Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power debuted on Friday, September 1st, reaching more than 240 countries and territories worldwide. The eight-part series streamed new episodes each week, taking viewers into an epic world set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit" and “The Lord of the Rings” books.
It was an era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory, and later fell to ruin. Beginning in a time of relative peace, The Rings of Power follows an ensemble cast of characters — representing elves, trolls, dwarves, and humans — as they confront the long-feared reemergence of evil to Middle-earth.
The series is led by showrunners and executive producers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, and stars Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Robert Aramayo, Owain Arthur, Maxim Baldry, Nazanin Boniadi, Morfydd Clark, Ismael Cruz Córdova, Charles Edwards, Trystan Gravelle, Sir Lenny Henry, Ema Horvath, Markella Kavenagh, Tyroe Muhafidin, Sophia Nomvete, Lloyd Owen, Megan Richards, Dylan Smith, Charlie Vickers, Leon Wadham, Benjamin Walker, Daniel Weyman, and Sara Zwangobani.
PRODUCER RON AMES
Ron Ames is one of the show’s producers and sees The Rings of Power as a new type of production that bridges both feature film and television formats.
“It’s this hybrid form,” says Ames, whose credits include The Aviator,
Real Steel. “It is theatrical production — streaming. I think we represent that. I think some of the other shows —
Game of Thrones — represent a new form of filmmaking, which is not TV and it’s not a feature film. It has its own unique cadence, quality, and storytelling, because there are three acts created for each hour and then [they] flow into the other.”
Collectively, the series spanned 385 shoot days (214 main unit, 126 second unit, 45 splinters), representing 786 hours of footage and 24,659 takes.
“That’s a lot of material,” says Ames, who equates it to four two-hour features.
Production took place in New Zealand and visual effects tasks were distributed to a number of studios throughout the world, including ILM and Weta. Employing a cloud workflow was the only way to make the production and post possible.
“It was a vision from the beginning,” says Ames of the workflow. “We wanted to be cloud-based. I said, ‘Can I have unlimited Amazon storage and connectivity?’ And they said, ‘Yes!’ We had a full cloud-based production, so what that meant was, everything from camera originals were pushed to the cloud daily. We had servers, but the servers only were a place for stuff to go and then [get] pushed directly to the cloud.”
Metadata was also tracked from beginning to end.
“We had every piece of metadata, from visual effects, script supervisor, on-set DIT, onto the camera systems, everything went into the headers of the footage and never left. So all along, through post production, we knew every piece of data and that could be shared with any of our vendors — both on the post side and on the visual effects side.”
The production made use of Ncam’s Reality camera-tracking technology, which provides realtime previsualization of environments, set extensions, and CGI elements directly in-camera while shooting.
“While we were shooting, the director of photography and a cameraman could actually see those backgrounds, and the actors could see those backgrounds,” he explains. “So while we didn’t have an LED wall, we had Ncam playing back, in realtime, the backgrounds. That’s what we used to do thousands of temps. When we were editing and the showrunners were looking at stuff, we were temping it as we went. We did thousands of temps using basically another form of virtual production, just not an LED wall.”
This way of working, with realtime previews and a global talent pool, all sharing media, is what Ames describes as “a dream come true” — and not one that’s solely reserved for big-budget productions.
“If you were an independent film — and I have done small features with visual effects — you could use the same systems,” he explains. “You do not have to be of a production of this size to benefit from this material. It is a new world because everybody now is working in this hybridized form…I believe this is modern filmmaking…Everybody worked as a singular team. It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, we’re going to finish it and you’ll get it.’ There was no silo-ing. I think the process, to me, is as exciting as the result.”
VFX SUPERVISOR JASON SMITH
ILM’s Jason Smith served as the film’s visual effects supervisor and says one of the first things he did, along with the showrunners, was map out the show and brainstorm on how they were going to meet its visual effects needs.
“In some of those first weeks, Ron [Ames] and I stood at a white board, with our [list of] vendors that we wanted to work,” he recalls. “And we just started listing the beats that we thought each one would be good at.”
Many studios, he points out, have the supervision and artistic skills to pull off difficult work. However, for The Rings of Power, the volume of shots required would present an additional challenge.
“To pull off work at scale, with a large number of shots at a high, high quality bar and high difficulty — difficult creature work as a good example, or difficult environment, or especially difficult simulation work, like water and things like that — those kind of tasks, when you read them in the script, you can almost immediately start thinking of certain vendors.”
ILM, Weta, Method, DNEG, Rodeo FX, Rising Sun Pictures, Atomic Fiction, and Creative Cantina all brought expertise to the project.
“It’s literally like making an eight-hour blockbuster,” says Smith, who worked on the original Transformers,
The Avengers, and
Pirates of the Caribbean, but had yet to work on a streaming series.
“I come from a background of big films, so I’m used to doing 2,000 shots. That’s been my experience. And to come on to this one and have four times that amount percolating around…It’s been a new experience for me, I have to tell you.”
One reoccurring effect that was needed for the series was that of a vast ocean. In Episode 3, Galadriel (an elf) and Halbrand (a human) are rescued from a raft during a storm and attack, and in Episode 5, a fleet of sailing ships prepare for an expedition from Númenor to Middle-earth.
“We knew we had to generate a way of creating oceans that was reliable and repeatable,” explains Smith. “We went out and shot aerial plates of oceans, and marine plates of oceans, knowing that some of those would be plates in the show, of course. But we also knew that we were going to shoot dozens of these plates that would only be reference for Industrial Light and Magic, who we chose to handle most of the water work on the show.”
According to Smith, ILM has a very strong effects sim department, good tools, and a strong VFX supervisor in Nigel Sumner.
Weta also was a valuable contributor, having worked on the original The Lord of the Rings films and the demonic monster Balrog.
“There’s some spiritual continuity in having them pick up some of that, and we really respected that opportunity,” says Smith of Weta’s work. “A lot of the crew from Weta and other vendors got their start on The Fellowship of the Ring, so this was their return to Middle-earth. It wasn’t their first time, so it was fun hearing a lot of the stories from people about working on the original Balrog.”
And Cantina Creative immediately came to mind when Smith says they were considering vendors for the map sequences, which serve as transitions, taking viewers across the fictional world. The studio has expertise in creating heads-up displays, having worked on Free Guy,
The Avengers: Endgame,
“We had areas where we would start in one geographic location, the camera flies up and we see that we’re traveling across the landscape,” says Smith of the map sequences. “We tell the audience, we’re going over this point…We immediately thought of Cantina Creative. It’s a visual storytelling. It’s kind of a symbolic storytelling and a little bit like a heads-up display. It’s telling the audience, we’re going from here to here. It needs to look realistic, but not in-story.”
The different kingdoms also presented their own unique challenges. The dwarves live in an underground mountain kingdom of Khazad-dûm, while the elves reside in the kingdom of Valinor. Númenor is an island kingdom of men, with stunning stone architecture and waterfalls.
“It’s a whole civilization that we haven’t seen yet on the screen,” says Smith of Númenor. “And it’s got a rich history…with a whole new culture, art, and architecture. And we had to build it in a way that it really felt like a real place. That was maybe the one that really became a challenge to me.”
Smith says it was hard to wrap his head around the scale of the island, likening it to New York City — a massive metropolis, but in a medieval time period.
“The first designs we were trying, and some initial sketches, I remember thinking to myself, ‘This looks like a theme park map!’ It’s nothing that the artists were doing wrong. It’s just that it’s so hard to think about the actual scale...You have to keep reminding yourself: It’s miles, not feet! It’s blocks, not buildings.”
Smith has been involved in VFX-heavy projects that have incorporated LED volumes and virtual production techniques, including assisting on the first season of The Mandalorian at ILM. Surprisingly, The Rings of Power went a different route.
“Obviously, that’s an amazing technology,” he says of LED volumes. “While I was on that show, I really was able to get up to speed on how it was built and then see the volume and operation…so I [had] a very good idea of how it works, when it works and how it’s used, coming into this project.”
When the team looked at the work they’d be shooting, it became clear that they wouldn’t be able to amortize the cost of building an LED stage.
“The fact that you have to source the panels, and build it, and get the crew and all that stuff...Nothing was off the table at the beginning, but we did realize, to make it worth it, there’s a certain critical mass you have to reach. I do feel confident it was the right choice for the show, for the content that we had in Season 1, for sure. An LED wall can be an advantage, but it can also be a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of developing all of those different assets in time for filming. A lot of these environments came together in the weeks after.”
Marc Loftus is the Editor-in-Chief of CGW’s sister publication, Post.
Images courtesy of Prime Video