Designing the Emyn Muil

squire: Enough of the big picture. Let’s sharpen our lead-holders and design some scenery.

Today I want to look at two sets that represent the rawest of outdoor scenery. These are sets that have to stand in for a location, because the location is too difficult to shoot closeups in.

In one case, the actual location does appear in the film: the New Zealand mountainside representing the Emyn Muil is seen in the footage of the rocky landscape where the talent tramps around lost, before Gollum shows up. But the Dead Marshes (which are discussed in depth in my next post) are seen clearly only in the shots done on set; the establishing shots of the Marshes from the air are enhanced digital landscapes and mattes.

So only with the Emyn Muil does the scenery have to “match” the location photography; with the Marshes the Art Department simply copied a location as accurately as possible for authenticity. But in both cases, the sets had to be utterly convincing as natural, not man-made, landscapes.

Because of the acreage needed (and the probable priority use of the studio space for interiors), both sets were assembled on the back lot of the studio complex in Wellington. The advantages were a more generous amount of acreage to play in, and the availability of natural day light to match the location shots, which is hard to simulate on a stage.

First, the Emyn Muil. Check out the book:\

At last they were brought to a halt. The ridge took a sharper bend northward and was gashed by a deeper ravine. On the further side it reared up again, many fathoms at a single leap: a great grey cliff loomed before them, cut sheer down as if by a knife stroke. They could go no further forwards, and must turn now either west or east. But west would lead them only into more labour and delay, back towards the heart of the hills; east would take them to the outer precipice. (The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 1)

Actors on set unit in foreground, matte painting (photo-based) background


squire: A. What is the essence of the scene in the book?

FarFromHome: When Frodo and Sam climb down the cliff in the book, they are finally escaping from their wanderings in the Emyn Muil, and only then do they encounter Gollum.

Darkstone: They’re wandering up and down the Interstate trying to find the right turnoff.

squire:  Is it about being lost, or about being trapped by the sheer cliffs when they can see their destination plainly?

FarFromHome: In the movie, their climb is part of their fruitless wandering, and it's Gollum who leads them out of the Emyn Muil. So Gollum's usefulness starts a bit earlier - in the book, it's only the path through the marshes that requires Gollum's expertise, while in the movie, he leads them out of the Emyn Muil too.

Darkstone: Well, that’s the Mars/Venus thing, right? I mean, if I’m driving north on I35 out of Waco, and traffic starts backing up at Waxahachie, so I decide to take an east-west Farm-to-Market road over to Lampassas and catch 281 north in order to bypass the Dallas/Fort Worth mix master altogether, but the FM road turns north, then south, then dead ends at some rancher’s mailbox, so I start backing up to do a U-turn and take that fork I passed a while back, and wifey says “We’re lost, aren’t we?” and I go “Of course not, darlin’, I know exactly where I am and exactly where I’m going, I just can’t quite figure out how to get there” and she goes “That sounds like we’re lost to me” and I remember rule #1 for a blissful marriage is “The one and only time you should ever disagree with your wife is when she says ‘I look fat’”.

Obviously this is one of those times Jackson bowed to Boyens and Walsh and agreed ”Er, yeah, they’re lost” though he and Tolkien and all the the rest of us guys know better.

Menelwyn: what's disturbing about your post Is that I can halfway follow your directions in your first answer! I suspect I'm one of very few people here who has been in Waxahachie....

LilyFairbairn: I've been to Waxahachie And we go through Lampasas all the time. I laughed out loud at Darkstone's post.

Darkstone: "Are you going to Waxahachie Faire?" "Salsa, beans, green chiles, and thyme..."

I assume you two ladies were on your way to Scarborough Faire. I'm usually the sweaty idiot in the heavy longbowman getup. Wifey is the smart one in the cool bellydancer outfit. She says it's a "Mediterranean Dance" costume. She needs to put on a lot of sunscreen, though. I get to help.

 LilyFairbairn: "Salsa, beans....." I like it!

Actually I haven't been to Scarborough Faire in ages. Y'all should pack up your traveling show and come to the Scottish Festival in Arlington the first weekend of June.

Speaking of sunscreen ;-)

Menelwyn: that's why I said "one of very few" I was thinking you had probably been there.

Elostirion74: when character development is what is at stake I would reverse the question: what elements from the story do you recognize in these scenes? I certainly remember the part about feeling lost from the book and recognize elements from the book in the movie-landscape, although it needed much more careful attention to suit my taste.

I think you need to consider the movie scene as a consequence of the movie storyline and the overall strategy used by Jackson & co. in many cases in TTT. To me it looks like they take some elements from the book and then adjust them to the story they have envisioned. The landscape is made to suit the needs of the plot and its primary function is to work as exciting surroundings for character development. It’s Gollum and his relations to the hobbits that is essential here, not so much Emyn Muil.

Daughter of Nienna: Essence of Script Essence of Book vs. Essence of Script (A, B, D):

In the book they are trapped , which is not all the far from being lost. Thinking about this, I can see that this is all about the script and the changes they made to the characters and their motivations.

squire: B. If the designers had been able to provide the scenery described by Tolkien: the exposed shelf overlooking the Marshes and Mordor, the hills up behind, the ravine with the sheer cliff on the far side, would the writers have rewritten the scene to stick to the text more closely?

 FarFromHome: I doubt whether the writers were influenced by the available scenery in this case. According to the commentary, they hadn't planned to film the climb at all, until they got an idea to make it work (the salt-box thing, I think) after the main shoot was over, and so it was done in pickups. And I assume the plan always was to introduce Gollum during this most despairing time for the hobbits, while they are lost, in which case these changes are deeply embedded in the movie's storyline.

Darkstone: I thought we saw that at the end of FOTR. So the beginning of TTT is them climbing down into the ravine.

Elostirion74: In my opinion Frodo and Sam’s journey in TTT is the best piece of writing Tolkien did in terms of landscape and the interaction between landscape, characters and story theme. From what I can see the landscapes you’ve singled out are not that important to the film makers – they’re trying to make it look realistic, exciting and at the same let it be functional, but they are not so deeply concerned as to make it fit Tolkien’s description closely, it just needs to work in a general way (read: look convincing, get the attention of the audience) and fit the plot.

What would you do to make the scenery closer to what you see as essential in the book?

squire: Some thoughts on why the sets differ from the book This is too big a question for me to handle completely right now, but I hope to pursue it a little for this discussion once I get through putting all the topics up. Thinking out loud here:

My main thought is that the scenery in the book is important to Tolkien, and most readers respond to it. With the movie, we hear over and over how close to an ideal Middle-earth most readers think the physical production is.

Furthermore, the filmmakers themselves expressed their goal of making the physical settings both realistic and as close as possible to Tolkien's descriptions. They wanted to anchor their film adaptation that way; to them it serves to balance or excuse the changes they knew they were making to both the storyline and the characters. You know it must be Lord of the Rings, because it looks like Lord of the Rings, even if Gandalf doesn't act like Gandalf, etc.

But in a way, the divergence only highlights the changes, because the contrast between the visual fidelity and the dramatic changes is sometimes so strong. Purists probably use the physical likeness as their first argument that a closer or better film adaptation was possible.

But to stay on topic for this week's discussion, I was thinking about just how much the designers were instructed by the script for The Two Towers, when it came to making the settings different from Tolkien's descriptions.

For instance, as you pointed out, in the film-Emyn Muil, Gollum leads Frodo and Sam out of the hills. If we accept this (and it is another change that serves to weaken Frodo), at least the designers went along with it perfectly. They showed only the "maze" of rocks, which Tolkien describes as the previous three days' experience for Frodo and Sam. They did not try at all to provide that very distinctive part of the book-Emyn Muil that I mentioned in my question: the high shelf overlooking the marshes and Mordor, leading to the deep ravine and opposing high cliff, that forces them to try to get down by the rope.

That setting is as much a "character" setting (to me, anyway!), as Minas Tirith or Bag End. 1) I can see it in my mind perfectly, Tolkien's description is so clear; 2) It recapitulates the earlier barriers to progress that force Frodo to take action and move in an unexpected direction (as we discussed in the Reading Room last year). Because of that, I "missed it" in the Emyn Muil movie settings. However, as I said, at least its disappearance is consistent with the script adaptation; its presence would have served to highlight the change in Frodo's character from the book, and so it's better not to have it.

Likewise, Fangorn is made much creepier than it is in the book, where its essence is age and mystery. The creepiness supports the script changes whereby Treebeard mistakes the hobbits for orcs and seems about to kill them, and when the anger of the huorns is much more present for the three Hunters.

For a final example, we've talked about how the designers made Osgiliath seem only recently ruined by battles that have been taking place in just the past few years, to highlight Boromir's and Faramir's rivalry for Denethor's favor. In contrast, Tolkien describes the city as having been abandoned almost a thousand years earlier, and the more recent battles are explicitly said to be mere forays to hold a strategic crossing and the river shore line of defense against a resurgent Mordor. (The change does seem to conflict with Denethor's lack of ability to prepare for Mordor's assault on Minas Tirith; and also conflicts a little with Gandalf's lecture on the history of Minas Tirith and Gondor -- but those are not emphasized in the film anyway).

To me, these set changes are just as jarring as the script changes they serve to support; but professionally speaking, they were necessary - it is not the designer's job to fight the script, but to support it.

Old_Took: Geography and $$$ I think the changes made to the Emyn Muil geography could be narrowed down to one major issue: the high shelf overlooking the Dead Marshes and Mordor with the cliff which Frodo and Sam must climb down has been placed BEFORE the maze-like portion of the hills (the reverse of the book). It seems that PJ and co.'s real focus in the Emyn Muil sequence was the Frodo and Sam meeting Gollum incident, which takes place at the bottom of the cliff in the book. The bottom of this cliff leads to another set of maze-like formations (if memory serves me correctly) so at least the setting for the Frodo/Sam/Gollum meeting is correct. PJ mentions that he and the writers struggled over where to put the cliff/elven rope sequence for quite some time and, as it was not important to the plot, left it out of the theatrical version. In the editing of the extended version and in the planning of the film, PJ and his editors decided the best, indeed the ONLY place for the sequence was BEFORE the maze/Gollum sequence, not after it. So we get a rearrangement of geography and slightly different timeline. Frodo and Sam climb down the cliff directly after their departure from the Anduin and then get lost in the maze of rocks, after which they meet Gollum at the bottom of another, smaller cliff. While it would be interesting to look at where else the elven rope scene might have been placed, I think I'll trust the editors on this one and accept the geographical changes without objection.

Some people have mentioned that design decisions may have been made due to budgetary costs but I highly doubt the accuracy of this. Richard Taylor has described in the commentaries how the chairs in the Golden Hall were carved with care right down to the crossbars underneath, that will never be seen. Hugo Weaving describes his costume as having three layers, one of which will never be seen. Dan Hennah describes in an interview how great it was to be able to indulge in things that would never be seen on-screen but were just fun to create. I really don't think money was that big of an issue. The only instance I can think of in which a shortcut was taken on a locale to save money was in the Great Hall of Minas Tirith (I think nine or ten of the twelve statues of kings were actually carved, two or three were repeated, as we would never see the full hall at once).

Elostirion74: some thoughts Thank you for your response. As I tried to say, I think they retained much of the original Emyn Muil parts, but the changes they made were important and related to the script. I liked Emyn Muil much better than the Fangorn set anyway, especially the opening shot with the mist, which seemed so right to me. Usually when I object to the way they handle the scenery it's more about how much focus the interaction between scenery and characters gets, especially when it comes to informing the mood of the characters and how the landscape is perceived - Tolkien's landscapes can be very spiritual, for lack of a better word. This is partly dependent on what has been told before, where a movie interpretation is bound to differ, and partly dependent on how much the movie actually focuses on the landscape itself. Because of this physical accuracy is rarely sufficient for me, but I don't expect the film makers to accomodate to my type of imagination all the time either. In general I would still say that they pay too little attention to the lighting in several of the shots they use.

Just as a thought btw: Scriptwise they kept some reminders of the storm from the book by having the hobbits huddle in the rain. I liked that, although I think omitting the storm and how it changed the landscape, how it linked the different stories, could be a lost dramatic opportunity.

But now I'm starting to ramble.

Daughter of Nienna: The writers decided, for whatever reason, they wanted to make Frodo need Gollum. I suppose (entirely guessing) that, in their minds, they needed to provide a believable explanation to a contemporary audience why Frodo would agree to take such a foul as creature Gollum along as a companion and guide. I naturally wish they hadn’t felt they needed to make him so "dependent" on Gollum. It led to more changes to Frodo’s character and motivations than I would have liked (subject for a different, probably much older thread).

So, just like everyone else: actors, costume dept., artists, stunt guys, animators, digital artists, special affects people, makeup, etc. They all follow the script, not the book. The book is inspiration, the script is the holy grail on set.

So, if the script calls for them being "lost", maze it is. Maze or trapped, it matters not to me. What matters is to me is that the essence Frodo was changed more than necessary.

squire: C. Is there anywhere in the film where the scenery designers, by sticking to Tolkien’s descriptions, seem not to be in sync with the writers’ changes to the story-elements of the movie?

FarFromHome: I can't think of an example at the moment where the scenery is "closer to Tolkien" than the story is, although I'm sure there must be some. I can think of examples where the scenery designers deviate from Tolkien's descriptions, presumably to be more in sync with the movie's tone - for example the dead land around Minas Tirith, which adds to the sense of the city's decay.

Darkstone: I’m trying to remember. Is there a mantle clock or umbrella stand at Bag End?

Elostirion74: Not that I can see. I’m looking forward to your answer!

squire: As for examples where the fidelity of sets to the book undercuts the film script, well I was interested in hearing what people think. My point was, pending correction, that the designers knew when changes were called for, and made modifications accordingly. Identifying the changes in the sets is an interesting way to analyze the script.

The problem with trying to do this, as I've mentioned, is that as often as not scenic choices were made for budget reasons, not dramatic ones; and also we do not have good information on how the script described the settings (if it did so at all). So much of the design process is talked about in the commentaries as if it was done by verbal consensus, and also as if everyone was entirely and consistently faithful to the book, but that is not the case, obviously.

One example I can think of right away, of course, is their mistake in keeping the Tombs of the Kings in Minas Tirith on the shoulder behind the city that leads to Mindolluin, the way Tolkien describes it. It makes Denethor's mile-long flaming run to the precipice in front of the citadel far more absurd than it already is; the tombs could have been relocated to a crypt below the Hall, for instance, to make it a little more plausible.

Assistant Producer Rick Porras:
When we shot Emyn Muil it was done on the side of Mt. Rapehu, and it was actually on the side of a ski hill they call Fakapapa. The rock around that area where they were walking along was just amazing. It’s very rough and dangerous looking.

Dan Hennah: It was ideal to shoot the scene in. But we needed that maze-like formation which Fakapapa ski field had some of, but not enough.

squire: D. Why “maze-like”?

FarFromHome:  I guess by "maze-like" they mean bits of rock placed in such a way that you can never see a way right through it. The actors seem to have spent months climbing around in the same bits of rock, shot from different angles, so it looks like they're wandering through different bits of the hills, or going in circles, in a claustrophobic maze of impenetrable rocks.

Darkstone: It was the third evening since they had fled from the Company, as far as they could tell: they had almost lost count of the hours during which they had climbed and laboured among the barren slopes and stones of the Emyn Muil, sometimes retracing their steps because they could find no way forward, sometimes discovering that they had wandered in a circle back to where they had been hours before.

Sounds exactly like a maze to me.

squire: What did they really need?

Darkstone: Gwaihir and Landroval

Elf_Maven: Land Rover I can't help it. Everytime I see the name of that eagle brother of Gwaihir, I read Landrover before I can stop myself.

Elostirion74: See my answer to A. I think maze-like was a good idea.

How does the movie treatment of Emyn Muil in terms of crafting a scenery compare to the movie treatment of the stairs of Cirith Ungol and the Mountains of Shadow as you see it?

Grant Major: We built a set that was flexible enough to be shot in many different ways, to have Frodo and Sam wind their way through this maze of set.

squire: E. What is Major talking about when he says “flexible” scenery?

FarFromHome: The flexible scenery is scenery that can be shot different ways, or moved a bit and then shot a different ways.

Darkstone: Modular scenery that can be moved around into new configurations for different scenes.

Daughter of Nienna: I am sure this is so they can move it around, re-shoot it from different angles. Floating rocks, how cool!

Grant Major:  The other task there was really to make rock that felt like 100% as though you were still on the mountainside.

Roger Lewis, Miniature Builder: What we are doing is we’re dressing this welded steel frame with huge chunks of foam which we cast off a real rock face so that gives us a nice surface to work from.

Alan Lee: We cast most of the rocks that we used from cliffs around Wellington. And then we could assemble them into all kinds of environments.

squire: F. Can you imagine how one would take castings off cliff faces in sizes large enough to create the units we see here?

FarFromHome: No idea - but extruded foam is very light and strong, I think, so I can only imagine that they sprayed foam onto the rock, then peeled it off.

Darkstone: I assume like with the castings off trees for Treebeard’s bark. They just slap some plaster onto one portion of a tree that has an interesting texture, then when they get all these small pieces in the workshop they just start mixing and matching them together on a boulder substrate like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Fascinating process, really.

squire: G. Is Lee implying that the rock castings were taken from the nearby Wellington area, not the Mt. Rapehu area?

FarFromHome: I recall from the commentaries that they weren't allowed to take castings on Ruapehu, which is a protected area.

Darkstone: No, I don’t think he’s implying it, I think he’s saying it.

squire: Does that violate the attempt to match the location?

Darkstone: A rock is a rock. Unless it’s a sacred rock like the Rock of Ages or those on Rapehu.

squire: H. How would you tell the difference between location shots and set shots in the Emyn Muil sequences?

(Here’s a hint:)


FarFromHome: The location shots are the wide shots - probably most of the shots that made it into the TE, before the arrival of Gollum (although extra closeups were done on the set and spliced in, I believe). The set is used for the Elven rope scene, and then I would guess most of the scenes with Gollum.

Darkstone: I can’t. I’m constantly amazed and impressed by people who can go “Oh, that’s so obviously fake!” I’m also amused and delighted when they turn out to be wrong.

weaver: Fake rocks and film priorities Having grown up watching "Lost in Space," I thought I knew a fake rock when I saw it. The LOTR guys sure fooled me!

squire: Can you come up with some rules of thumb?

Darkstone: Well, if you see an open window in the backdrop, or some overhead girders hanging down, then I’d guess they’re in a studio

squire: I. If they could build some of it, and matte in the backgrounds, why not go all the way and shoot all of it in the back lot?

FarFromHome: Why not shoot it all in the back lot? Somebody makes exactly that comment in the commentaries, referring to the place where Merry gets the orc-draught! I think Peter Jackson's philosophy was to use as much real stuff as possible, and then to fill in from there. Using real stuff first prevents you from getting too carried away with over-the-top fantasy elements, perhaps. And the actors often say that remembering how it felt to be in the real location was very helpful when they had to play a scene on set.

Darkstone: I thought you were the one questioning why they would take casts from rocks in the Wellington area rather than rocks from the Mt. Rapehu area.

weaver: I guess I put the Emyn Muil on the list of "B" sets for the films. Certain places, like the Shire, Moria, Edoras, Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith get so much attention that they are "stars" of the film in their own right, I think. The bit about how they built the Shire a year before they needed it just so that the grass would grow, kind of says it all to me.

Other places, like the Emyn Muil or the Dead Marshes (or even Lothlorien) are more just settings in which crucial things need to happen for the plot, or for a character's development. While Tolkien may wax on for pages about the suburbs of Mordor, what matters in the films is what happens to Frodo and Sam there, I think, not the scenery as much. It's enough to know that it's a big, confusing rocky place, for me at least.

Again, I think it's a matter of the films not being able to emphasize everything. Tolkien could lavish love on every page, but he only had Rayner Unwin hanging over his head and the guy was remarkably patient for decades. The films aren't a life work, like the books were. They're films subject to a far different set of circumstances in terms of production than Tolkien dealt with.

N.E. Brigand: Are films inherently second-rate?

The films aren't a life work, like the books were. They're films subject to a far different set of circumstances in terms of production than Tolkien dealt with.

Must films, because they can never be as thoroughly crafted as individual art like painting or writing, never reach the heights of the greatest art?

(I am reminded of the ideas put forward in film criticism by the auteur theorists, begining in the 1950s, who argue that studio productions are every bit as artistic as the work of independent filmmakers: sure, the finshed product may not be as absolutely good, but viewed relatively, the studio directors probably achieved more than the independents given their circumstances: look at what they accomplished despite being having shoddy scripts, poor actors or ridiculously tight deadlines imposed on them!

But the finished films, despite directorial brilliance, still have shoddy writing, or poor acting, or evidence of hasty production.)

weaver: no, not at all...My main point was that the films should be judged on their own merits, and in their own context, not for how well they did or didn't capture every single page and nuance of LOTR as written. That you couldn't use the latter point above as your criteria for judging the quality of the films.

And of course a film doesn't "always" have to be second rate; poorer quality is not something that's inevitable from the constraints of producing things in a film environment vs. writing a book. There's obviously plenty of wonderful films, that are considered masterpieces in their own rights. As to what makes a film a masterpiece and what makes it second rate, and where Jackson fits into the equation, well, I guess it depends on who the critics are. Film critics give the films rather high ratings, compared to Tolkien scholars, say. It sounds a lot like the debate about LOTR itself, I think. There are academics who felt Tolkien wrote overbloated juvenile tripe, and readers who praise him to high heaven.

Good to see you around here, NEB -- thanks for your comments, which made me think, as always. Though I'm not sure how well I explained my thinking in the first post or this response, but I tried! Any additional thoughts?

Elostirion74: just a comment I agree in general with what you say about the scenery, this set and its importance to the film makers. I'd just like to say that when I go back to the book I'm impressed by how efficient Tolkien's descriptions are. I expected to find page upon page of scenery descriptions, but found that they only make up a small part of this chapter.

The scenery descriptions in Rohan by comparison seem far more extensive and detailed. So although there are some concrete details about the form of a cliff etc. Tolkien's love here seems to reside in his choice of words and images rather than excessively detailed scenery.

FUNNY STORY – “You can fix that with some paint”

Sean Astin: You have to doff your cap to the talent of the folks who could re-create rock formations. The line between real and fake rocks became totally obliterated, and when you go to lean, you get *cchhhkk* you know, the Styrofoam . . .  ‘Sorry, we need a little . . . you can fix that with some paint.’


squire: Stupid cast members. They really are stupid.
J. How do you handle having your careful work ruined by someone who’s too important to be yelled at?

FarFromHome: Well, the scenery builders were making scenery so the actors could work in it, so if it gets a little damaged along the way, that's surely par for the course! I don't think Sean Astin means he was just leaning on the rocks for some casual reason - he and the other two actors worked among those rocks for weeks on end, and presumably there were real rocks for the actors to climb on, and others made of styrofoam and just for show. He's paying the scenery makers the compliment that he couldn't always tell which were which. I don't know whether the crew yelled at him, but I get the impression from some of the behind the scenes stuff that the actors didn't get treated in quite the normal Hollywood way!

And Sean Astin can come and ruin my careful work any time he likes. ;-)

Darkstone: If a verbal response doesn’t avail you then the final refuge of the wise is a physical one.

Daughter of Nienna: I think it’s a compliment to the skill of the Art Dept. that the actors could not tell the difference between the real and the fake rocks till they leaned on them. Perhaps they could make the rocks for "lean-able", more durable to actual use.

Personally, I think it was all fine with the rocks and the actors and the Art Department.

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