Lord of the Rings at ConnectiCon: Still the Pinnacle of Fantasy in Cinema 15 Years Later

While series like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter have taken center stage these past few years, along with an influx of new fantasy material in film and media, nothing has yet quite achieved the status of the trilogy that paved the very road for the genre to no longer be considered box office poison–The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. At ConnectiCon this July, Peter Jackson’s trilogy still held relevance on the convention scene, with Guests of Honor John Rhys-Davies and Sean Astin [who played Gimli and Sam respectively] hosting a series of Lord of the Rings panels for Tolkein and cinema fans alike.

A central topic during one of these events was the use of practical effects so well utilized by Jackson during the filming of the original trilogy. Both actors described their time filming the trilogy as an experience like no other; complete with bonding between the fellowship actors, canoeing, swordsmanship and horse back riding lessons. Rhys-Davies humored to the audience sharing a boat with “the elf” Orlando Bloom, in which their boat capsized, and they comedically blamed each other. After switching boating partners, Bloom’s canoe capsized again while his did not, in which Rhys-Davies boasted, “Clearly it wasn’t the dwarf’s fault the first time either!”

Jackson was not only dedicated to ensuring the actor’s were prepared–in the most authentic ways possible–for their roles, but his vision was unique in that it relied heavily on the use of set building, body doubles, camera angles and prosthetics to achieve the organic feel that Fantasy cinema had sorely lacked at this point in time. It’s no wonder Jackson realized the importance of crafting the film this way; hot on the heels of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace which was heavily criticized for it’s over reliance on CGI for just about every aspect.

Lord of the Rings was a non-unionized production, which meant long hours for everyone working–including prosthetic work for many of the actors, including a dwarven appropriate nose for Rhys-Davies and hobbit feet for Astin. Lack of CGI sets also meant a myriad of shooting locations across beautiful New Zealand, with a good deal of traveling as well. One of Astin’s more notable memories involves the scene at the end of Fellowship in which Sam pursues Frodo as he rows away on his own. Despite divers meticulously cleaning the ocean floor before the scene, Astin stepped on a piece of glass, which severed his hobbit feet and cut deep into his foot. He was subsequently air lifted off the set, requiring immediate medical attention.

Both actors agreed that Jackson’s departure from practical effects for 2012’s The Hobbit Trilogy were a large part of the reason the films were not nearly as well received by fans as their predecessors were. The attention to detail in set building, dedication to use of camera angles and artistry in the costume department set the Lord of the Rings Trilogy apart so widely, and truly set the bar in creating an organic standard in visual media. Careful techniques such as building a bench on a cart so Elijah Wood’s Frodo would scale correctly beside Ian McKellen’s Gandalf were replaced with simple CGI scaling–and the trilogy suffered for it, just as Star Wars: The Phantom Menace did more than a decade prior.

When asked what their favorite and most memorable lines were, John Rhys-Davies said for him, it would be Legolas’ “Shall I fetch you a box?” from the Two Towers. Which was ironic in that Orlando Bloom was actually standing on box to create the correct height different between him and Rhys-Davies, who was kneeling. Astin’s favorite was from the finale of Return of the King, and a fan favorite as well; Aragorn’s, “My friends… you bow to no one.” Which truly symbolized everything Frodo and the Hobbits had gone through upon leaving the Shire.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy truly remains the pinnacle of fantasy media, even today. It not only paved a road for the fantasy genre to be taken seriously by critics in film and television, but set the bar as to how fantasy should be handled–through careful use of cinematic and creative techniques and practical effects that truly immerse an audience. To bring fantasy into the realm of reality in a convincing and organic fashion. A film experience for all involved that could not be replicated, as both actors involved on the project inferred heavily to the audience. Even fifteen years later, both John Rhys-Davies and Sean Astin consider Tolkien’s work to be some of their finest work, and still enjoy connecting with fans about the film making experience of a lifetime.
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