The Gaffer’s Elite: Cinematic Shots

Gaffer Gamgee

Ranking all things Middle-earth

Last week we ranked the best characters’ songs from the Middle-earth films. This time, I will be going through my favourite shots from the two trilogies.

In filmic terms, a shot is basically a number of frames. A shot can be anything – a landscape, a setup, a character’s face – in front of the camera. It can be of any length in duration, without breaking away from the action – thus, without any editing cuts.

Think of a conversation between two people; every time the camera shows one character’s face and then the other, it’s switching between two separate shots.

1. Hobbits hide from the Nazgûl

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Hobbits hiding from Nazgul

The undisputed choice. Without a doubt, this is my absolute favourite shot from both Middle-earth trilogies. Be it the sudden eerie silence that settles in the scene; the Black rider who invisibly appears from behind the tree; or the slow camera tilt upwards to reveal the looming presence over the defenceless hobbits; I could write an entire essay on the exquisite cinematography, the composition of the shot, the sound and everything else …

2. Théoden reacts to the approaching Mûmakil

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Theoden

As convinced as I was of the first shot, I am absolutely adamant this is in its rightful, second place. The day seems to have signaled a victory for the forces of good. Yet, Bernard Hill masterfully gauges the audience’s emotions as the distant bellowing of the approaching Mûmakil heralds imminent danger. Théoden’s optimistic face transforms into despair, as he looks hopelessly at the oncoming doom – all this  demonstrated through the simple act of lowering his sword. The weapon almost serves as a “swipe” or visual transition, which alters the mood and emotion of both the character and the audience; one simple movement in a single shot and the whole scene changes.

3. Bilbo reacts to Sting glowing for the first time

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Bilbo's reaction to Sting

Bilbo is about to leave the Dwarves, and after a moving moment between him and Bofur, the dwarf points towards Sting. As the hobbit slowly lifts the weapon from its scabbard, the dreaded blue glow emerges. The camera moves close onto Martin Freeman’s face, in order to capture Bilbo’s expression (almost in slow-motion). The musical crescendo in the background perfectly accompanies this shot; and is an assured spine-tingling moment every time. I just love those track-in facial shots.

4. Smaug reveals himself

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Smaug the Stupendous

It’s the moment we’ve been waiting two Hobbit films to see. After Jackson’s cheeky hints and glimpses during Bilbo’s search for the Arkenstone, we finally get to witness and experience one of the most popular characters in modern English Literature. The shot in which the dragon raises itself up in full glory – proclaiming the words “And do you now?” – demonstrates the wicked majesty and strength of this creature, along with the superb technical wizardry of WETA Digital.

5. Gollum discovers Bilbo is “the thief”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Gollum

Another favourite facial close-up moment occurs during the Riddles in the Dark sequence. The moment, in which Gollum discovers Bilbo has taken the Ring, escalates to a terrifying climax. The music instills the thrills and horrors of Gollum’s reaction, as the camera inches closer to his bewildered expression. The pitiful creature simply mutters“He stole it …”, before succumbing to uncontrollable rage. Whether conscious or not, Peter Jackson knows how to establish emotions prior to an unfolding sequence of events.

6. Gandalf and the Balrog fall down the chasm

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Gandalf and Balrog (chasm)

Alex Funke (VFX Director of Photography/Miniature Unit) and his team did a tremendous job in capturing the spirit and atmosphere of Alan Lee’s original painting. An illustration which depicts one of the most spectacular moments in The Lord of the Rings. Locked in a titanic battle, the two Maiar spirits plunge down the deepest chasm of Khazad-dûm. The panoramic shot gradually lights up as the flamed figure of the Balrog descends towards the freezing water. Accompanied by Shore’s orchestral and choral powerhouse, it’s no wonder this makes it in this list.

7. Frodo offers the One Ring to the Nazgûl

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Frodo and Nazgul

Frodo and Sam have unwillingly found themselves in the midst of conflict between Gondor and Mordor. As the defenders of Osgiliath flee in terror at the approach of the Nazgûl, Frodo is about to succumb to the power of the Ring and offers it to the Ringwraith. The sounds in the background fades to nothing, as Shore’s gentle and chilling score takes over. The frail and solitary figure of the hobbit stands on a ruined bridge, with the city crumbling around him and the shadowy threat of Mount Doom burning in the distance. The fell beast rises from behind the bridge to reveal its majesty and terror, looming closer towards the hobbit. Everything occurs in slow motion, as Jackson and his team of VFX and sound artists cleverly employ the use of the creature’s beating of the wings to replicate the throbbing lure of the Ring.

8. Bard runs across a bridge in Lake-town

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Lake-town bridge

This particular shot is filled with so much imagery and references, it’s astonishing how simple it is in terms of execution. Placed over Bard’s recital of Durin’s Prophecy, Luke Evans’ character races past the shoddy alleys of Lake-town and crosses the bridge. As the words “… and the Lake will shine and burn” are proclaimed, the camera pans towards the left to reveal the silhouette figure of Bard wrapped in the glowing warmth of the setting sun. This moment foreshadows the eventual destruction wrought by Smaug himself: when the lake will literally be engulfed by dragon fire..

 9. Thorin and Company charge out of Erebor

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Thorin charge

I have not yet fully memorised the third Hobbit film, but this shot stands out from the rest. Torin emerges from Erebor with his companions, shouting his famous Dwarven rallying call: “Du Bekâr!”. The wedge formation composed of all the dwarves we have shared this adventure with, is an impressive sight to behold. It is also a pivotal moment in Thorin’s character arc: overcoming his dragon sickness and casting aside grudges. The slow motion effect further reinforces this ‛moment of grace’, as the tone of the battle shifts in favour of the forces of good. In addition, there is a beautiful geometrical composition to this shot.

***

I’m absolutely positive there are many more I could add to this list without even thinking twice; but I’ve attempted to select a shot or two from each of the six films.

This task is now appointed to you … tell us what are your favourite shots from the trilogies.

Next Time: End Credits Songs

Copyright of all images belongs to Warner Bros, MGM Studios and New Line Cinema.

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22 thoughts on “The Gaffer’s Elite: Cinematic Shots

  1. One of my favorite shots that you don’t mention here is when Smeagol attempts to banish Gollum in The Two Towers, particularly the opening shot. Lesnie’s camera starts on one side as Smeagol addresses Gollum, then swings around to the other side as Gollum retorts. Jackson then uses alternating shots to help denote which part of the psyche is speaking, finishing on the Smeagol side before going to a zoomed out shot.

    • A great scene! I remember lots of people talking excitedly about the scene after we saw the movie, which is impressive considering how much spectacle also commanded peoples’ attention. I saw that scene again recently and was impressed that the device of alternating shots wasn’t overplayed. It’s introduced subtly, but quickly, and the whole scene is pretty efficient. If it had gone on too long, it may have begun to feel like a camera gimmick, but instead it enhances the disconnect Gollum feels between his competing, disturbed impulses.

  2. It is fascinating what a picture can convey, Lots of thoughts generated from your choices and this topic, James. Some of mine include the shot at the end of Return of the King looking out of the harbour at Lindon to the far west – and wondering what it is like in the undying lands (and wanting to go there). Another, maybe in the Two Towers, or ROTK, where Aragorn lies dead and it fades into ruins surrounding his form now turned to stone – conveying, magically for me, the passage of time and the fading of those years at the end of the third age into forgotten memory. The films are full of artistic touches that spark my imagination. Thanks for the memories James 😉

    • That shot of Arwen in mourning garb by Aragorn’s tomb is heart-wrenching and majestic all at once. The gray stone and clouds, and the dead trees and their shriveled leaves scattered over the ground all speak of faded glory and fear for what will come.

  3. Oooooh, I’ve got one for you. The implications were obvious, yet it took me my third viewing to even notice it because the line itself was so strong:

    In “Desolation of Smaug” when Balin and Thorin are arguing about going in to save Bilbo when Smaug starts rumbling. When Thorin turns to a profile and says, “I am not my grandfather.” There in the background is a perfect profile of Thror’s statue.

    Generally speaking, I love how every film has so many striking, iconic moments. For instance, anyone else remember Saruman wheeling around to witness the ents tearing down the dam in “Two Towers?” This is a great (and endless) discussion to have.

  4. Gosh, what a hard post this must have been to write. The dwarves, as they circle around Thorin’s dead body in BOTFA. Thorin’s face, in the scene with Bilbo and the acorn. Too many to say, really.

  5. That first shot of the Hobbits hiding is based on an image (maybe a Naismith image?) from a Tolkien calendar. Several of the shots in the first trilogy are taken from Tolkien visual art. I got a Tolkien calendar every year for about 20 years during the 80s and 90s, and I remember being surprised when the first movies came out at just how many of them there were.

    • I’m sure Jackson was inspired by other artists apart from Howe and Lee – which is fantastic as he’s manage to blend these illustrations with his own vision 🙂

      • I agree. The settings in those movies are exquisite, and I think one of the reasons they look so authentic, at least to me, is that so many are familiar.

  6. Excellent list again! My #1 would probably be the same as yours; of all the awe-inspiring moments from Fellowship, that was probably the first scene that was exactly like I had pictured it when I read the book. I don’t even know if I’d seen the famous John Howe picture that resembles it: http://www.theonering.com/galleries/professional-artists/the-fellowship-of-the-ring/black-rider-john-howe. Tolkien had described that moment vividly, and the movie thrilled me by showing just what had been in my imagination.

    I’m not even going to try to find and rank my own favorite shots now — there are far too many, and to limit them to 9 or 10 would be very difficult. Your choices are all fine contenders, although I haven’t spent enough time with The Hobbit movies to really evaluate the cinematic greatness of any particular shots. On the whole, even the visual spectacle in those movies didn’t impress me with the sort of artistic maturity I felt was present in the original trilogy, but they still have moments that shine brilliantly. I’ll have to pay closer attention to the Bard on the Lake scene next time I see BotFA.

    I will say that your #6 would also probably be on my own list; it’s so amazingly operatic in scale, something that feels almost cosmic and right out of The Silmarillion. And #2 is a great “Oh NO!” moment, masterfully conveyed. We’ve already seen a few Mumakil before when Faramir ambushed them in Ithilien, from a limited viewpoint, and we got a small taste there of what it’s like when they panic and rampage. It was just enough of a foretaste for us to truly dread the sounds of them stomping, and the horns blowing, as Theoden first sees what we are about to. And then that incredible, valiant charge….!

    Speaking of charges, two of my other favorite shots would be the Riders of Rohan charging the first time at Pelennor Fields, and after the battle that shot of Eomer finding the body (he thinks dead) of Eowyn. In the latter, the tough, sometimes-scornful warrior falls to his knees and screeches in such heart-rending anguish that it never fails to make me tear up. Even thinking about it threatens me with manly tears. *dabs eye* Manly tears.

    • Always a pleasure to read your thoughts David. So insightful and fantastic to listen to others’ experience. Cheers for your contributions 🙂

  7. The first two and Frodo offering the ring to the Nazgul are just splendid! This post inspire me to rewatch the films and make a list of my own. Not sure if it is going to happen soon. But I’d love to do it!

  8. great list! must have been terribly difficult to make. one shot i adored was from the theatrical release of RotK when the Black gate opens and we see the legions of Sauron issuing forth with Barad-dur and the Eye behind them. really cool IMO.
    Another couple I liked were Saruman standing atop Orthanc issuing weather spells at Caradhras while the Fellowship are trying to cross the mountains, the first viewing of the city of Khazad dum with all the pillars, etc, the above shot of Gollum inside mt doom when he takes the ring from frodo and the shot of Faramir leading out the soldiers of Gondor on horeback to reclaim Osgiliath on his father’s orders. A few ones I thought were worthy of mention at least!

    • Hey John, it was indeed a difficult decision. Great choice re the opening of the Black Gate 🙂 And the Khazad dum shot is also spectacular – especially the music.

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