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Interview: ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power’ Cinematographer Alex Disenhof Discusses Crafting “Udûn” and “The Eye”

Episodes six and seven of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power show the characters at their most vulnerable as they unite to battle an army of Orcs who plan to take over the Southlands. Both episodes, Udûn and The Eye, were directed by television veteran Charlotte Brändström and shot by cinematographer Alex Disenhof, who was responsible for crafting the show’s biggest battle setpiece and its aftermath.

Disenhof recently discussed with Awards Radar via Zoom, to talk about the process that went into crafting the Battle of the Southlands, his collaboration with Brändström, the challenges of jumping into a show that had already established its visual look, and the process of crafting The Eye‘s red haze, after the Southlands become Mordor, among others.

Read the full conversation below:

How big of a responsibility was it for you to craft the looks of both episodes six and seven, which are arguably the biggest episodes of the first season?

It certainly was an honor to shoot the two episodes that were the apex of season one. I knew going in that I would have a block of episodes with a battle where all the storylines were converging. However, I didn’t know how big they would be until I got on the ground, got the scripts, and saw their breadth. It was a huge undertaking to bring Middle-Earth back to life, but also a fun one to do. 

Can you talk about your collaboration with director Charlotte Brändström? How did her vision on the show match yours for the two episodes? 

Charlotte and I actually met on this project. We had never worked together before when we were paired together. Luckily, we got along very well and had similar visions of how we wanted to approach our work on the show. We wanted to keep our visual storytelling grounded as much as possible to make the visuals feel real and not overtly fantastical. We were lucky because we had a lot of real locations to work with. We had a real village and forests, so we could use many real environments to help ground the visuals, even though we knew many fantastical things were happening.

Is it challenging to come into a show when its visual look has already been established with previous episodes?

I think it’s certainly a challenge. Anytime you come into a show with an established look, you want to keep the visual language similar to what came before because you want to feel like it’s one piece. But we certainly made it our own. We shifted some things around but didn’t feel constrained by what had come before. Our episodes were pretty standalone in their own way, with the explosion of Mount Doom and all of that. We got to have our own unique signature set pieces. As a part of a larger team, there’s a responsibility to make sure you’re making the same show that everyone else is. But the team of people at Amazon, the showrunners, the writers, the producers, really let Charlotte and myself do our thing without too many constraints.

What were your initial discussions with showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay when you joined the show?

They’re fantastic. Patrick and J.D. have huge enthusiasm and energy, and they become excited when you start digging into the craft. It was pretty freeing. They really let us have a lot of freedom and encouraged us to take risks. They were really emphatic that we were to be bold in our shared vision of the episodes. 

How extensive was the planning for episode six in creating the Battle of the Southlands?

The battle sequences in episode six took an enormous amount of planning. As you saw them, they went from nighttime to daytime. It was really important for us to make it about our characters even though a large-scale battle is happening. We understood that people wouldn’t really care unless they were experiencing it through the eyes of our heroes. So it was important for us to track each character’s own journey. It took a lot of logistics: the nighttime lighting of the village between the moonlight and the firelight took an enormous amount of planning, and then our transition into daytime with the horses coming in. All of the stunts that entailed that were very carefully planned out between myself, Charlotte, and then our second unit team, Vic Armstrong and Peter Field. Vic was our second-unit director, and Peter was our second-unit cinematographer. They did a great job splitting some of that work with us. For the explosion, a lot of that was practical, with big water gushers coming out of the earth with huge mortars being lit and launched out of the ground with a thousand pounds of water on top of them. We had real fireballs coming down and all sorts of stuff to help give a great groundwork for our visual effects team for them to build upon. 

Can you elaborate a little bit on shooting that moment where Mount Doom erupts and the Southlands becomes Mordor?

Yeah, absolutely. It was important for Charlotte, myself, and the rest of the team to really feel like we were having a cathartic moment with our characters. In that scene, you feel like they’ve won, you feel like they are being able to take a breath for the first time, and you also get to see that a few groups of our heroes come together that you’ve never seen come together before. We wanted it to be warm; we wanted to be sunny and feel a sense of ease before the tables are turned, and our evildoers turn the tables one more time and have the biggest surprise up their sleeve in the eruption of Mount Doom. We needed to feel that visual shift and let the audience sink into that moment of relief before unleashing this terrible thing. And we had a lot of practical effects. In our show, it was really important for us to build everything as much as possible. While it is a visual-effects-heavy show, they can only look their best when they’re used in addition to practical effects. If it was just pure CG all the time, it can look somewhat cartoonish. So we needed to capture as much in-camera as possible. 

As you mentioned, the first half of the episode occurs at night. So I’m wondering what was your approach like in shooting those night scenes. How can you create a tense atmosphere inside a darker setting while ensuring the audience can see everything happening within the action?

That’s a great question. Night shoots are always tricky, especially when you’re playing with huge swaths of land at night. It makes big exterior settings that are supposed to be moonlit. I wanted to establish that there was a sense of dread at the beginning of the battle when the characters are waiting for the orcs and know they’re coming inside a moonlit village. I wanted to create a soft light. We had huge soft boxes in the sky and a bunch of different lighting cranes all around, peppering the hillsides of the village to create an uneven flow of light, and there was this kind of cool silvery blue light. That was always the trickiest time. Moonlight would be very difficult to see by the camera, and it certainly wouldn’t pick it up. So you have to create a heightened state because the show doesn’t necessarily represent real life. Oftentimes, the darker you go, the more realistic it feels. However, the audience won’t be able to see anything. It’s a fine line as a cinematographer to know how dark to go. I wanted to give a perceived notion of darkness while still making sure that the audience could understand what was happening and wouldn’t have to squint. The changes occur when the orcs come in with all their torches, and I let that really take over the scene and allowed the flame to key the scene. You get a nice color contrast and dynamic stuff once you mix fire, light, and moonlight. I really let that take over and let that be the key to our visual approach there. That had its own set of challenges because I was using real fire. Those torches were real torches, and they only last for about a minute before they start burning down and the light gets less strong. It became a real logistical challenge having dozens of orcs holding torches and getting them all lit in time before they started burning out. But it was a great challenge, and I think it worked out quite well.

Yeah, it worked out really well. I was actually going to ask you about using fire because, as you’ve said, it must have been really challenging. But it looks really great when you see the final product. It looks amazing. 

Yeah, and using fire light as a cinematographer is one of the most beautiful lights that there is. But we’re always fighting for control. We want control of the image. But the fire is very difficult to control for lighting, continuity for brightness, and all those things. So it’s a constant battle, but I think it was worth it. It was very difficult, but it was worth it for the scene’s look.

Oh yeah, absolutely. You’ve also briefly talked about the moments where Galadriel, Halbrand, and the Numenoreans arrive in the battle. Can you expand on how those moments were shot?

Those were done mostly by our second unit. Charlotte and I had planned it out. We had scouted the location and figured out what direction for the light we wanted to shoot. Then Vic and Peter went up and did it. They used a Porsche Cayenne with a crane on top of it that could drive you alongside the horses. A Phantom camera was up there shooting some slow motion alongside our regular area Alexas and a drone overhead. There was about maybe a 200-yard path or in the field that they ran several times with the horses from various angles at the right time, and we laid some smoke down there. When you see those horses cresting the hill with a smoky feel in the misty field, it’s quite spectacular when it happened. 

In terms of engulfing Mordor with a sort of red haze in the opening moments of episode seven, how were you able to achieve that?

That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. The beginning of episode seven was a logistical and creative challenge posed to us from the very beginning about how are we going to create this post-apocalyptic look, and the first thing we thought as a team was that we need to have control if we want to get a color tone and a certain level of smoke. To achieve this, we need to do it inside. So we recreated the village on a slightly smaller scale indoors. Then I surrounded it with an enormous softbox of light. We had muslin drapes all around the set and the ceilings. Behind it all, I had hundreds of airy sky panels, which are LED lights. We spent weeks testing the color and figuring out the tonality of the lights that we needed to create what you ultimately see on the screen. The reddish hues had a slightly more orange tone, which fades to yellow in the highlights. After about four or five tests, we found the color we liked that mixed well with the atmosphere and our camera’s color science. Then we went from there. Most of what you see is in the camera. We never had any blue or green screens or anything like that. The visual effects department took that and put it in basic shapes to create more depth in the background. If you watch closely, you see these hazy shapes because the amount of smoke that was supposed to be there in real life would prevent the human eye from seeing more than a few hundred yards. It worked out well, and the visual effects team did a great job augmenting it. 

I recently discussed with Ron Ames, who mentioned how each department worked together to create the look of the show. How extensive is the collaboration between yourself, Charlotte, and the visual effects department?

There is a huge amount of collaboration because it is a visual effects-heavy show. Jason Smith and Ron Ames are geniuses. They’re absolutely brilliant. They were instrumental in our pursuit of the best images we could have. 

Everything that we did was always in conjunction with them. Every practical effect was considered with what kind of visual effects might be added to help augment the research into what a post-apocalyptic landscape would look like. That was a big part of my research with them. One of my bigger challenges was to figure out a way to match the color tone and level of smoke to our stage work, which was nearly impossible. I was able to get the color using certain filters in front of the camera, but it was very difficult to have the same level of atmosphere with the unpredictable weather we had in New Zealand. When we were outside, they were absolutely instrumental in augmenting the look that we created.

All of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episodes are now available to stream on Prime Video.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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