In praise of Lord Of The Rings’ DVD extras

The extras on The Lord Of The Rings DVDs provide a look into the scale of the films' production. Andrew salutes the Appendices' detail...

I love the Lord Of The Rings Extended Edition Appendices more than I will ever love any human child (if any of my future children are reading this, try harder).

It was in 2003 that I first became aware of their existence. While it is widely acknowledged that university is a place for experimentation and expansion of your experiences, in my case this consisted of volunteering (as The Tall One) to gaffer-tape two projector screens together so everyone in the common room could watch The Fellowship Of The Ring without a 1cm gap down the middle. When carrying the equipment back to the hall warden’s room I discovered two things:

1. The hall wardens could walk down the fire escape onto the roof above the entrance and have barbeques.

2. There were not only two discs for the film, there were two discs for the extras.

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Once purchased, the films themselves became a staple of dementedly-involved drinking games, and these Appendices part of the hangover cure for the next day. Fried things, a pint of tea and a documentary about horses. This was my happy place, to the extent that I watched the extras before the film when we got Return Of The King.

I can’t help but think that Professor Tolkien would have tutted, but that’s only because of the various documentaries about him across the discs. Without them, I would have nothing to base that assumption on. On top of that, you’re able to build up a clearer picture of Middle Earth than you might when involved with the films’ narrative. Essentially, it’s an ideal shorthand for lazy people like me who have no time or inclination to read The Silmarillion.

Less flippantly, it’s a story of how films get made and how Lord Of The Rings happened. While both JRR Tolkien and Peter Jackson’s approaches seems to be idiosyncratic and not averse to making things up as they go along, the sheer wealth of material on these discs shows you how much planning and effort goes into making a story. When you put on disc one of the Appendices on Fellowship Of The Ring, you’ll be waiting a long time untill the process moves beyond pre-production.

At the start of each set is a feature on Tolkien; these contain elements of biography, linguistics, history and the themes of the books (including some heavily personal elements). In The Two Towers there is a great sequence where the talking heads proceed to demolish Tolkien’s writing and then set about rebuilding and vigorously defending it. In these documentaries, while discussing the books’ themes, it’s posited that Aragorn’s main motivation in defeating evil is that his prospective father-in-law won’t let him get married until he vanquishes evil and becomes King.

One of the most memorable features is the elegiac The Fellowship Of The Cast, which makes acting in these films seem like simply the best job ever. As the films progress, more time is given to Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd (especially on the commentaries) as the makers realised they were on to a good thing putting as much footage of these two dicking about as possible. Jonathan Rhys-Davies’ habit of referring to Orlando Bloom as ‘The Elf’ is also colossally endearing. 

There are other heroes who emerge from these discs. Christopher Lee booms dark wisdom, and the story behind his acting decisions for Saruman’s death scene will stay with you. He also states that the changes to the story Jackson, Boyens and Walsh made are mainly improvements. If Christopher Lee says so then it must be true, because the man knows his Tolkien (and probably how to kill you with his eyebrows).

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Alan Lee and John Howe – creators of many of the illustrations included on the disc – appear to have escaped from the mind of Terry Pratchett, and speak softly and sibilantly yet with a twinkling, man-at-the-allotments-who-knows-his-stuff enthusiasm. The main hero who emerges is Richard Taylor, the head of WETA, whose near-emotionless face and nasal voice completely masks the sheer wanton geekery that he emits with every utterance (you wouldn’t be surprised to hear him say, “We built Middle Earth in my back garden over a weekend. It passed the time, but turned out to be surprisingly useful”).

Occasionally, Taylor’s mask will slip, and the gleeful gore-hound whose enthusiasm helped make Braindead that much fun is revealed (like the occasion he accidentally worked the Uruk-hai into something resembling a bloodlust before a fight scene, or the time he volunteered WETA to build a life-size dead Mumakil because “it sounded cool”), but mainly the impression is given of an unflappable man who deems it perfectly reasonable to make unique decorations on the inside of The Theoden’s armour. To quote the man himself:

“People keep saying to me: ‘Why bother? Why go to so much trouble?’ We didn’t put the detail there for detail’s sake, but because it rationalised out a theoretical culture.” 

WETA are involved in producing the miniatures for the new series of Thunderbirds, and that is very, very good news indeed.

It isn’t just Taylor who went into that level of detail. For the One Ring, there were 15 models made before the final version was based on co-producer Rick Porras’ wedding ring (which had a certain nuance, apparently). For the miniature of Grond, it not only matched Tolkien’s description with bonus rune carvings, but it was so effective that it broke the gates of Minas Tirith on the first take. For the sound effect of two-tonne boulders impacting, they dropped a two-tonne weight onto some concealed microphones.

These six discs cover the making of three films thoroughly enough to really drive home the effort it takes to make a film, and how many people are involved. When you consider that all it takes is one person not pulling their weight to lessen a film’s quality, it’s all the more impressive when a film is actually remotely good.

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It’s often said that if you cast a film correctly your work is half done, so presumably a hefty chunk of the other half involves getting the right people behind the scenes. People who inspire each other, whose ideas are taken and expanded, so things spiral while remaining under control. More than a huge list of names at the end of the film, these making of features show so much of the process that the process itself becomes as awe-inducing and enthralling as the movies.

Three thousand people worked on those films, yet even these features are not the whole story. That’s worth considering the next time you’re waiting for a post-credits sequence to happen. 

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