Making a “Lord of the Rings” series means encountering a unique and occasionally frustrating technical challenge: Sometimes really big people and and really small people have to be in the same scene at the same time. Take for instance, a series of sequences that happen in the second episode of Prime Video’s “The Rings of Power.” Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot (Markella Kavenaugh) encounters a mysterious stranger (Daniel Weyman) who towers above her. Nori, who belongs to a race of Hobbit ancestors called the Harfoots, is supposed to be about four feet tall. This unknown figure who fell from the sky—and may be a Maiar, essentially a Wizard—is probably around seven.
“The idea of scale difference is one that most film crews haven’t encountered much in the other things they’ve done,” executive producer Lindsey Weber said. “It’s also one that’s inherent to Tolkien. It’s part of the property. So we knew we had to get it right.” Depending on how you look at it, it can be a headache or a “delightful challenge.” “It can be slow and tedious at times to make it all work, but hopefully the final product and magic trick feels really worth it and very Tolkienian,” Weber said.
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So how did they do it? According to the producers, they used pretty much every trick in the book, from employing very tall stand-ins and very short stand-ins, to working with a technodolly camera crane that would be programmed to spin around the actors with mathematical specificity while they looked at a tennis ball against a green screen. “The goal was always let’s always be changing it up and never get too reliant on any one technique at any time,” showrunner JD Payne explained. That could require complicated CGI; it could mean using oversized props when it came to smaller characters like Harfoots and dwarves or getting hand doubles.
The scene with Nori and the stranger was an “exceedingly complex” sequence to shoot, according to co-showrunner Patrick McKay, that used a “smorgasbord” of various tricks. The towering man falls from the sky and lands in a steaming crater, where he seems almost terrifying to speak. For one, the production built two different sized craters in a hangar in Auckland, New Zealand — one that would make Kavenaugh look tiny, and another that would fit Weyman.
“These sequences require an endless number of meetings to plan everything incredibly carefully,” Weber said. “It’s like a carefully coordinated dance by the time it happens and you get on set.” (Before COVID, they used to call the crater “the corona.” They eventually decided they should rename it something else.) But occasionally it’s as simple as a double rolling down a slope only to be replaced by the actor at the end. “It’s just old school Lumière camera tricks,” said McKay, referring to the cinema pioneers the Lumière brothers. “But then also between Nori and the stranger in that scene there were at times four different actors.”
And, sure, it all needs to be stitched together in post, but it doesn’t make the experience on set feel any less remarkable. “I was on another set on a different shoot for a different series of problems. When I came to the end of the day in the crater and there’s fire and smoke and wind machines and Markella Kavenaugh was screaming and there’s a seven-and-a-half foot tall actor who’s looming over her from one angle,” McKay said. “I remember standing there and it was a little bit of: Pinch me, I’m in Middle Earth, but it was also like, ‘Oh my God, are we making the coolest show on the planet right now?’ I hope so.”
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” is streaming now on Prime Video.
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