Designing Osgiliath

squire: Backlots are like giant playgrounds. You can build BIG sets out there, and they always shoot wonderfully if youíre looking for natural daylight. The sky is the sky, and the sun is the sun. (Of course, sometimes you donít want sun Ė you want a murky haze, which the wind tries to blow away. Then you wish you were in the studio.)

A set that is never described by Tolkien comes up in the script of The Two Towers: Osgiliath, the deserted  and ruined former capital of Old Gondor, that straddles the river Anduin. Faramir takes Frodo and Sam to it, where a battle is being fought, before finally letting Frodo continue on to Mordor. The Art Department had to come up with something without much help from Tolkien:

There it seemed to Frodo that he descried far off, floating as it were on a shadowy sea, the high dim tops and broken pinnacles of old towers forlorn and dark.
     He turned to Gollum. `Do you know where we are? ' he said.
     'Yes, Master. Dangerous places. This is the road from the Tower of the Moon, Master, down to the ruined city by the shores of the River. The ruined city, yes, very nasty place, full of enemies.
  (The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 7)

'It was a city,' said Beregond, 'the chief city of Gondor, of which this was only a fortress. For that is the ruin of Osgiliath on either side of Anduin, which our enemies took and burned long ago. Yet we won it back in the days of the youth of Denethor: not to dwell in, but to hold as an outpost, and to rebuild the bridge for the passage of our arms.   (The Return of the King, Book V, Chapter 1)

squire: Not too much to go on! Hereís how they did it.


Grant Major: Through the shoot at that point weíd saved a tremendous amount of scenery with the specific purpose of using it in Osgiliath.

Andrew Lesnie, Cinematographer: So as you walk through the city blocks you could recognize bits of Halls and previous things that youíd filmed. It was just extremely skillfully put together by the Art Department.

Dan Hennah points to gap in Osgiliath set where Golden Hall scenery will go

Dan Hennah: What youíll get through there, weíll have Golden Hall filler.

(Setting up pad for a fall by a stunt man)

Grant Major: We were able to add to the scenery we had by making it broken, fallen, cracked, and like grasses were growing out of cracks.

squire: It seems obvious to me, but they are referring primarily to the Minas Tirith scenery which typifies Gondor and was saved for re-use here.
A. Why not mention that in this documentary?

Darkstone: Fantastic! I thought they were talking about reusing pieces of sets from Rohan like the Golden Hall (as Hennah mentions) and Helmís Deep. I know they reused the ďstoneĒ from Helmís Deep in Minas Tirith. So strictly speaking theyíre not using pieces of Minas Tirith sets, theyíre using Rohan sets that were reused in Minas Tirith sets.

squire: Andrew Lesnie may recognize various sets (at least while theyíre still being set up), but I sure didnít.
B. What tricks would they use to keep audiences from the jarring sight of Denethorís hall standing behind a hovering Nazgul?

Darkstone: A stone wall is a stone wall is a stone wall, even if it is made out of styrofoam. Plus Iíd guess the pure white facades of Denethorís hall would receive a dark wash to appear weather stained.

squire: C. What other considerations can you imagine whereby the Art Departmentís efforts to save money would dictate the shooting schedule?

Darkstone: Iíve always heard the Art Department usually had to work to accommodate the shooting schedule, like when the Doors of Moria were barely finished in time and were set in place as the cast was doing the final run-through rehearsal.

Jeremy Burnett: We wanted it to feel like you were entering Berlin 1945, or youíre in London during the Blitz. And youíve just got up in the morning, and your neighborhood is absolutely trashed. Thatís pretty frightening. Itís not really a place you want to spend too much time in.

squire: Designing ruins is hard if you want to make a good strong design statement. Nothing is more generic (a dirty word) than generic ruins. What ruined the ruins? you have to ask yourself -- and work forwards from there.

London ruins, 1945

Berlin ruins, 1945

Compare these shots of cities that have been bombed from the air with Piranesiís famous images of the ruins of Ancient Rome:

squire: D. Do you see any essential differences?

Darkstone: Well, modern ruins tend to be just piles of bricks. And the London and Berlin ruins have been mostly sterilized of any flora by fire. On the other hand ancient ruins tend to bit more stable and be overgrown with vegetation. For example Incan or Aztec ruins were so overgrown nobody even knew they were there! Itís interesting that in the movie itís implied that Osgiliath was only recently destroyed in a couple of see-saw battles, and thus the ruins indeed seem the result of bombardment rather than just time. Later during the siege of Minas Tirith we see the forces of Mordor use fire missiles, which would account for the sterility of flora in Osgiliath. Nice touch.

Which design statement do you prefer?

Darkstone: I kind of prefer the statement that Osgiliath was ruined by bombardment rather than by time. Makes the Gondorians seem more dynamic.

N.E. Brigand: Why prefer "dynamic" Gondorians?

Darkstone: Well......I know in the book Tolkien's theme is the Long Decline that began in the Sil, but in the movie I prefer to think of Gondor as being worn down to their current state by the Enemy, not by Time. Thus Denethor is not a defeatist waiting in full armor for orcs to bust into his bedroom in the inevitable defeat, but rather a shrewd stratego pursuing desperate measures during desperate times. Only when all his plans collapse (He loses the ring, Osgiliath, and of course his top two commanders) does he finally lose it. With the Gondorians dynamic instead of passive, they become more deserving of being saved and more worthy of Elessar's rule.

Of course your mileage may vary.

squire: The scenery supports your thesis as it does look like Gondor waged a Stalingrad defense of the city about six months earlier.

But I'm convinced Denethor, and Gondor, are supposed to be perceived by the audience as passive. Based on his unwillingness to prepare to defend the city (as Gandalf tells us), or call on his allies for aid (as we see), I think we are supposed to think of him as defeatist, and Gondor as passive.

It's one of those moments where I think Jackson's (and the willing or acquiescent designers) embrace of the thrilling, i.e. the newly smashed up look of Osgiliath rather than moldy and overgrown ruins, sends a mixed message about just what the nature of Gondor's decline is.

Explicitly scripted moments usually trump scenery in terms of audience message.

Unfortunately, without an honest discussion of these dramaturgic issues by the filmmakers, we are also left to guess that perhaps the budget ran out before they could really dress the ruins down.

Lack of money can explain a lot of the seemingly mysterious design choices that might otherwise demand convoluted plot-based explanations, or elaborate constructions of dramatic symbolism.

Darkstone: Well......Gandalf is not exactly an unbiased observer. He wants Denethor to call in Rohan so a certain ranger can triumphally enter the city at the head of a rescuing army. Denethor knows that, and refuses to play that game.

And Faramir's little snippet of map exposition indicates that the lack of preparedness of Gondor's defenses is not because of lack of will, but rather lack of manpower. That's hardly Denethor's fault. After all, he did his part by having two sons.

Jackson has mentioned in the commentaries how Machiavellian Gandalf the White can be. (See the "I will not risk open war" scene where Jackson admits evoking a comparison of Gandalf with Grima. No wonder Theoden is loath to take his advice!) But yeah, Gandalf indeed seemed to have succeeded in turning the audience against Denethor despite the plain evidence of the scenery. I think Jackson is having a lot of fun here.

FarFromHome: In fact the Sons of the Steward scene tells us that Osgiliath was lost to enemy bombardment during Faramir's watch ("but for Faramir this city would still be standing") and reclaimed by Boromir leading a stronger force, right before he left for Rivendell. That suggests plenty of dynamism and active warfare, at least as long as Boromir was alive. It's the loss of Boromir, it seems, that has turned Denethor into a defeatist, and the Gondorians, except for Faramir, into the passive force we see in ROTK.

And the fact that Osgiliath was destroyed so recently, and still lives in memory as "a place of light and beauty and music" explains Denethor's attachment to it, and Faramir's willingness to try to retake it against all odds.

Macca: Not just Boromir I think the thing that destroyed Denethor was the massive twin blow of losing both Boromir and the Ring. It's very clear that he considers Boromir by far the superior warrior, so his selection in the task of bringing back the Ring is telling. Denethor had given up on militarily defence, knowing how superior Sauron's forces were, and had staked all on the Ring massively tilting the balance back in his favour. When the news arrives that not only has the Ring gone beyond his grasp and the plan he had depended on failed, but also his military plans are a wreck as the men have lost hope without Boromir, he completely loses it. This is made worst by the fact that the son he always looked to to make things right has also failed him. Well it sends him over the edge. My impression of Gondorian culture in the films was that it had been massively active (look at Boromir's speech at the Council), but it has finally been broken. All that is left are the weakest warriors, bereft of belief and morale. The mentally-wrecked Denethor then has one last mad throw of the dice with retaking Osgiliath, and when that fails he truly truly breaks down. There's almost as much tragedy in that than in the book to me.

FarFromHome: Great points And I think it's because both Boromir and the Ring he was meant to bring with him have been lost, that Faramir's decision to let the Ring go is so difficult. He's not just trying to please his father, he's trying to step into his beloved brother's shoes and finish the job that (he believes) Boromir was trying to do. Sam's revelation of how the Ring drove Boromir mad finally makes Faramir understand that he must let it go, but in doing so, as you say, he drives his father over the edge.

I very much agree that there's comparable tragedy in the movie and the book. But you have to look at the whole movie-story in context, as you have done, rather than just trying to compare individual scenes, in order to see it.

Were the designers conscious of the choice they made?

Darkstone: I would think so. I mean, I thought of all that and theyíre obviously smarter than I am.

Jeremy Burnett, Digital Effects Art Director: Alan did the aerial kind of shot, the wide shot that, I remember walking into the studio one afternoon and he was putting the finishing touches on this drawing that I hadnít seen that morning. He had drawn it in a day. It clearly showed the east and west sides of the destroyed city, the island in the middle, the ruined bridge. Everything was there.

Grant Major: Given [Osgiliathís] size as described in the book, we knew we werenít going to have enough money to do the entire thing. And so we had to restrict ourselves to a few areas. And Alanís concept had a bridge, a big broken bridge that was a big feature in our set. Se we began by building that.

Alan Lee: What I found interesting, was because we had the opportunity to have a wet set there, we also had the opportunity of having the idea of the city feeling as if it was partially flooded and the waters had risen. Just kind of filling the edges and maybe the city had started to sink in places.


squire: Again, Iíd like to do a ruins check with the master:

Pons Cestius in Rome


I think Leeís bridge is a fine idea, and I love his idea that the Dome of the Stars was on a kind of Isle de la Cite-type island in the middle.

But what all these old European city bridges communicate is that the city is protected from the riverís floods by a raised and walled embankment. Notice the elevation of these bridgesí roadways, both Romeís and Alan Leeís? You know here arenít any ramps leading up to them; the entire city is elevated that high above the water level. So just what are all those elegant ruined buildings doing, down there where Faramirís men are, in the high water zone?

Itís the bridge itself which causes the problem. No bridge, and you can accept very easily that somehow the city is in fact partly flooding as Lee imagines.

squire: E. Does this kind of thing drive you nuts? Irritate vaguely? Fly right by?

FarFromHome: Embankments are an interesting point. It's true that cities built on rivers often have them, although London's was only built in the 19th century, I believe, and Paris's has extensive walkways and tunnels at river level that pass below the bridges. And in times when the river was used for transport, it was common for buildings to include a watergate at river level, such as the infamous one at the Tower of London. Which means that there would probably be extensive construction of arches and stairways to give river access, and that this would have perhaps become exposed in Osgiliath if the embankment walls had been breached by attacks from across the river.

I'd never stopped to think about it before, but I guess I've always imagined that the places where a lot of the action takes place in Osgiliath, especially the place where Faramir takes Frodo for protection (and from which he climbs out to confront the Nazgul), are the lower levels of buildings whose upper floors have been destroyed - basically exposed basements.

As for why basements would be so elegant in design, I've seen enough underpinnings of ancient architecture (such as the foundations of the Louvre, or various cathedral crypts) to know that the basements are often just as elegant in structure as the buildings they support.

Darkstone: But what all these old European city bridges communicate is that the city is protected from the riverís floods by a raised and walled embankment. Floods were pretty common in old European cities despite any raised or walled embankments.
"There was last night the greatest tide that was ever was remembered in England to have been in this River all Whitehall having been drowned"
-Samuel Pepys, diary entry of 7th December 1663.
"and in the great Palace of Westminster men did row with wherries in the midst of the hall."
-John Stow, The Chronicles of England, 1236
Of course Gondor is often compared to Italy and thus Osgiliath would be Rome, and walking through the older part of Rome you see all these plaques set here and there saying stuff like "IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1422 ON ST.ANDREW'S DAY THE TIBER'S WATER GREW TO THE TOP OF THIS PLAQUE - IN THE TIME OF POPE MARTIN V - 6th YEAR." Itís almost like people were proud that Rome was regularly flooded. I wonder if similar plaques were scattered throughout Osgiliath?

Notice the elevation of these bridgesí roadways, both Romeís and Alan Leeís? 
Yeah, it definitely reminds me of the bridge at Arnhem, which always makes me think of Faramir in conjunction with ďA Bridge Too FarĒ.

You know here arenít any ramps leading up to them; the entire city is elevated that high above the water level.
Well, yeah, most bridges donít connect bank to bank. They usually extend on into the city for a bit precisely to be above the flood line. If the river floods you want the bridge to stay up out of the river so itís less likely to wash away.

So just what are all those elegant ruined buildings doing, down there where Faramirís men are, in the high water zone?
I thought the same thing about New Orleans.

Itís the bridge itself which causes the problem.
Absolutely! Bridges like that cause build-up of water upriver, especially when debris clogs the gaps. For example after Old London Bridge was built in 1209 the number of flood events increased.

No bridge, and you can accept very easily that somehow the city is in fact partly flooding as Lee imagines.
If thereís no bridge how did the Osgiliathians get to the other side? You have a city straddling a river you have to have a bridge or seven.

Does this kind of thing drive you nuts? Irritate vaguely? Fly right by?
It makes me think. For example, raised embankments or retaining walls would make excellent defensive positions. Then again, if they were breached by the enemy suddenly all your forces are washed away under several feet of water. That is not a good thing. So like many defending armies in similar situations before, you go ahead and breach them yourself. This actually adds to your defense. Unless the orcs are experienced in underwater demolition, the breach creates a known corridor that any amphibious force has to go through. Which is precisely why Faramir and his men just happened to be waiting exactly where Gothmog and his orcs landed. That's where the gap was.

squire: F. All in all, how did you react to the Osgiliath set Ė particularly its Two Towers appearance, of course.

Dungolfin: Osgiliath flora... if I was being critical, hyper critical, and it hadn't occurred to me before, but there should be much more in the way of flora. Osgiliath was largely deserted for many hundreds of years and certainly ruined for at least 50. There should be plants - not just some tufts of grass - on just about every surface, there should be trees growing in the middle of buildings. I guess now that I look at it again it just looks too sterile, but as I said, I hadn't noticed before so I suppose I don't mind.

Darkstone: Totally amazed. The existence of the inverted siphon (the sewer under the Anduin) indicated that a lot of thought went into the civil engineering of Osgiliath, especially the flood control aspect. Iíd love to see the city plans they worked up. Itíd be fascinating.


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