THROUGH THE COVID LENS: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Reassessing “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in the Age of Coronavirus
Few movies have cemented their place equally in both pop culture and cinema history like “The Lord of the Rings” (LOTR). On December 19, 2001, the first installment — “The Fellowship of the Ring” (FOTR) — was released and immediately became a world-wide phenomenon.
The rare triple “P” winner — popular, profitable, and praised — FOTR is based on the mega-bestseller of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien and scripted for the screen by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, & Peter Jackson.
Shot entirely in New Zealand by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, LOTR transformed the country from the sleepy cousin of Australia to a massive tourist destination and bonafide film production location. Much of the shire set still stands and is a major attraction.
The film stars a combination of then-unknown actors and established Hollywood talent with prominent movie poster placement going to Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Liv Tylor, and Cate Blanchett. Also among the large cast are Ian Holm, Orlando Bloom, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Sean Astin, and Andy Serkis.
On a budget of $93 million, LOTR went on to gross over $891 million dollars. It spawned a prequel trilogy and a forthcoming television series. It ranks among the best films of its decade, the best films of this century so far, and among the 100 best films ever made.
From the meticulous bucolic beauty of The Shire to the groundbreaking CGI of Gollum, LOTR is filled with unforgettable scenes and special effects. Few scenes, however, have the gravity of the Council of Elrond scene. This is the scene where The Fellowship is formed, and the movie earns its subtitle.
Let’s take a look at this pivotal scene with an eye towards COVID-19 safety. There were nine members of The Fellowship, but we will be breaking this scene study into three sections:
- Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
- Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
- Strategies to increase safety
This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected the Council of Elrond scene from FOTR. Let’s begin by looking at the ways this scene is already safe.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe
When Peter Jackson shot this scene on a soundstage in New Zealand in late 1999, he was not thinking of COVID-19 safety. And yet, there are several aspects of this scene that minimize exposure and the spread of the coronavirus. We would like to highlight two:
- Location Control
- Cast Spacing
Let’s take a quick look at each one of these and see how they increase safety.
With the cooperation of the entire country of New Zealand, Peter Jackson had more than location control; he practically had country control. He had the government’s full cooperation and was able to shoot anywhere he wished. The government even created a Minister for the Lord of the Rings to develop a full-fledged tourism strategy to capitalize on the movie before its release.
When filming in a pandemic, we must create bubbles around our sets. Filming in a remote location where everyone is flown in can make it easier to create these bubbles. If filming this movie today, Peter Jackson could rather easily create a bubble around his entire production. Similar scenarios of production-wide bubbles cropped up in Australia at the height of the pandemic.
For the Council of Elrond scene, Jackson shot on a soundstage which is a great way to gain even more location control. Soundstages allow productions to restrict access to only essential personnel. Shooting on location can often mean dealing with uninvited guests, crowds and splitting the space with other businesses.
By shooting in New Zealand and on a soundstage, Peter Jackson was able to control his location, and, in so doing, was able to make FOTR safer.
The Council of Elrond includes less than 20 characters seated in a large circle. The spacing in this scene is very good for COVID-19 safety. Characters rarely interact directly with each other. Instead, they speak across the circle. This allows the production to maintain good social distancing throughout most of the scene.
Distancing is improved further by using forced perspective and CGI to make the Hobbits and Dwarves appear smaller than the other characters. Jackson used practical, in-camera effects whenever possible, so for some of the shots of the “smaller” characters, the actors were set farther back in the frame to make them look shorter.
By blocking the scene in a circle with little physical interaction between the characters and using forced perspective, Jackson and company created a good deal of social distancing on set, increasing the scene’s safety.
Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks
There are, however, many aspects to this scene that could be problematic to film during this pandemic. We would like to talk about two elements that have sneaky effects on safety:
- Practical Effects
Soundstages are often safer than shooting on location. But they do come with two potential downsides:
- Air Flow: Sound stages are indoors, and indoors is riskier than outdoors. Without the proper ventilation systems in place, shooting on a soundstage could increase the chances of contamination.
- Cramped Quarters: No scene involves only the actors. There is always a crew, and during a pandemic, we must account for them as well. On a soundstage, there is only so much space, and large crews can lead to cramped quarters.
The crew in this scene is especially noteworthy because of a practical effect that few tend to notice. While this scene was indeed shot on a soundstage, it appears to be filmed outside. A major reason for this: the leaves constantly falling throughout the scene.
To achieve this effect, several crew members were positioned just above the frame of the shot and instructed to drop leaves at random intervals. Visually this is amazing, but from a safety perspective, it adds more people in a closed space.
Jackson’s love of practical effects is commendable and adds tangible visuals to this epic film. In a pandemic, however, practical effects tend to increase personnel on set and therefore increase the risk of the scene.
Let’s look at how we might make this scene a little safer.
Strategies to Increase Safety
FOTR is an unimpeachable classic that remains unrivaled even today. We do not want to change a thing.
If we were tasked with filming the Counsel of Elrond scene today, we would highlight this scene during preproduction and work with the creative team to devise strategies that mitigate the risks.
Some questions we might ask to assist the production in its effort to increase safety would include:
- Can we film this outside? With such amazing support from the government of New Zealand—and so many jaw-dropping, beautiful places to choose from—could we find an outdoor location that works for this scene? By going outside, we would maximize airflow and minimize the chances of spreading the virus.
- Could we use a virtual set? A virtual set would allow for the forest surrounding our cast to come alive without the need for additional crew members hovering above the set. It could also reduce the number of lighting crew members. The fewer people on set, the safer a set tends to be.
- Can we further increase cast spacing? By putting more distance between our lead actors and the near-extras in this scene, we can make our stars safer. This also increases overall production safety by ensuring that our leads remain available to work as often as possible.
- Can we limit the number of wide shots? The only time all of the actors are required on set is for the shots that include everyone. By reducing the number of times we require everyone to appear on set, we can maximize distancing and limit crowding. This will make this scene even safer.
- Can we integrate masks into the costumes? We would highly recommend that the actors whose faces are not on camera be masked. If we only see the backs of their heads in a shot, can we have them masked in a way that makes the mask invisible from the back, perhaps by integrating it into the costume?
These questions would put the production on a path that leads to increased pandemic safety. That is why it is important that productions onboard risk managers during pre-production. Risk managers can help creative teams maintain their visual style and shot lists while also increasing safety.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” ushered in a new era of motion capture technology. It set the standard for epic filmmaking for a generation and showed Hollywood that shooting three films at once was possible.
In December of 2001, FOTR brought in over $163 million in less than two weeks. Its special effects—along with the beauty of New Zealand—blew us away. Its legacy lives on in countless Halloween costumes, pilgrimages to Hobbiton, and homes built to match the magic of The Shire.
In 2001, however, there was no COVID-19. In the face of this unprecedented pandemic, FOTR might need a few tweaks to keep everyone safe. Shooting outdoors or on virtual sets (which didn’t exist in 2001), increasing spacing, decreasing the number of wide shots, and masking all actors not on camera would go a long way to make this pivotal moment a much safer one.
Join us next time when we look through the COVID lens at a dark, allegorical, post-apocalyptic nativity story: “Children of Men.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
UPDATED: This article was updated on May 13, 2022.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.