Designing the Dead Marshes


squire: Now let’s look at the second backlot reproduction of a natural landscape: The Dead Marshes.


Again, we’ll quickly revisit the book:
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers.
     As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth. But even at this faint reminder of her presence Gollum scowled and flinched. He halted their journey, and they rested, squatting like little hunted animals, in the borders of a great brown reed-thicket. There was a deep silence, only scraped on its surfaces by the faint quiver of empty seed-plumes, and broken grass-blades trembling in small air-movements that they could not feel . . . . he started off again, almost at a trot, down what appeared to be a long lane between high reeds, and they stumbled after him as quickly as they could.
(The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 2)

Concept study by Jeremy Bennett


squire: This is one of the least successful sets, from my point of view. I don’t think they had tall enough reeds, which would have emphasized the smallness of the hobbits and the nature of the Marshes as a hiding place within which they can sneak up on Mordor unseen. Something like this, only deader, so to speak:



squire: A. Do you agree?

Darkstone: Well...  Nope.

weaver: Pick a marsh, any marsh...  As I said in my post below, the marshes are more of a "B" set in the films for me. We got a sense of them but not the full blown book description.

The question (for me) is does what we got "work", on its own, since it's not a "real" marsh and since it's also not as I pictured it from the books.

The books, to me, give us a marsh that's more "spooky" -- ghostly lights, and images of dead faces in the water. Very creepy place.

The film marshes are more "other worldly" to me, and the place is more substantially than ethereally scary. We don't have drifting ghostly lights, we get flames rising right out of the ground. We don't see ghost faces in the water, we see faces that open their eyes. Frodo doesn't "almost" fall in, he actually does. And there those dead bodies become ghosts that try to grab you. Very dangerous place. This marsh doesn't just "scare" you, it can actually "get" you.

More dramatic on film, I think, to show a more "active" marsh. But you've got to let go of the books, or at least allow for a less literal interpretation of Tolkien's description, for the film version to work, I think. And even then, if you'd rather be scared than caught, it may not ever be your cup of tea.

Dungolfin: The whole passage of the marshes looks like one of those 'had to do' scenes that no-one was particularly enthusiastic about tackling.

Elostirion74: Isn't it strange.. to see how Jackson & co acknowledges the importance of this scenery to Tolkien (Origins of M-E-feature, I believe), but still is unable to truly delve into it on film? I liked the look of the people lying in the water though, so if they could have done without the sound effects and eyes opening effect and had worked more with the lighting, some of these scenes (excluding the "What did you call me"-moment) could actually be interesting. I thought the look of the Nazgûl sweeping over the marshes was pretty successful at least.

Dungolfin: Exactly...  I think there was a big shift across the three films from attention to detail and sensitivity to the subject, in favour of 'cool' CGI, monsters and stunts.

Oh and I liked the corpses in the water too, they looked suitably ethereal and I'd have been happy leaving it at that - Frodo about to touch them but being pulled back by Gollum - what's wrong with that!

Old_Took: Wow...
It's interesting that the overall reaction to the Dead Marshes has been so negative. It is possibly my favorite "unnatural" location in the entire trilogy.

Daughter of Nienna: I like the over all look of the dead marshes, though I dislike the flames, and agree that the reeds could be taller to offset the size of the Hobbits. But the reed thing doesn’t really bother me.

squire: Should they have found a marsh with taller grasses?

Darkstone: Not really. It would look like they were back in Farmer Maggot’s field. Besides, the flat land is more evocative of the Somme and also gives a fearful impression of total exposure. Plus if the flora is that lush you’d expect a lot more fauna.

drogo_drogo: Cutting costs on the scene  This scene seems to be the one they sacrificed for better effects in others. The quickly-dressed parking lot does look quite fake, and they don't have enough flora there.

Daughter of Nienna: I had not thought of it before, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Assistant Producer Rick Porras: Early on, when we did our recces we were looking for, you know, the perfect Dead Marshes location.

Rick Porras: We actually lowered the chopper down onto this marsh area, and realized that it was an amazing location but there wasn’t any solid ground.

Peter Jackson: So we’re uh winging our way through the Dead Marshes and we’re seriously thinking about whether this should be a backlot set.

squire: According to the feature Director and Writers Commentary, Jackson was scouting for Beacons locations when they flew over this marsh by chance. Later they returned to scout it fully as a potential Marshes location.

B. Why would it be too difficult to shoot in the marshes on location?

Darkstone: Well, first of all you couldn’t set down the pipes for the lights.

squire: There’s obviously some solid ground to start from. Couldn’t they have used pontoons, boardwalks, etc?

Darkstone: Some solid ground, but finding enough for the entire crew with dining and makeup tents, helicopter landing pad, and whatnot might be a bit difficult. Besides, a large complex of pontoons, boardwalks, etc. would be difficult to transport and set up, not to mention damaging to the environment.

drogo_drogo: It could have been a scheduling problem with all the location shooting they did. They stumbled upon the region they used in aerial shots, so again it sounds like this was not a crucial scene for them.

Elijah Wood: The Dead Marshes were filmed in a parking lot. In a variety of parking lots. First and foremost on this wet set and that was initially used for outside the Gates of Moria and that we switched over and was made into the Dead Marshes.

Brian Massey, Greensmaster: Basically, we, the Greens Department, built the Dead Marshes to look like the ones that were on location, various material, mosses.
Elijah Wood:
They brought in all the sort of flora of that particular marsh.


Brian Massey: Sewing mosses onto the sandbags. We’d lay them down at the bottom of the pools.


squire: The detail work of the Greens Department is certainly first-rate.
C. What are the different challenges faced by the designers in reproducing both the Emyn Muil and the Dead Marshes in a back lot?

Darkstone: With the Emyn Muil you need to build up all the ground so you don’t have any obviously flat places. With the Dead Marshes you have to build up off the ground so you can have the pools and lay down the gas supply for the fires. Then you have the inevitable leaks from the tanks. And of course the attraction of disease vectors like mosquitoes.

drogo_drogo: Trying to have convincing pools of dank water, and the lush vegatation. It is hard to reproduce the feel of a marshland, and doing it without a soundstage they can really dress and detail must have been a challenge.

squire: Back to the book again:
Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. When lights appeared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands. (The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 2)


Color study by Gus Hunter

                                                            Brian Massey, Greens Master: We had these tubes that were set up all along that would be lit up with gas so we’d have all these flames coming out of the water.


squire: Even worse than the skimpy marshes, this effect jarred me right out of the movie. The gas jets looked so fake. Tolkien’s description of the “candles” is so obviously otherworldly, which Gus Hunter’s painting conveys. All that’s missing is Beavers of Unusual Size.
D. Why are the flames so bad?

Darkstone: They looked pretty accurate geologically to me. There’s plenty of burning natural gas outlets that look exactly like that all over the world. Usually the locals built a temple over them. There’s a whole slew of them on the coast of Turkey that supposedly inspired the legend of the chimera. Now if you want the natural sickly green glow of will-o’-the-wisps you use hydrogen phosphide. Unfortunately this is phosphorescent so it can be seen only at night. Plus it’s an extremely deadly poison, which might account why people going off chasing will-o’-the-wisps are never seen again. They catch them.

Dungolfin: It's a let down... those damn flames, such a literal interpretation of something that everyone knows should be far more spooky, 'Don't follow the lights!' says Gollum. Well why would I there's one right here.

Elostirion74: Not much to say except that I agree about the fires. These looked very foolish to me and would probably be better in cgi.

squire: Why not add them later digitally?

Darkstone: Why when you can accurately portray them as a natural geological phenomenon using non-cgi means?

drogo_drogo: Cutting costs, no doubt. When you have a huge CGI-intensive film, you probably try to shave a bit off the price tag by doing some effects in camera, even if they are not as good.

Dungolfin: And I don't accept that they couldn't add them in with CGI, trying to save budget for other things because we had lots of duff ghosts in the drowning scene which absolutely and positively did not need to be there. The greatest horrors are those glimpsed, suggested and implied, as soon as you show me the monster full frontal, that's it over, and Jackson does it again and again.

Daughter of Nienna: Flames, smoke, water and hair (among other things), are all difficult to work with digitally. Especially with compositing. (in simple terms: placing one image over another). A person can spend ours on one still image making the edges where one image over laps another right. With a moving image, we are talking hundreds of frames of this kind of work, in which each frame the flame will be an entirely different shape. There is no way to set Actions or any tool to automatic replay of the action because of this altering, shifting shape-changing nature of a flame. We are talking hundreds of human hour just on flames.

Peter Jackson: The idea was to basically use all this as the foreground and then generate, you know, as a computer generated matte painting as the Dead Marshes.

Marshes set as shot in front of blue screen

Shot with digital matte background added

Shot with digital animated Gollum and mist added

Jeremy Burnett, Digital Effects Art Director: We tend to use photographic elements for our matte paintings, rather than traditional glass matte paintings. The advantage that we have is that it gives us this incredibly realistic result. You know Peter, um, wants Middle-earth to be as realistic as possible.
Roger Kupelian, senior matte painter:
So what digital technology allows is for the matte painter to go in and animate his own sky, animate the light effect, the shadows on the ground as the clouds move over. So there’s a lot of subtle things you can do to really sell your painting.


squire: E. What is the reference to “traditional glass matte paintings”?

Darkstone: You just paint the background on glass except for the little bit where actors are, fix it in front of the camera, and then film away.

drogo_drogo: That's the kind of matte work in films like Star Wars, etc., with backgrounds literally painted on glass.

Daughter of Nienna: Not entirely sure about glass matte paintings. But I understand about matte paintings.

squire: F. Have you ever set up a photographic backing behind a 3-D foreground subject, and tried to make them blend together illusionistically?

 Darkstone: Yep.

squire: What are the basic problems?

Darkstone: I have a totally lack of training and technique.

drogo_drogo: I recall the Dune Miniseries on SciFi used photographic translights for the desert scenes they filmed in stages in Prague. They were not perfect because the foreground still had a crisper 3-D look to it whereas the background looked somewhat 2-D.

Daughter of Nienna: Have never done this but I have seen the results in older films. There appears a kind of halo, distracting and ugly. Also, perspective and proportion are hard to make work. And often you can tell the background it unusually still. One more thing: atmospheric affects usually present are either absent or not matching. As time and skill got better, and as the eye of the audience got better. This is a lot harder to make work. It really looks fake and contemporary audiences can see it right away…it’s too distracting and takes you right out of the movie. You completely lose the audience's ability to suspend disbelief and to stay in the world you are creating. I may have missed a problem or two.

As far as shooting in front of one today. I don’t think it is necessary . . . hence the blue or green screen. In the computer, once the film is scanned in, the "blue" is easy to ‘knock out’ and the empty space replaced with the matte painting (scanned in) or even another photographic/motion picture image (scanned in).
Sometimes computer generated images doesn’t mean actually creating from scratch an image. Often, it means compositing two or more scanned in photographic/motion picture images to make one new image. Thus it is called computer generated, which is a broad term to cover a lot of different types of techniques. In this scenario I just described, it is all photographic imagery, just more than one photographic image put together in the computer to make one.

Daughter of Nienna: necessary = unnecessary in F: Par 2, line 1

       Max Dennison, head of matte painting: The challenge is to make it an incredibly gloomy dark overcast sky, but when they shoot it, the chaps on set, it’s a blue-sky day with sunlight.

Shot in sunlight on stage.

So we came up with a scenario where there was a grey overcast cloud, but it had small breaks where you see pools of light.

Final effect with matte and color grading.


squire: G. Did you notice the relatively harsh lighting in these scenes?

Darkstone: Oh, yes! Very nice effect.

drogo_drogo: I did like the harsh light since it was about the only natural element in the whole scene. It made them even more exposed and vulnerable. 

Elostirion74: Most of the time I would have preferred a quite different lighting myself, but I can see why others liked it for giving a sense of being exposed. In the scene about eating lembas I actually thought the lighting worked very well, the hobbits look alone, almost forlorn in the vast expanse of marshes with the overcast sky in the background.

Old_Took: And while I would liked to have seen some of the darker light schemes described in the book, the harsher light of the movie makes the marshes seem all the more unpleasant...perfect.

Daughter of Nienna: I didn’t think of it too much. After watching the extras, I became aware, but I still didn’t think of it too much. The entire thing looks gloomy and weird enough for me. Looking closer at things like the hoods of the cloaks, I can see the unusual glare for such a gloomy, dank, dark place. At the same time it adds to the weird effect. I actually like that about it. It makes it al otherworldly, appropriate for the dead marshes.

squire: Does Dennison’s explanation work for you?

Darkstone: I guess so, though I don’t really need one.

squire: Couldn’t they have built a diffusion screen like a tent over the set, to kill the harsh sunlight?

Darkstone: I like the harsh sunlight. Gives an impression of a very warm ambient temperature, which in turn makes me realize how horribly stinky that place is.

Daughter of Nienna: They may have been able to, but I can’t say why they did not. I have no problems with the effects of the lighting as it is.

FUNNY STORY – “Closing doors. Next stop, the Dead Marshes”


Peter Jackson: That was set up in the hot valley next to a railway station. And we were filming, you know, Frodo Sam and Gollum in the Dead Marshes. We had blue screens up, and every, you know, ten minutes or so a train would, uh, go right next door. People could actually look out of the train and see us shooting right by the side of the railway tracks. It’s kind of funny, because you keep hearing this train, the noise of passing trains on the sound track.

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