Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ innovated CGI cinema for a generation

Every week, Ultimate Movie Year looks back into the past to highlight the best film that came out that weekend.

“The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring”
Released Dec. 19, 2001
Directed by Peter Jackson

Why does the first film of The Lord of the Rings trilogy deserve inclusion in the Ultimate Movie Year? Because it changed what you can do with cinema.

To begin, I am a film buff; nay, a film enthusiast. I have seen thousands of movies in my life, which is a lot for somebody not paid to do it. Over that time, I believe the best films I’ve seen and have stayed in my memories are the ones that engage me with something new. The thrill of discovering something you’ve never seen before, a wavelength you’ve never ridden, in a dark theater filled with strangers connecting at the same moment is a feeling that keeps me coming back to the movies again and again.

That is how I felt watching “Fellowship of the Ring,” the first film of Peter Jackson’s magnificent Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Let’s back up a century. Fantasy, of course, has been an essential genre in film since its very beginning, when director George Méliés created “A Trip to the Moon,” a 1902 movie featuring a group of astronauts traveling to their lunar destination to encounter a society of colorful and weird inhabitants. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you may recall seeing an iconic image from the movie, a human face on the surface of the moon with a rocket stuck in his eye. Méliés was one of the first directors to see the new medium of film to create impossible illusions on screen, using technical effects with his background in stage magic to immerse audiences in a fantastic reality. Over the next 100 years, almost all fantasy movies have relied on a combination of set design, practical effects, and matte paintings to create new worlds for filmgoers.

Enter computer-generated imagery, or CGI. As computer technology continued to advance in recent decades, it increasingly became an essential tool in filmmaking, notably in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” George Lucas saw these advancements and it gave him the confidence to make new Star Wars movies, beginning with 1999’s “The Phantom Menace.” That movie uses CGI to create new environments and even complete characters such as Jar-Jar Binks, but it also uses more set design than the latter prequels would and with traditional camera work. It was a landmark film for development, a success at the box office, but there was still something missing.

As much as “The Phantom Menace” was a step forward, Peter Jackson was ready to take it even further. Jackson and his team began working on adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s dense book trilogy four years earlier, but how can you visualize a story that contains characters of radically different heights, armies of orcs and goblins, sentient trees, massive castles and monuments, cities inside mountains, and a fire breathing demon into live action, among the many other challenges one faces with a project like this? Like his peers before him, Jackson used miniatures, matte paintings, and practical effects to realize the world of Middle Earth. In one such instance, the crew designed a set with forced perspective angles to allow actors to perform in the same scene, even though one character is literally twice the size of the other. But as impressive as these effects and illusions are, it wasn’t enough for Jackson.

CGI proved to be a key edition to the toolbox, and Jackson wasn’t the only one who used it. Within six months of the release of “Fellowship,” CGI contributed heavily to the success of the first Harry Potter Film, Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” and the next Star Wars movie from Lucas, “Attack of the Clones,” which focused much more heavily on digital environments than “The Phantom Menace.” While all of these films were successful in helping to visualize fantastic worlds that were previously thought to be unfilmable, “Fellowship” uses immersive techniques for its world-building. Mere minutes into “Fellowship’s” opening prologue, Jackson shows us the last major battle of Middle Earth and has the camera fly in, spin, and change direction like a literal bird’s eye view of the fight, as countless warriors clash on the field. Such a shot would not be possible without the use of CGI, but it was Jackson’s decision to keep the camera moving that brought audiences into the action themselves. Like “A Trip to the Moon” a century earlier, Jackson used state-of-the art effects to entrance audiences into a fantasy world that previously tested the limits of their own imaginations, and made it a reality on screen.

But of course, technical feats alone couldn’t hold the attention of filmgoers for three hours per film, but fortunately, Jackson maintained faithfulness to the story and characters of Tolkien’s series that was beloved by readers for 50 years. “Fellowship” introduces audiences to Middle Earth, a beautiful but sometimes frightening landscape with volcanoes, forests, fields, swamps, and mountains. Centuries ago, the dark lord Sauron used his ring of power to rule over all, but was defeated in battle by a army of men and elves. Years later, the presence of Sauron begins to regain his strength and calls out to his ring, which has fallen into the procession of a small Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). After learning about the dark history of the ring, Frodo volunteers himself in a mission to destroy the ring. A fellowship of other hobbits, elves, dwarfs, and men is formed to help Frodo in his journey to the ominous Mount Doom.

Considering the amount of back-story, factions, locations, and characters introduced in “Fellowship,” it’s impressive how well Jackson deftly handles the lore and pacing in the film, which for many, was their introduction into the genre of fantasy. Jackson found a compelling actor to play Frodo in Wood, whose big eyes become a window into his vulnerability, fear, courage, and determination as he finds himself drawn deeper into danger without having a clear idea of where to go next beyond his next step. The key players who join Frodo on his journey are the wise wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the virtuous warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), and Frodo’s best friend, the eternally loyal Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin). The guidance and assistance they provide to Frodo, both directly and indirectly, fundamentally change who he was to what he would become. Centering this epic story around Frodo’s relationships to these allies in particular help give this fantasy film the emotional grounding it needed to connect to audiences unfamiliar with “Dungeons and Dragons” tropes. Beyond these individuals, “Fellowship” also maximizes the limited screen time of many of the supporting characters as well, making Gimli the drawf, Legolos the elf, and hobbits Merry and Pippen immediate fan favorite characters.

Paying an equal amount of attention to character development as to the wondrous special effects that brought Middle Earth to life helped propel The Lord of the Rings films to unexpected popularity, a trilogy that has grossed nearly $3 billion worldwide and received numerous Academy Awards over the series, including a Best Picture win for 2003’s “The Return of the King.” Around the same time, the Star Wars franchise was receiving its worst reviews to date with the beleaguered prequels, as Lucas spent far more of his energy pioneering new CGI technology than creating relatable characters fans could connect to as they did with Luke, Han, and Leia. Two other franchises that focused on characterization as well was Spider-Man and Harry Potter, proving that cinematic technology must be balanced with tangible physical and emotional connections to the characters and story.

Ironically, Jackson forgot some of these lessons years later, as he returned to adapt one children’s book by Tolkien, “The Hobbit,” into three more long movies, relying more and more on CGI effects and making many of the same mistakes Lucas did with his prequels. Meanwhile, another film franchise adaption balanced both effects and characters to great success, as Marvel Studios has become the dominant film series of the modern era. I’d argue that you could see the influence of Jackson’s work on the original Lord of the Rings films as Marvel figured out ways to visualize large teams of superheroes in battle. Consider the breaking of the Fellowship near the end of the film, in which the camera tracks downward to give audiences a sense of not only the scope of a battle but also where all the heroes are in relation to each other. About a decade later, director Joss Weldon composes a similar scene using CGI visuals in “The Avengers” to follow where all the individual heroes are fighting over several blocks in New York City.

Upon release, “Fellowship of the Ring” found an immediate audience despite its long running time. The decision to film the entire trilogy of films at once proved to be brilliant as well, allowing New Line Cinema to be budget efficient and release each installment a year apart. It still remains one of the most well-regarded film trilogies of all times, and thanks to Jackson blending practical effects with CGI, its look has aged better than many of the other films of its time. Truth be told, Jackson probably still would have made a good adaption of the books by relying on the same effects filmmakers have been using for decades, but his decision to allow the camera to swoop around this world with CGI filling in the holes truly immersed audiences inside Middle Earth.

When it comes to ultimate movies, there are few better.

The Weekend: As mentioned, New Line released the next two Lord of the Rings films exactly a year apart, with “The Two Towers” opening at this time in 2002, followed by “The Return of the King” in 2003. All three films were massive successes at the box office, and also became essential DVD collections at the height of that platform’s popularity, with both theatrical and extended edition sets available for purchase. The series is also in regular rotation for cable reruns.

But hobbits and wizards aren’t the only movies to score big on the weekend before Christmas. Dustin Hoffman donned a wig and skirt in 1983’s cross-dressing farce “Tootsie,” directed by Sydney Pollack, and it became one of the most profitable and successful comedies of all time. A few years later, two more acclaimed comedies were released on the same day, as James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News” and Norman Jewison’s “Moonstruck” opened in limited release in 1987. However, their box office numbers paled in comparison to another comedy opening in wide release, “Eddie Murphy: Raw.”

In the 90s, this weekend saw the release of movies with strong Academy Award buzz, as Oliver Stone’s “JFK” opened in 1991 and Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” debuted in 1993. Acclaimed horror director Wes Craven helped revive the slasher genre with his meta “Scream” in 1996. One year later, James Cameron scored both Academy Awards and box office jackpots with 1997’s “Titanic,” the tragic romance epic with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet that became the top grossing film of all time. Cameron would top his own record a decade later, as his “Avatar” wowed audiences with its CGI and 3D effects in 2009.

As we entered into the 2010s, a beloved franchise that helped define Memorial Day movie blockbusters found a new spot on the calendar after Disney acquired it. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” relaunched the space fantasy series for a new generation on this weekend in 2015. This spot became a near lock for the Star Wars franchise over the later half of the decade, with “Rogue One” debuting here in 2016, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” opening a week earlier in 2017, and now “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” dropping in 2019. The only Disney Star Wars film to miss out on a December release was “Solo,” debuting on Memorial Day weekend in 2018. Their usual spot became an opening for another potential franchise, as “Aquaman” snuck in for the Week 51 debut in 2018.

Next Week: “There Will Be Blood”

Originally published at http://www.markciemcioch.com on December 19, 2019.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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