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The Battle For Visual Soul

The year is 2001 and Fellowship of the Ring has just been released, a masterful take on the classic Tolkien tale. It was revolutionary in its scope and introduced the beautiful world of Middle Earth to a whole new generation. I can still remember sitting in theaters with my dad the year before and seeing his enthused reaction to the trailer. It was contagious, and little did I know how much this film and the the subsequent films would shape my early teens and who I am today.


Flash forward to 2012 and my anticipation was once again soaring with the eagles. Why? They were about to release a new film for The Hobbit! Produced and directed by the same masterful hand that created the original trilogy, Peter Jackson. Not only that, but they were turning it into yet another trilogy. Three more years of continual bliss, or so I thought...



I had followed the pre-production with glee and reveled in seeing the old familiar faces returning to their titular roles, but something was amiss, it was already different than its predecessors. Most of the filming was being done on sets and not in the sprawling landscapes of New Zealand. New characters looked more cartoonish, and there was something off about the colors... I found out that this is because the films were being captured with the intent of being 3D. Nothing wrong with that medium, but a lot of times people start filming for the 3D experience more than the actual story, i.e. Avatar. All that aside, I was ecstatic to return to Middle Earth, so I cued up for the midnight premiere of the first film, An Unexpected Journey.


I left the theater feeling confused by what I saw. Instead of being captivated, as I still feel by the original trilogy, I felt a bit cheated. The film was a nice to return to the land of youthful imagination, one that heralded my becoming a nerd, so it was somewhat like coming home. Home in the sense of when having lived in a place your whole childhood you move away and then return in a later time to see it has changed. The forests have been cut down for housing development, and all the old haunts have been turned to strip malls. It was slightly depressing. I will not delve into all of the faults that I find with the Hobbit trilogy, such as adding love interests, and pulling too much from the appendices. No, I will focus solely on the visual aspects of the films. What separated the two trilogies so drastically? The answer is, saving money for quick features. It is the growing trend of relying fully on technology, green screens, and visual effects to dictate the visual story, instead of letting the visual story dictate what you need in effects.


For Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers film, they fully built the city of Edoras in the filming location.

In the Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, they built the city in a studio with green screens for a more controlled environment.

Other examples of this are the original Star Wars trilogy versus the unfortunate prequels, that unfortunate Green Lantern movie, and most of the superhero films made in the last ten years. It is an insatiable trend who's list of defaulters is endless and growing.


The soul of Lord of the Rings is, in its purest sense, based on the natural world holding out against the mechanized menace of the east. Tolkien was always suspicious of industry and it reflected in his writing, granted he saw the immediate effects of the Industrial Revolution in the carnage of the Great War. The Battles of the First Age, Gladden Fields, and the resulting Dead Marshes are formed from his experiences of the Western Front. This aspect of nature versus mechanical is where the original films really flourished. They used visual effects to simply fill in the places that were truly fantasy, but tried to use practical effects as much as possible.


In the case of the Hobbit Trilogy and the other films I mentioned, substance was diluted by "style and ease" and the over-use of rendered graphics. Visuals are a wonderful tool when they serve to further the story, but as soon as they take center stage we must re-evaluate the intent. I admire the purists out there, like Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson, who go so far as to only shoot on film stock, and not use digital cameras. It shows in their films! The Dark Knight trilogy is an incredible feat in story telling that bridges so many genres that is would be hard to just call them superhero movies. Wes Anderson's movies are whimsical and nostalgic with simple camera movements and minimal visual effects.



Storytelling is a sacred rite as old as time. The Viking sagas were passed down from generation to generation by the verbal tellings of the elders. The great epics of Homer and the Iliad were initially passed along by verbal tellings as well. I say this only to show that in the end, the story is king, so if we restrain our love of technology and remove the excess we can focus on telling a good story again. After all, the great stories, "The ones that really matter," as Samwise would say, are not fluffed or added to; they speak for themselves. That is what we want for our clients, for you to tell your unvarnished tales and see the world change before you. Your story is beautiful, don't hide it behind distractions.


-David Moum, Owner / Creative Director

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