2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
While last week’s industry-rattling announcement that Warner Bros. Pictures would release its entire 2021 film slate directly to HBO Max raised questions about the future of the theatrical experience, it also made clear to film lovers that having a quality home entertainment setup is more essential than ever. The Christmas Day release of Wonder Woman 1984 will mark the first 4K HDR, Dolby Atmos title on HBO Max, and it won’t be the last. Those experiential advancements, to which mainstream viewers are becoming more attuned, are prompting other filmmakers to ensure that their classics live up to the standards of the “living room cinema” revolution. That’s why Peter Jackson couldn’t let his Lord of the Rings trilogy sit around and collect dust.
Just in time for the holidays, Jackson, his creative team, and Warner Bros. have released new Lord of the Rings trilogy and Hobbit trilogy sets remastered for 4K UHD and Dolby Atmos. To prepare audiences who might hear “changes” and think of George Lucas’ endless process of updating the Star Wars films, Jackson recorded an introductory video explaining what exactly he’d done to his fantasy epics.
“It was interesting going back and revisiting these films because I realized how inconsistent they were,” Jackson says in the six-minute video, “and that’s really due to how the Lord of the Rings trilogy was shot.”
Each day on the original trilogy, for which principal photography was conducted over 1999 and 2000, Jackson and the team at Weta Workshop pushed the envelope of available technology. That made each individual film a unique process, despite the fact that they were all produced together. While Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King were all shot on 35mm film, Jackson completed the first movie with “old-fashioned, mechanical” color timing, a laborious photochemical process designed to perfect the colors of on-set photography. The second and third films embraced more advanced digital color timing, which gave Jackson more precision in tweaking the specific hues of each frame and sequence — but nothing compared to what he got 10 years later with The Hobbit trilogy.
Jackson captured the story of Bilbo Baggins with 4K digital cameras, and processed the images with state-of-the-art color timing. The aesthetic gaps between the two trilogies prompted the director to go back into the studio to make all the films “look as if they were shot at the same time.” He says 4K HDR remastering successfully delivered that consistency.
“The thing with 4K is not just to go for pristine sharpness,” he says, “it is to preserve the cinematic look of it at the same time as everything becoming crisp.”
The conversion to 4K HDR demanded an upgrade to many of the films’ effects shots, which began to show imperfections at the higher resolution. “Visual effects technology has advanced a lot in the last 20 years, and when they became ultra-crisp and sharp in the 4K process, we realized some of the shots weren’t holding up too well,” Jackson says. “So we got the opportunity to go back and paint out any imperfections.”
Jackson knows exactly what you’re thinking: Legolas still better shoot first! But in the video, he insists that he and Weta did not “upgrade” or “enhance” the effects shots, and that they’re exactly as we’re used to seeing. Except that they look like they were done today, instead of 20 years ago.
The one thing Jackson does seem to have in common with Lucas is seeing his saga as one giant story. The director doesn’t regard The Hobbit films as some lark — they’re the preamble to the beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. Now, for the first time on 4K, they feel like “one big, long film telling the same story.”
Going back to Lord of the Rings also helped Jackson reflect on the continued relevance of his films. In the video, he pokes the hive a bit in describing why his take on Tolkien persists.
“It’s not a story of heroes or superheroes,” he says. “It’s a story of regular people who set out to save their world.”
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