The rules of Randomisation:
1. Select a film on DVD. Eclectic choices are encouraged.
2. Using a random number generator, select three frames from the film. So, if the film is 100 minutes long, enter the numbers 1 and 100 into the randomiser and it will select three figures. Capture the frames which occur on the DVD on the minute mark. You might want to cut out the titles and end credits if they’re just text.
3. Use the three frames as a starting point for discussing the film. Focus on the composition of the image, the content of the frame and, if you’re familiar with it, how it might fit into the rest of the film’s narrative or visual style. The random selection of frames will hopefully force you out of habitual preoccupations and selective analysis and make you focus on points of the film you might otherwise have ignored. Sometimes the frames will be very revealing and illustrative of the film’s central themes, and sometimes they will seem inconsequential, but you will always find something to say about them, even if it wasn’t what you instinctively wanted to say about the film in the first place.
What fun for the Easter holidays. A trilogy of randomised posts, and since these are extended editions of the films, I’ll be using four frames from each instead of the usual three. The randomiser has given me frames from the start of the following minutes: 41, 115, 142 and 167. I should say that I’m not an expert on these films, nor a devoted fan, so you might find these posts arrive from an unusual and productive angle, or you might hate, hate, hate me as a result…
Middle Earth is rendered on film using a wide variety of special effects, including decorated sets, digital matte paintings and miniature models, all blended together to give the impression of a continuous, coherent environment. And yet the painterly abstraction of Mount Doom in the background, with its traditionally infernal inferences gives the distant objective a mythic status in contrast to the rubbly realism of the foreground. The composition thus effectively keeps the endpoint of the journey, and the weight of its morbid symbolism, in frame without losing sight of the step-by-step drudgery of getting there across these rocks. The integration of Gollum with his surroundings and his costars is sometimes more effective than others. Cowering all the way, his semi-digital status (by this I mean that he is comprised of a computer-generated body over a motion-captured, skeletal performance from Andy Serkis) makes him a mediator between the real and the fantasy worlds, guiding them from the profilmic real (the further they get from Hobbiton, the less green, more volcanic the terrain gets) towards their nightmarish, hallucinatory (Frodo’s vision becomes less reliable, his judgment skewed) destination.
Legolas searches for Aragorn after a battle en route to Helm’s Deep. The people of Rohan (known as the Rohirrim) are fleeing to their fortress shelter, but have been attacked by Saruman’s Wargs (like giant, leonine bull terriers). Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is looking for his comrade Aragorn, who has been dragged off a cliff during the struggle. Of course, he won’t be dead, but there’s a teasing gesture towards suspense. One of the trilogy’s main achievements is the ease with which it makes Tolkien’s inventories of peoples and places into a clear, linear, branching narrative, punctuating the interminable processions of travellers with bursts of memorable violence. The Rohirrim were a horse people, and their plight is succinctly demonstrated with the appearance of a horse’s bloody corpse in the immediate foreground. There are two many deaths, too many losses for the films to account for or mourn each and every one of them, so these visual abbreviations are useful tools for synechdochically referring to a massacre.
Another view of Gollum, this time from behind. Tricked into captivity by Frodo, his trust destroyed, he is reverting to the twisted evil persona which he seemed to have successfully banished from possession of his mind earlier in the story. Faramir is questioning him, and the slow track in on Gollum creates an encroaching sense of foreboding: this creature can turn, switch sides at any moment. At many points in the film, the camera stares into his face, reading it for every flicker of conflicted emotion; not seeing that face is frightening – what is he thinking? Which face is he pulling? Has “Gollum” usurped Sméagol as ruler of the contested body? He is the trilogy’s self-serving crack fiend, ultimately addicted to the Ring. This is one of the most successful integrations of Gollum with his background. The light from a flame to his left plays over his skin, illuminating the veins, vertebrae and muscle definition that suggest a living, breathing being with an inner life (thus misdirecting the spectator away from attributing the signs of life to algorithms and mouseclicks). His emaciated, near naked figure and bulbous cranium show how the poisoned mind has neglected all earthly concerns to live within a Plato’s Cave version of the world. It is only when he lost the Ring that he had to emerge from the cave and seek it out again, and he is constantly discomfited by being above ground in daylight. His digitality further stresses his alienation from his surroundings. Even when the illusion of integration is successful, it is not quite perfect, and the spectator might perceive a fractional disjuncture between Gollum and the ground, or a visual tension between his CG limbs and the pro-filmic co-stars with whom he fights.
It is at the climactic Battle of Helm’s Deep where the trilogy’s secret weapon comes into its own: the Massive program generates crowds of digital extras from an expansive database of motion capture information. Hundreds of performances are recorded and then applied in semi-random fashion to the little agents that play out the action onscreen. By making these avatars move with varying degrees of unpredictability, they can be imbued with signs of agency; any crowd movement that is too regimented, too routine has an air of computer programming, which is still associated with machinic, inhuman precision. The Two Towers challenges you to spot the difference between the actual extras and the digital versions, to see through the illusion to its studio-based origins. Massive will engineer even larger battle scenes in the next film, giving it the power of a deific overseer of Middle Earth’s gathered peoples. It can create sublime, horizon-stretching images of serried ranks of soldiers, and endow them all with a singular sense of purpose. Its power is therefore the fearsome force of a monominded mob.
- Lord of the Rings official site.
- Fansite The One Ring.
- Kristin Thomson’s The Frodo Franchise website.
- The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Network.
- Erik Davis, “The Fellowship of the Ring” at Wired.
- Suzanne Scott, “The Scouring of the Saga.“
- Martin Barker, “Envisaging ‘Visualisation’: Some challenges from the
- international Lord of the Rings audience project.”
- CADAIR: Lord of the Rings research at the University of Aberystwyth.
- Official Tolkien website.
- Lord of the Rings articles at The Guardian.
- Adaptation analysis at Books to Box Office.