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In the Rings

Andrew Lesnie’s Second Round

Lesnie altered his method of lighting eyes for the second LOTR film.Top, a more “fantastical” approach on the first film, and bottom, a”grittier” approach.

Andrew Lesnie insists he was “shocked” to learn he hadwon the Academy Award for cinematography earlier this year for his workon Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. Lesnie, like manyprognosticators, fully expected Roger Deakins to win the award forThe Man Who Wasn’t There. He says the only reason he even“mustered” words for a thank-you speech during the Oscarswas the fact that he wanted to pay tribute to his late friend andcolleague on the project, chief lighting technician Brian Bansgrove,who passed away in Thailand last December just as Fellowship wasreleased.

Lesnie insists that Bansgrove and his crew were “the keyelement” in helping him craft images for all three Lord of theRings films during a marathon, 15-month shoot between mid-1999 andlate 2000.

“Brian was my main reason for winning [the AcademyAward],” says Lesnie. “His contribution was so important.You have to remember, we had a massive prep period before we evenstarted shooting, knowing we were going to film three moviessimultaneously. During that period, Brian and I meticulously designedthe lighting for every single set for the entire project. There weresome changes made along the way, of course, depending on weather andperformances and story changes and things, but Brian was an extremelyclose collaborator in designing and pre-rigging lighting. Along withthe digital grading process in post, that lighting scheme is the mostimportant tool we are using to create subtle differences in the overalllook of the three films.”

Subtle Differences

Lesnie recently spoke to Millimeter after completing hiscolor-grading responsibilities for the second film in director PeterJackson’s trilogy — The Two Towers — and just beforeheading off to shoot an independent, Australian film (Love’sBrother, directed by Jan Sardi). He detailed those “subtledifferences” that he feels will give the new LOTR film a“feel” slightly different from its award-winningpredecessor, The Fellowship of the Ring.

One key difference, he concedes, is the fact that The TwoTowers was entirely digitally mastered in New Zealand at Posthouse,under the supervision of colorist and Posthouse president Peter Doyle.While the extensive effects sequences on Fellowship had beenmastered digitally, the entire movie was not. Lesnie says the processhas improved sufficiently in the last year to make it logisticallyfeasible to digitally master all of Two Towers, leading to,according to Lesnie, “a sharper look and finer grain.”(For details on the digital mastering work done on the film, see“The Right Timing,” p. 50.)

“This time, the whole thing is mastered digitally, and thatmeans we avoided the generation loss that we saw when we made over2,000 release prints of the first film,” he says. “We werea little disappointed by the generation loss in some of those prints.We discovered that if you digitally grade the entire film 100%, doingthe squeeze of the super 35mm images digitally, rather than optically,the result is less degradation of the image in your release prints. Wedid extensive tests and eventually figured out this was the best way togo.”

At the same time, Lesnie insists that the detailed shooting plan forevery scene of each movie was the biggest reason Two Towers isnot visually identical to its predecessor, even though they were shotat the same time. That plan, he explains, grew out of Jackson’screative approach to the three films and, for the most part,“worked beautifully,” according to Lesnie.

“We never wanted the three films to look identical,” hesays. “We knew we could experiment, fine-tune, and change certainthings in post, because we had greater control with the digitalmastering process [see “Color Control,” p, 59], andthat was a great help. Still, the firm plan that we developed inpre-production was even more crucial. We didn’t do much of it withfilters — it was all a matter of a detailed lighting plan. Thefirst film was meant to be the most fantastical of the three, as wemeet the characters and their strange world — elements of purefantasy as we see Hobbit Town and the Elvish Kingdom, and places likethat. The second film plunges the characters into war, so we wantedThe Two Towers to look grittier, and more realistic. Therefore,for the scenes we shot for this film, we tended to use more aggressivelighting, and let the whole thing look grainier. We haven’t startedmastering the third film yet, but I fully expect it will look even moreaggressive.”

Shaking Things Up

Lesnie emphasizes that the use of “more aggressivelighting” is a “fairly subtle adjustment, not somethingmeant to be blatant.” But he does insist it will have an impacton how audiences perceive the film.

“In the first film, we were meticulous about scenes showingfaces, dealing with eye light,” he explains. “Everyone hadas much eye light as we could manage. In the second film, we let thatissue slide selectively, depending on the scene, but subtly lightingthe eyes differently. The point was to get across this notion thatthings are starting to get out of control. It’s a method of degradingthe image in-camera, taking a beautiful image and defacing it a bit,making it dirtier. Of course, this was a huge project, so for the mostpart, Brian tried to create lighting setups that were all-purpose, butat the same time, it’s easy to increase or decrease shadowy areas, asnecessary, and we did that quite a bit.”

Lesnie adds that he also took pains to rate his film stock (mainlyKodak 500T/5279) in such a way as to further degrade certain shots inTwo Towers, as well as “creating situations” thatpermitted his camera operators to slightly shake the camera without theeffect appearing to be deliberate.

New Zealand’s countryside captured on film by Lesnie’scamera crew during the trilogy’s 15-month shoot.

“Rather than telling the operator to shake something up, wewould sometimes shake the lights,” he says. “At othertimes, I would tell the operator to stand back with a 200mm lens andget the camera as steady as he possibly can. Then, I’d make him standthere for five or 10 minutes, knowing it’s impossible to stay perfectlystill for that long, and eventually, whether he wanted to or not, therewould be a different effect — an effect of slight, subtle shakingas he struggles to keep from moving. I think that is a more honesteffect than telling him to shake the camera.”

Lesnie was expecting a less-complicated shoot for Love’sBrother, but then again, that was scheduled to be only a seven-weekjob. When that ends, it’s back to the universe of The Lord of theRings, as he’ll get started working with Jackson and Doyle tocolor-grade the third LOR film — Return of the King— due for release about a year from now.

“After that, I’ll probably stick with smaller movies for alittle while,” he chuckles. “When I came on board, Ithought [Lord of the Rings] would be about a six-to eight-monthcommitment. I guess I was a little off on that calculation, but that’sOK. It’s all been very exciting for me — I have an Oscar sittingin my kitchen right now, believe it or not.”


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