Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Blu Ray Review: Lord of the Rings: Extended Editions

Cross-posted and commissioned by Film.com

Today marks the release of one of the best things to happen to Blu-ray since Blu-rays blu made their blu way into existence: The Blu-ray Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

Digitally remastered from the films’ original 2K files (unlike the theatrical cut Lord of the Rings Blu-ray release), these movies can now look as beautiful on a television as they did in theaters, no matter the size of your screen. My breath was just as taken away with the stunningly crisp picture (approved personally by Peter Jackson) on an 82-inch TV as it was on a 42-inch, as it was on a 23-inch. And the sound, now presented in 6.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, is powerful, all encompassing, sleek and dynamic. Watching with surround or not, I still felt like I was chillin’ (or as the case mostly was, fighting/traveling/arguing/rescuing) in Middle Earth. The quality is definitely maintained here partly because the film is still on more than one disc, allowing more room for the smallest of details to come through in both picture and sound.

Including the two containing the film itself, each title brings with it five discs. The nine discs of extras are perhaps the most extensive I’ve ever seen. The first disc of extras for each film focuses on the process of book to screen/pre-production. The second disc of extras for each film focuses on the production itself, post production, and theatrical release. The third disc of extras house each correlating part of the Costa Botes documentary.

Now, are the 26 hours of extras also in HD? No. They aren’t Blu-ray, just DVDs. But I almost wonder if this is a sneaky way of immediately pointing out how impressive the remaster actually is. Going from 1080p to DVD-upgraded-by-Blu-ray-player is a very noticeable switch. An even bigger shock is going from the films’ rich HD images to the behind the scenes video footage, so low quality, even the faces in the foreground are slightly blurry. But because you get used to the low quality rather quickly, it thankfully doesn’t remain a nuisance.

Another important note here is that the 26 hours of extras are all exactly the same as the ones on the Extended Edition DVDs, save digital copies and some trailers for Lord of the Rings: War of the North. The downside here, obviously, is if you already own the DVDs, you are paying a lot of money *only* for the Blu-ray discs. But at the same time, I almost appreciate the lack of new extras as it means those who aren’t fortunate enough to own Blu-ray players don’t have to fear that they are missing out on any actual additions to the set they cannot own.

But for those of you who haven’t memorized the extras on the original extended editions, here is a handy dandy breakdown of what you’ll be getting for your $120.

Lord of the Rings Extended Editions - Blu rayDisc 1/Disc 2 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring – Extended Edition
-The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition in HD/6.1 DTS-HD Part One (105 min) and Part Two (123 min)
-Four Commentaries, Directors/Writers, Design Team, Production/Post-Production team, Actors
-War of the North Trailer on Disc 1
-MTV Movie Awards Clip on Disc 1
Council of Elrond spoof with Jack Black and Sarah Michelle Gellar

A recommendation here that applies to each of these movies – because each commentary so specifically touches on different aspects of the films, they really allow you to create your own educational experience. Curious about the lighting and absence of color in Moria or about any of the digital effects? Click over to the Production track. Want to know how on earth Faramir and Eowyn holding hands could have been cut or why certain other elements were added or deleted? Listen to the Director/Writers track. Want to learn about Elijah Wood’s love of beer or hear what was going through each character’s head after Gandalf’s fall? Switch to the Actors track. And if you are curious about the design of the Ringwraiths or what was done to Frodo’s Elvyn cape to make it look like a rock, click over to the Design Team track. Although the names of those speaking only pop up based on which commentary you selected at the beginning, so if you *do* go track hopping, you won’t necessarily know who is speaking when. My personal favorite track was the Actors because not only do you get fun anecdotes and get to hear about the acting process, you also get bits and pieces of what would appear on the other tracks. For example, if you’re curious about King Theoden’s transformation, you’d think you’d get the most info from Design or Production, but it’s actually Bernard Hill on the Actors track that goes into it the most.

Disc 3: The Appendices, Part 1: From Book to Vision

-JRR Tolkien: Creator of Middle Earth (22min)
Brief biography on Tolkien and history of books & fandom
-From Book To Script (20)
Hear the relationship of many of the actors and crew members to the books, then learn about the process of initially adapting the books to screenplays.
-Storyboards and Pre Viz: Making Words into Images (20)
Learn about the importance of story-boarding and the many different ways of creating them
-Three Storyboards that didn’t quite make it into the film (11)
-Two Pre Viz Animatics (3)
-Two Storyboard/Pre-Viz to film side by side comparisons (4)
-Bad End Set Test (6)
FAVORITE ALERT. Peter Jackson and some crew members act out a couple scenes that take place in the newly built (but not yet dressed) home of the Baggins’. The highlight is getting to watch Peter Jackson throw his all into his performance of Bilbo.
-Designing Middle Earth (41)
Going through the production design of the film from start to finish
-Weta Workshop (43)
In depth look at all of the armor, weapons, special makeup effects, prosthetics, creatures and miniatures, it’s the coolest doc on the disc. I swear, co-founder of Weta, Richard Taylor with his loud, bizarrely accented voice could lead a really eccentric cult or something. And, well, I guess he kind of does.
-Costume Design (12)
Learn about the design for many of the characters’ costumes and get some perspective on just how much work goes into costumes for a project like this. If you’d like to know why 40 duplicates had to be made of every single costume, this is the one to watch.
-Galleries with optional slideshows of people and realms
If you ever plan on dressing up as a character from Lord of the Rings, this feature is your saving grace. Sketches, close ups of detailing, the actual pieces on actors – the best reference guide you could possible ask for
-Middle Earth Atlas
Interactive map of Earth. Pick the path of either Frodo or Gandalf and follow their journey on the map, complete with clips
-New Zealand As Middle-Earth (8)
Your guide to visiting Lord of the Rings set sites when you visit New Zealand! A map pointing out which realms where shot where, with location scouting footage and thoughts from location scout and Supervising art director, Dan Hennah

More - way more - after the jump!

Disc 4: The Appendices, Part 2: From Vision to Reality

-The Fellowship of the Cast (35)
FAVORITE ALERT. Actors on actors. Curious why Ian McKellan and Hugo Weaving got along so well? Or what everyone thought of Viggo Mortenson? Or in which ways Sean Astin went above and beyond to relate to Elijah Wood the way Sam related to Frodo?
-A Day In The Life of the Hobbit (13)
What it is like for the actors playing Hobbits on a typical day
-Cameras in Middle Earth (50)
Behind the scenes footage of production
-Gallery of production photos with Slideshow option
-Scale (15)
How they made a bunch of people who are more or less all the same height, look like hobbits and dwarves, elves and humans, all in the same shot
-Big-Atures (16)
Details on the incredible miniatures
-Weta Digital (25)
Goes over the 550 digital shots in the first film
-Editorial: Assembling an Epic (13)
A look at the editing process. One of my favorite facts here is that Peter Jackson and the editing crew would watch 3-4 hours of dailies every night. Every night!
-Editorial demo – Council of Elrond
Six windows of raw footage, featuring 36 takes in all. An example of what it’s like in the editing room. Nice to see some of the actors takes unedited – the moments between the moments.
-Digital Grading (12)
Explanation for why they went with digital color grading, plus editing bay demonstrations and mind blowing side by side comparisons
-The Soundscapes of Middle Earth (13)
Specifics on the sound mixing and editing process, the team for which ended up winning two Oscars. This especially makes sense when you realize the dialogue in the film is 85% ADR. This is what to watch if you’re curious about what was used to create the aural landscape of individual creatures, as well as the ring and freaky outy Galadriel
-Music for Middle Earth (12)
Goes through different themes, explaining the origins of each and how they were recorded. My favorite is The Fellowship Theme, duuuuuh.
-The Road Goes Ever On…(7)
Footage from the various premieres and a few retrospectives.

The Fellowship of the RingDisc 5: The Fellowship of the Ring: Behind-the-Scenes 

The Fellowship of the Ring: Behind-the-Scenes Doc (85)

The first of three Costa Botes documentaries, really makes you feel like you are on set, highly recommended. But as the docs are widescreen without being anamorphic, multiple sources have advised me to zoom in on the picture when watching with my BR player in order to get the most out of the images. I personally didn’t mind, but thought I should impart that knowledge onto you just in case.

Disc 6/Disc 7 – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Extended Edition

-The Two Towers Extended Edition HD/6.1 DTS-HD Part One (107) Part Two (129)
-Four Commentaries, Directors/Writers, Design Team, Production/Post-Production team, Actors (this time with 100% more David Wenham, Mirando Otto, Karl Urban, John Noble, Brad Dourif, Bernard Hill and Andy Serkis!)
War of the North Trailer on Disc 6
-MTV Movie Awards Andy Serkis Acceptance Speech on Disc 6

I must take a moment here to note the actors commentary in particular once again. During the credits, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan talk about every name as it comes up, then start listing which movies to watch next and it’s nothing short of hilarious. During the flashback scene between Faramir, Boromir and Denethor, John Noble speaks to Denethor’s motivations for disliking Faramir so and it sounds like you happened to step into an acting master class for a moment. And almost nothing on any of the commentary on any movie is better than hearing Andy Serkis speak about his extremely unique experience on set.
The Two TowersDisc 8: The Appendices, Part 3: The Journey Continues

-J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-Earth (30)
More on Tolkien, specifically on how he drew from his experience in the war in writing Two Towers and his relationship with C.S. Lewis
-From Book to Script: Finding the Story (21)
FAVORITE ALERT. Learn about the reasons behind the changes from book to movie, including giving Faramir a proper Hero’s Journey, and the change that almost happened involving Arwen that thankfully got pulled.
-Designing Middle-Earth (46)
-WETA Workshop (44)
-The Taming of Sméagol (40)
FAVORITE ALERT. Tracing the development of Gollum from start to finish. Andy Serkis is a revelation / genius / greatest human being ever. But the animators who ultimately brought Gollum alive are nothing to sneeze at either. If you can only watch one extra for some reason, this is the one. Even Andy Serkis’ audition makes me want to throw up out of sheer admiration and awe.
-Andy Serkis Animation Reference (2)
Animation and Serkis’ performance, side by side. What would they have done without him?!
-Gollum Stand-in (3)
A look at the day producer Rick Porrus had to stand in for Andy Serkis
-Middle-Earth Atlas
Follow the paths of Sam and Frodo, Merry and Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, or Gandalf
-New Zealand as Middle-Earth (15)
-Production design galleries
-Gollum design gallery

Disc 9: The Appendices, Part 4: The Battle for Middle Earth

-Warriors of Middle-Earth (21)
FAVORITE ALERT. All about the stunt men and combat training for the actors. As someone who was once certified in both broadsword and hand to hand combat, I was helplessly glued to the screen during this one
-Cameras in Middle-Earth (68)
Just like the behind the scenes featurette of the same name on Fellowship, but taking us through Two Towers instead, which was a completely different experience, now tracking more than one storyline and containing more than one epic battle.
-Big-atures (22)
FAVORITE ALERT. Wow. I’ve never seen that many toy soldiers in my life. Holy crap, the detailing of these structures! This people are magicians.
-WETA Digital (28)
Learn about the roughly 791 digital shots in The Two Towers, over 200 more than the number in Fellowship
-Editorial: Refining the Story (22)
Featurette on cutting The Two Towers, featuring editor Mike Horton. Fascinating to see how many decisions that affected the whole movie were made in the editing room, including making the choice to do extensive Gollum pick-ups with Andy Serkis, that ended up truly defining the character
-Music for Middle-Earth (25)
In depth look at the score and individual themes for The Two Towers, the most difficult movie to score of the three, as it has no real beginning, middle or end
-The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth (21)
A look at the creation of specific sounds in this film, including Treebeard, the blended ADR introduction of the White Wizard and the wolves of Isengard. Plus, get to watch some Foley work in action
-The Battle for Helm’s Deep is Over… (9)
On the film’s release with footage from various premieres
-Production photo gallery
-Big-atures galleries
-Pre-Viz Animatic – The Flooding of Isengard
There is something particularly sweet about this animatic, especially when watching it side by side with the sequence from the finished film
-Abandoned concepts galleries
-Interactive sound demonstration
Listen to seven different audio tracks including on set, live effects with foley, computer sound effects, dialogue and music, then hear the finished product at your leisure. VERY cool. I particularly recommend track 4 during the close combat. Weapon sounds are epic cool on their own.

Disc 10 – The Two Towers: Behind-the-Scenes

-The Two Towers: Behind-the-Scenes Doc (106)
The next part in the Costa Botes documentary

Discs 11/12 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Extended Edition

-The Return of the King Extended Edition HD/6.1 DTS-HD Part One (128) Part Two (135)
-Four Commentaries, Directors/Writers, Design Team, Production/Post-Production team, Actors
Lord of the Rings: War in the North-War of the North Trailer on Disc 11
-Dominic Monaghan as Hans Jensen interviewing Elijah Wood on Disc 11
This. Is. Hilarious. Watch it now.
-MTV Movie Awards Spoof on Disc 12
Vince Vaughan and Ben Stiller pitching Lord of the Rings sequels to Peter Jackson

Disc 13 – The Appendices, Part 5: The War of the Ring
-J.R.R. Tolkien: The Legacy of Middle-Earth (30)
More on the life of Tolkien and his experience writing and developing Lord of the Rings, including the creation of the Elvysh languages and dialects
-From Book to Script: Forging the Final Chapter (25)
Goes through combining the end of The Two Towers with the beginning of Return of the King so the events actually play out chronologically, as well as other adaptation tidbits like the choice to separate Sam and Frodo before Shelob’s lair and the choice to add, then remove, a physical fight between Aragorn and Sauron and how the footage was re-purposed. And yes, the multiple endings are addressed.
-Aragorn Battles Sauron abandoned animatic concept
-Designing Middle-Earth (40)
-WETA Workshop (47)
-Big-atures (20)
Can I just have these? And play with my action figures and/or cats on them all day? I’m in awe.
-Costume Design (12)
This featurette mostly addresses characters introduced in The Two Towers, as well as the costume changes the main characters finally get to experience in Return of the King. MAN, the attention to detail on these costumes is staggering. And MAN do I want to own everything Eowyn wore. FYI, Ngila Dickson (and Richard Taylor) would finally and rightfully win an Oscar in 2003 for her work on Return of the King.
-Home of the Horse Lords (30)
FAVORITE ALERT! All about the horsies! Training, riders, the two Shadowfaxes and the best part, the bond Viggo Mortensen developed with Uraeus, the horse who played Brego. Viggo loves him some horsies.
-Middle-Earth Atlas
This time follows the journies of Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry, or Gandalf and Pippin
-New Zealand as Middle-Earth (16)
The final destinations you need to know about in order to fully design your Lord of the Rings tour
-Design galleries
For costumes, realms and an entire one dedicated to miniatures!

Disc 14 – The Appendices, Part 6: The Passing of an Age
Return of the King-Cameras in Middle-Earth (73)
Finally, the behind the scenes footage that contains one of my absolute favorite bits of Lord of the Rings production lore – that the scene where Sam and Frodo separate before Shelob’s lair took over a year to shoot. Sean Astin’s half was shot in November of 1999 and Elijah Wood’s half was shot in December of 2000. To know why, be sure to check out this feature. Another favorite bit is about how Viggo and Billy tried to help Sean Astin with the Sam/Rosie wedding scene, which leads into the reveal that for some reason Billy Boyd has kissed five members of the Fellowship. Hilarious section around the 40 minute mark. I highly recommend watching this one in its entirety as it ends with the emotional conclusion to production. I promise the hug between Peter and Elijah after his last shot of the pick ups will have you in tears.
-WETA Digital (42)
Detailing the 1500+ digital shots of Return of the King
-Mûmakil Battle Demo
Visual effects demo w/ optional commentary. Breaks down the steps of the effects intro Pre-Viz, environment, live action, animation, massive, rough composite and then the final film.
-Editorial: Completing the Trilogy (22)
This time around with longtime Jackson collaborator Jaime Selkirk editing, the featurette chronicles the work done on the three million feet of film chronicling five different storylines produced by the third film
-Music for Middle-Earth (22)
More of the same, but for Return of the King, this time including a look at Howard Shore’s cameo shot during pick ups and details on my personal favorite piece, Pippin’s Song, which I used to listen to on repeat because I’m a cool person.
-The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth (22)
-The End of All Things (21)
Chronicling the completion of Return of the King in post-production, which was barely finished in time
-The Passing of an Age (25)
FAVORITE ALERT! Extensive footage of the World Premiere in Wellington, which most closely resembled a royal wedding, but bigger. For realsies. WTF. It’s awesome. Here you will also find footage from the rest of the premieres, the most impressive of which is oddly Oslo and the sweep at the Oscars. It’s quite an emotional thing to watch after being engrossed of 26 hours of behind the scenes footage, seeing each department win their Oscar, recognizing every face. Plus, when is the last time a film won Best Picture and everyone on stage was crying? Nothing gets me like teary eyed Hobbits.
-Cameron Duncan: The Inspiration for “Into the West” (32)
Two shorts directed by Cameron Duncan, DFK6498 and Strike Zone

Disc 15 – The Return of the King: Behind-the-Scenes
-The Return of the King: Behind-the-Scenes Doc (112)
The third and final installment of the Costa Botes documentaries.

So what does this all add up to? A box set that is a must own for any movie lover. No question.

I still love these films so much. Cate Blanchett’s booming voice during the prologue of Fellowship still knocks me on my feet, and the fight on Weathertop still legitimately terrifies me. (Plus, after watching Game of Thrones for so many weeks, I got a lot of joy out of seeing young Ned Stark in action.) The very existence of Gollum in The Two Towers is just as impressive now as it was ten years ago and the friction he causes between Sam and Frodo is just as painful. Return of the King is still a sob fest of epic brilliance and my favorite of the trilogy.

All in all, despite one or two effects that seem somewhat outdated, particularly the admittedly rushed CGI of the wolves of Isengard, the Merry, Pippin and Treebeard blue-screen shots and that one shot in Return of the King of digital Legolas climbing up the Mûmakil, the effects in these films hold up outstandingly. This trilogy is truly a landmark, so many firsts, so many effects invented and perfected. It’s easy to forget, because of the effects heavy blockbusters that have now become commonplace and the relative ease with which epic fantasies can now be created, even for television. But these films paved the way for so much, it’s important to remember and honor that from time to time. It is also astonishing to realize that cameras were on set and taping for almost the entire process, pre-production, production, post-production, and pick-ups. How wonderful to know that we can safely expect something similar with The Hobbit.

On that note, yes, in five years I wouldn’t be surprised to see a a brand new twenty five disc set combining both Hobbit films as well as the three Lord of the Rings movies released today. I’d even expect more extras that time, retrospectives perhaps, the one thing really missing from this set. (You’d think there would be more advantage taken of the fact that these are being released ten years after Fellowship came out. My only explanation is that these will pop up on that inevitable Ultimate Crazy Complete Blu-ray Collection, out sometime in 2015.) But five years is a long time to wait to re-watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, especially if you intend to revisit the world before seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at midnight, December 14th, 2012. So with that in mind, I absolutely recommend this box set, duplicate extras and all. Because damn, are they good extras and daaaaaaaaaaamn, are these amazing movies.