats will also have to be shown, and the Army of the West will have to march through the ruins of Osgiliath. And surely we’ll be allowed to look over Frodo’s shoulder as he stares in horror at the dead city of Minas Morgul?

How much will the actors get to see, and how much will they see only in the finished movie? Hopefully, they’ll all watch it, although some actors try not to view their movies when they are done. It would be a shame if any of these folks honor that tradition. But then, they would be left with the magic of Middle-earth as envisioned in their minds. And that, for some, is the greatest magic of all.

So maybe the luckiest people of all will be those who act in the movies and never see them. They will have been to the real Middle-earth, sunblock and all, and when they sail over Sea at last, with them will depart for ever the last living memories of the Elder days.

Until the next movies are made….


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