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The Sawdust of the Past

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The Making of the Tower of Cirith Ungol

© Lotrscenerybuilder 2007
Look to the East…
After building five different versions of the Chamber of Mazarbul we were fairly fed up with Dwarvish architecture. Working on Helm's Deep offered a welcome variety but overall it wasn't much of a challenge (apart from integrating the Outer and Inner Court of the Hornburg into a playable system of combat hexes). Constructing the Tower of Cirith Ungol however turned out to be quite a different story. We felt the need to prove our statement of being able to build even Minas Tirith in a comfortable scale. However, creating the ancient City of the Kings of Gondor seemed on further consideration a rather boring project, as it is mainly more of the same all the way up to the Fountain Court. So we looked to the East for another challenge… and found it standing tall and menacing on the borders of Mordor.

Cirtith Ungol 7

Now… where to begin? (January 16 - 18, 2007):
Tolkien describes the Orc-infested fortress of Cirith Ungol as a stack of "… pointed bastions, one above the other, (…) with sheer sides of cunning masonry". Alex Funke and the modellers of Weta's Visual Effects Department clearly had a field day when they built this particular 'Big-ature'. First thing we did was to study painstakingly the rare shots of Cirith Ungol in the Return of the King movie. Next, we gathered all the information available in the Appendices. It took us no less than three days before we even got a grasp of the architectural complexity of the Tower. We made a few sketches of the different parts of the fortress to get an idea of their scale and position. Moreover, we searched on the Internet for possible scale models, made by Weta-Workshop or by hobbyists like ourselves. Earlier on, pictures of a 'polystone environment' of Minas Morgul had been very helpful when we worked on the City of the Nazgûl. This time however, we weren't really impressed by what we found. Obviously few amateur modellers had ventured upon the Tower of Cirith Ungol. So we mused, like Bilbo: "Now… where to begin?"


The tower of the Tower of Cirith Ungol (January 20 - 28):
Not a little discouraged by the awful complexity of this fortress, we decided to build it top-down. In this way we could tackle the multitude of difficulties - as they do increase with each lower level - one at the time (and certainly not at the start!). So the tower proper became our first objective. Now we like to think ourselves afflicted with an infallible eye to read measures & scale from a flatscreen tv. This blessing proved to be a great help with the defining of the proportions of the different parts of the tower, such as the fins of masonry going up along the octagonal tower shaft, or the four buttresses against the walls. After only 1½ week we ended the first stage of our modelling quest. We had a rocket-tower to act as a reference for the rest of the building. We put it to the test immediately and made some pictures of the tower as it shows up above the rock cleft beyond Shelob's Lair.

Cirith Ungol 10    Cirith Ungol 11

"I don't like the look of that!" said Sam…
(nor did we, as it turned out)

Down, down we go… (February 1 - 18):
The first real test came next with the constructing of the 2nd level, which is situated directly beneath the top tower. There is an amazing pan-shot in the ROTK-film which shows Sam racing up against a flying buttress before entering the gothic-like main block of the Tower. We absolutely wanted that shot in our collection of pictures. Especially the "sheer sides of cunning masonry" had to be part of our model. Now our experience, gained in innumerable hours of sawing, grinding, sanding and filing in behalf of earlier scenery came to our aid. Tricksses and clevernesses we used, my Precious! We never asks ourselves if we're able to build a piece of scenery of any kind; we only wonder about the looks of it when we have finished the job (yes, there is a ring of arrogance in this remark!). As for our version of the 2nd level - which took scarcely 18 day's to produce - we were most pleased with it!

Cirith Ungol 12

The second level: up, up we went…

Riddles in the Dark (February 19 - March 4):
We thought one week of spring holidays would suffice to build the 1st level. Not so. In the movies, there is only a split-second glimpse of this level: a few battlements and then up, up we go, nice Hobbits! But despite this fleeting shot we knew for sure that any laxity on whatever detail of the model would show afterwards as a striking miss on the photographs. So we stared for hours at the stills on the DVD, guessing at the shapes and connexions of the invisible parts: corners, angles and recesses in the stonework, undoubtedly making out a logic basement for the upper levels. Furthermore, another detail was worrying us from the beginning: the exact attachment of an enigmatic wall which appears on one of the stills in the Appendices. It took a while before we solved this riddle. Now this wall had to be integrated somehow between the 1st and the 2nd level. And then there was still a stairwell and the flying buttress to deal with… It became a matter of trial-and-error but we think we got it right in the end.

Cirith Ungol 13

Under the frowning walls close to the Tower-gate…

There and Back Again (March 5 - 14, 2007):
Now our miraculous surveyors-eye apparently had lost some of its infallibility because when we put the three finished elements together, our once proud rocket tower seemed to shrink into a measly little stump. We weren't amused. If we didn't want to bite our nails every time when we visited our website, we had to do things over. The good news was that this gave us an opportunity to introduce a few improvements, as we weren't quite happy with the silhouette of the old tower. The bad news was that we couldn't use the old moulds and measurements, as we wanted the shape of the tower to be wholly revised. We had to go back to the drawing-table as well.

Cirith Ungol 14

Two is Company…

Masters must hurry! Make haste! (March 16 - 28) During the process of designing and constructing there was always a certain delay, caused by the copying of all the plans and measures. It was irritating but necessary. We were very careful to make notes because more often than not we had to search in our archives for earlier used lengths, widths, heights, diameters… And once an element of MDF is glued in its place it becomes difficult if not impossible to recall the way it was originally designed. A growing impatience was frustrating the building process as well. With only the ground level left to construct, the desire to see the result became unbearable. Thus it happened that, although the most extensive in square feet of MDF, the ground level was finished in record time. There were a few problems to solve though, such as the gate of the battlement wall with its complicated ceiling; the watchtower with its gradual recedings beneath the parapet; the piece of "cunning masonry" (again!) next to the gate and the nearly invisible fortifications on the inside of the wall. But nothing could stop us now. Finishing the Tower of Cirith Ungol became an obsession! It's ours, it is, and we wants it!

Cirith Ungol 15

We did it Mr. Frodo. We finished that accursed Tower!

Many Parts & Things (March 28 - 30) At last the moment arrived when we could put all the elements together: it was a night to remember! This piece of scenery would produce the pictures we had in mind. But we weren't ready yet: rocks had to be hewn, decors had to be painted. We used lightweight sand-lime bricks and modelled them with some well aimed hammer blows into peaks and crags.

Cirith Ungol 16

The quarry: a mountain of the Ephel Dúath is halfway its completion

The mountainous background was created on a panel of MDF with a few spurts of paint from our spray cans. Unaccustomed as we were with this form of art, it felt like graffiti-for-starters. But we succeeded in making it look "ominously quiet". As an afterthought, we botched together a fitting Bridge of Cirith Ungol.

Cirith Ungol 17

Almost Forgotten: the Bridge of Cirith Ungol

A sullen glow of red (April 1 - 4)
Photography is a special trade. With only a simple snapshot camera at our disposal, we had to compose each scene very carefully. Building up a whole mountain range of the Ephel Dúath in our living room was the least of our tasks. Just imagine the sight of a dark and forbidding Orc-tower standing next to the dinner table, surrounded by a barrow load of blackened lime bricks poised on shaky piles of books; and a blood red Mordor-sky displayed on the mantelpiece (the whole lot was prone to collapse at any moment). Except for daylight, which gives optimal lighting, we used two floor-lamps for additional effects. After three days of shooting we ended up with some two hundred shots… of which we chose six.

Cirith Ungol 18

Sundown in Mordor… waiting for show-time

For eleven weeks we toiled and moiled in a cold and clammy garage. It was a near thing or it had us turned into anything unnatural - gollum, gollum!