Rings of Power Woke Up in Hell This Week

[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Episode 7, “The Eye.”]

Given how sprawling “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” has proven to be in its opening season, one of the most surprising things that it could do is pick up exactly where it left off. After a startling end to the previous episode — one that saw an entire village transformed in an instant after awakening a deadly volcano — “The Eye” takes a stark look at the aftermath.

The episode’s opening image, of an ash-coated Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) opening her eyes to the new horrors surrounding her, is the quickest way the show could communicate that something is instantly wrong. It’s a simple idea, but one that episode director Charlotte Brändström said took great care to pull off.

“I always wanted to do that very first shot with Galadriel, when she got up and started looking around. The hardest thing was that I wanted Morfydd to open her eye and not blink, and try not to get ash into her eye when she was covered. But she was patient and amazing,” Brändström said.

Once Galadriel has woken up to what has changed all around her, the audience can see that the bright and sunny landscape surrounding what was once part of the Southlands has become a waking nightmare. There’s a thick smoky haze around everything, drenched in a stark color right at the intersection of yellow and red and orange. It’s a terrifying sight, made all the more powerful by the fact that the show took inspiration from real-world tragedies.

“We started studying the California wildfires, especially around Paradise. We looked at a lot of photos of the city and the firemen. We realized that people far away were living with this very orange light in the clouds for a long time. So we created that. We shot a lot of tests with a lot of dust and a lot of orange light. We tried different colors and came up with this,” Brändström said.

Charlotte Brändström

Ben Rothstein / Amazon

Bringing that idea to life involved a thick, constant layer of fake ash to be floating in the air and covering everything. The paper-based material that doubles as ash on camera meant that crew (and cast in between takes) wore masks and protection for their eyes during production on the indoor sound stage. For a show centered in the push and pull between good and evil, there’s something poetic about the idea that if you took away the smoke and the lighting, the set would have looked like a much different seasonal landscape.

“It’s the same way they do snow. The only thing different is the color. Had it been made white would have looked like snow. So we turned it a different color of gray in order to make it look ashy and tested it under those lights,” Brändström said. “Every day when I got home, I would take a shower and everything was black. We shot in those ashes, basically. It’s very unpleasant when it goes into your eyes and it flies everywhere. So we had to be wearing glasses. Only the actors in the moment would take them off.”

The opening of the episode is where that forest fire-inspired coloring is the starkest. Brändström, DP Alex Disenhof, and the camera and lighting teams worked to seamlessly transition that indoor-filmed intro with the on-location forest scenes after it. The team had color-coded settings for each shade between that distinct orange and a regular sky, and adjusted based on how far away from the devastation that different groups of characters would be.

But it’s not just the color that Brändström wanted to play with.

“I shot it at 33 frames per second instead of 24 frames per second, in order to be just slightly off-speed, so everything would feel like the world had slowed down just a little bit,” Brändström said. “I imagined that they had this big sound from the volcanic eruption, so I wanted all the sounds to be muffled. You don’t hear people screaming in the beginning. I imagined her ears were just ringing and she was in a daze. I wanted this eerie feeling, that you’re in this surreal world.”

Bringing order to the chaos that Galadriel sees meant taking full advantage of the in-camera environment surrounding her. That meant finding a balance between showing the confusion in the aftermath of the explosions and having clarity for a viewer to be able to process everything.

“When I read the script, Galadriel was supposed to be in a complete cloud, but I said, ‘Then it’s not very interesting. You might as well shoot her in your bedroom.’ So we had to see the set. But with smoke, you always show a bit more than you would see. You’re always taking certain and creative liberties,” Brändström said.

Nazanin Boniadi and Morfydd Clark in “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power”

Prime Video

Because of production demands and the logistics involved with filming the ending of Episode 6, this opening to Episode 7 came earlier in the shoot than the scenes that immediately came before it in the show’s runtime. Arondir isn’t in that opening sequence of “The Eye,” but that didn’t stop Ismael Cruz Córdova from coming to set to witness it being brought to life.

“I snuck into set quite often when I wasn’t supposed to,” Córdova said with a laugh. “I saw a little bit of that filming, which was quite incredible. It’s kind of sublime in its destruction. These sets, they were so intricate and so magical. So that experience was replicated many times over on this show. It’s beautiful. And it’s epic.”

After following the characters who make their way out from the destruction and the remains of the village, “The Eye” returns to that color and environment in the episode’s other bookending sequence. Adar (Joseph Mawle) and his remaining forces survey the land they’ve conquered. Recognizing the opportunity to christen the area with a new name, Adar pauses without saying the name that even casual “Lord of the Rings” fans will recognize: Mordor. Brändström said that the plan was always to have the episode’s final reveal happen in on-screen text.

“That was in the script from the very beginning. The showrunners even had that the letters ‘Southlands’ replaced by ‘Mordor,’” Brändström said. “Everything is setup and payoff. It’s trying to find the dramatic moments, the moments of decision, the moments when the scene is even more important than the action. It’s what happens before and after.”

It’s that spirit of transformation that stood out for Brändström amidst directing the two massive episodes from the last two weeks.

“You’re in the new world. This world has been attacked, it’s at war. It’s really about all the species coming together now in fellowship to fight. And that was very beautiful, I thought. The world will never be the same again,” Brändström said.

“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” releases its final episode of Season 1 on Thursday night on Prime Video.

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