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Not quite convinced

For decades, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was considered “unfilmable.” The Professor himself doubted that any director could successfully adapt the work. Chief among the challenges? Middle-Earth’s major races come in all shapes and sizes. Men and elves wouldn’t pose a problem, but how could an actor play a four-foot-tall hobbit? Or a dwarf—built like a tank?

To create the illusion of different-sized races for his Rings adaptation, Peter Jackson combined a variety of techniques: green screen compositing, forced perspective, and “little people” as body doubles. At points, he even resorted to the oldest trick in the book: make one actor kneel, or stand another on a box.

Considering all the different tricks used, the composite effect proved remarkably convincing. Most of the time, you forget that Elijah Wood isn’t four feet tall.

But every once in a while, things don’t quite jive. While the characters’ relative heights remain consistent, their girth doesn’t. When you “shrink” actors via green screen composition or forced perspective, they retain their natural proportions. The result is slender, miniaturized humans. But when you film “little people” (as Jackson often does in wide shots), you capture those body double’s stockier proportions. Finally, stand an actor on his knees, and you can dial in the appropriate height, but his head and shoulders don’t scale (compared to the other, “full-size” actors in the scene).

Ideally, Jackson would have selected a single proportion—in both girth and height—then adjusted each technique to maintain that ratio. Perhaps the lead actors could have packed on a few pounds (Elijah Wood always seemed too skinny for a hobbit). Or the film’s digital wizards might have “pinched” the stouter body doubles, slimming them down in post-production.

But given the tools available at the time, it’s understandable that Jackson couldn’t quite “hide the seams.” Fortunately, the technology has improved dramatically in the decade since Rings debuted. Jackson’s Hobbit films feature more convincing character scales.[1] The only hint of trickery? Dialogue delays and eye-line mismatches occasionally make me doubt that Gandalf and the dwarves were filmed together (they weren’t).[2]


  1. One happy side-effect of shooting The Hobbit in 3D? Many of the old techniques (particularly forced-perspective shots) don’t hold up. As a result, Jackson has opted for green screen far more often. Presumably, this allowed his digital compositors to dial in a single, consistent proportion.  ↩

  2. Ian McKellen (who plays Gandalf in both trilogies) found Jackson’s compositing techniques for The Hobbit to be frustrating. Since wizard scale differs from hobbit/dwarf scale, McKellen was forced to work on a smaller Bag End, separated from his fellow cast members. At one point, the actor even shed some tears and protested, “This is not why I became an actor!”  ↩

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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode IV: Leaner green screen

The last few posts have addressed a single question: how might the Star Wars prequels have been salvaged? How might George Lucas have kept that trainwreck on the rails? In the first post, I questioned the whole “prequel” concept. Then, I discussed how real-world analogues polluted the Star Wars universe. Finally, I suggested some ways that the prequels might have better explored the characters of Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Today’s post addresses the most obvious, glaring problem with the trilogy. To fix the prequels, you’d have to scale back the use of green screen.

“Green screen”—or chroma keying—has become an indispensable tool in the arsenal of modern filmmakers. It allows directors to compose shots that—just a few years ago—wouldn’t have been possible. Whole worlds can be invented, and the creator’s imagination faces nearly no limits.

Ironically, it is the lack of limits that makes green screen a problem for many directions. Creators need ceilings against which to bump their heads; they need obstacles to invent themselves around. Creativity means subverting the limitations of your chosen medium. A New Hope blew our minds because Lucas used models to make us believe in spaceships and laser beams. But without practical obstacles to overcome, Lucas leans too far out into the imaginary, making the action unrelatable and alien.

Overusing green screen and CGI poses problems for actors, as well. Actors need the context that green screening removes.

Why? After all, good actors don’t need a set to deliver a stirring performance. Thespians have dominated empty stages for millenia. Instead, it’s a problem of physics and improvisation. “Physics,” because an actors can’t really fake the subtle way that feet slide differently over carpet than over painted plywood. “Improvisation,” because green screen tends to remove the props and set-pieces that invite impromptu, grounding interactions. When asked to act to an empty room, actors tend to stand around. That’s pretty much all we get from Episodes II and III.

It’s a shame; Lucas hired great actors for his prequel trilogy: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid. If any cast could have convinced us that the world was real, it was this one. They couldn’t (no one could). Lucas wasted his fantastic actors by filming them in a sterile, green-walled prison.

This combination—static actors on a fantastically animated background—unnerves the audience. They don’t know why, but things feel unreal. They know, instinctively, that nothing’s really at stake. Such disbelief only further undermines the prequels’ subpar characters, dialogue, and plot. Conversely, while real sets and on-location shooting wouldn’t have single-handedly redeemed the prequels, it couldn’t have hurt.


That wraps up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. What more is there to say? Lucas wasted his fans’ good will and irreparably damaged the greatest franchise in cinematic history. No thought experiment can change that. But maybe, just maybe, future filmmakers can ask themselves the same questions and thus avoid making the same mistakes on the upcoming Star Wars sequels.