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The making of Barad-Dûr

Part four

© Lotrscenerybuilder 2009

X. 'His cruelty, his malice'

"It is a gorgeous set to shoot, because you really can't light it wrong. Wherever you put light, it gives you wonderful shadows!"
(Alex Funke, Weta's Visual Effects Director of Photography, in: "The Appendices", Part 4)

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Principal photography - if we may use this professional definition for taking our petty snaps - usually takes two or three days. It's Our Darkest Hour, our Nan-amarth, our Dûr Girith, which awaits us at the end of every building project. We have little difficulties in turning a bare tube into a Barad-dûr but to capture its versatility in a postcard frame is quite a different matter. Our problem is that we still can't accept the inability of the camera to reproduce our stereoscopic perceptions (Man! What is this, an academic thesis or what?! Keep it simple, for Morgoth's sake! Sorry guys, but what he means is this: take a look at the love of your life with one eye closed and the person in question looses half of his/her beauty…).

The all-important factor of photography is the quality of your light. In our Glorious Past we have experimented with every kind of artificial lighting: floor lamps, construction lamps, ceiling lights, spotlights, flashlights, fairy lights… only to find out that nothing beats the use of ordinary daylight. Thus, on a cloudless morning in July we rolled our precious tower out of the SAB (Scenery Assembly Building) and started to press the shutter release.

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"Whatever the setting," says Alex, "it comes down to the same thing: in miniature everything is magnified, so we are always dealing with very subtle variations - the tiniest turn of a light will make the difference between something too bright or too dark. So we have forests of stands holding little bits of cardboard and endless pieces of netting supported by wires: anything to reflect light in or deflect light out".
Alex Funke, in Sibley's 'The Making of the Movie Trilogy', page 65.

Compared with the well-equipped Kiwi studios our range of lighting-regulators was somewhat limited. We had a single mobile floor lamp for special effects; apart from an 'on/off' switch it was supplied with a directional headlight which was badly suffering from metal fatigue. As for the sun: with daylight coming in from above, the incidence of light on the twin horns made them virtually blend with the backdrop. Therefore we cunningly used a beach parasol to block the light - which made the whole of Mordor plunge into darkness as well…

By dragging the hardware from one position to the next we amused ourselves for two days, shooting a handful of pictures at a time and studying the results at the computer screen before returning to the set for another go. And all the time there was more of the tower under the sun than in the frame…

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Our camera isn't state of the art, nor is the editing software that we use. But we have learned a trick or two to manipulate the atmosphere of our pictures. Basically, it's a Stone Age version of what is called 'digital grading' by the Visual Effects wizards of Weta: the modification of the original quality and colour range of a shot. It's an ultra-secret LSB-procedure but in essence it comes down to the next five operations:

1) Suck away a lot of the blue and some of the red to get rid of all cheerfulness;
2) add a little more green for a spooky aura;
3) bring down the 'brightness'-slide to increase the amount of gloom & doom;
4) bring up the 'contrast'-slide to get a harsher lighting;
5) bring down the 'Saturation'-slide for an ashen, metallic look.

Of course, all the sliding needs to be done with caution and discretion. But with luck you catch the dreadful mood that weights down heavily upon the Land of Shadow:

'The light was no more than that of dusk at a dark day's end.
The vast vapours that arose in Mordor and went streaming westward
passed low overhead, a great welter of cloud and smoke
now lit again beneath with a sullen glow of red'.

(from: The Return of the King, page 206)

In the end, we did shoot a total of hundred-and-eighty-one pictures of the tower. Six of them passed Selection.

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The Bugler at the Gates of Doom

And now we have this black affair catching dust in the middle of the living room. The good news is: we didn't have to break through the ceiling to make it fit inside.

According to John Howe, who did the original design work on Barad-dûr, the tower rose up to three thousand feet: that's over 914m. At Weta Workshop in Miramar, Richard Taylor and his team built a model at 1 : 166 scale which ultimately measured 27feet / 8.22m. They had to make it in sections because otherwise it wouldn't fit in their construction stage…

Now if we had built our tower in agreement with the Games Workshop minis, we would have met similar problems. The Aragorn mini of the Mines of Moria-box stands a proud 3cm high; Tolkien however tells us that the actual height of this hero is six foot six, i.e. 1.98m. Comparatively, any model of the Dark Tower at GW scale should rise up to 45½feet or 13.85m. Now that wouldn't have been much of a problem for us if they only sold toothpicks of 27inches in length (ah, but they do, Master Builder: they're called 'broomsticks'…). From bottom to top, our Tower measures 4 foot 4 / 1.33m. The Gorgoroth-surface makes a 33” x 29” square (0.85cm x 0.73cm). The twin horn-shape is computed roughly by the mathematical equation of y = 0.44x2. The Boromir mini in the picture should have been exactly ten times smaller to play a serious role in this part of Middle-earth.

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At the end of the Black Gate Project we made a sacred vow:
to go back to the Land of Shadow in order to establish our theory about the genesis of Mordor. Now, at the end of all things, we think we have found the definite answer. Our findings are summarized in the next few lines, which will be hardly a revelation to our fellow scenery creationists:

1 In the beginning somehow on earth there was created a tube.

2 Now the tube was formless and empty, the paint was separated from the surface yet and the Spirit of the Valar was hovering god knows where.

3 And we said, "Let's gather some board, some toothpicks and a pot of glue". And it was done. And we saw all that we had purchased for less than a few quid, and that was very good! And there was evening, and there was morning - the first of many days.

4 And it was so, by Morgoth!


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According to myth, the Miniature Technicians at Weta usually got two weeks to complete a model. Undoubtedly Peter Jackson allowed them some extra time to construct the twenty-seven feet high model of Barad-dûr. Compared to their 'Gothic cathedral' (in the words of John Howe), ours is but a poor countryside chapel. Still, it took us nearly three months to conjure this well-shaped encumbrance that hasn't charmed every family member yet, nor contributed in a significant way to the lotrscenerybuilder household.

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie…

Im Morloth hain echant

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