If you’ve seen The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, you know how staggering the show’s visual effects are, and you can tell how meticulously planned each effects-driven sequence was. I’ve mentioned it before in an interview, but my favorite scene in the show was episode six’s ending, where Mount Doom erupts in the Southlands and paves the way for it to become Mordor. I admired the scene when I first interviewed Visual Effects Producer Ron Ames at the beginning of Emmy season (seen here). Now that the show has been nominated for a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Season or a Movie, we could go in-depth on how that sequence was conceived on Zoom alongside Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Smith.
On designing such a massive sequence like this, Ron Ames explained that the way to do it “is in discrete small beats. There are big and small movements, and Jason and the team designed each of those beats. We went out in nature and said, “Okay, they would start up here, come down here, through the tunnels, and so on.” We took photographs and scans, and Jason shot from a helicopter unit, we had hundreds of hours of photography that we could use as plates to begin.”
Jason Smith also explained that this sequence was known to be designed early on in the production process, “before any director joined us, we were already putting it together. We would set up the events in order and figure out what those could be. And that progression became a key to us. We talked with the showrunners and got some confirmation on what would happen, but that’s where the anticipation came from. The key for that scene to work was that the characters would see the explosion, but the sound didn’t reach them until later. Then the lava bombs are starting to come, and the ash bombs are coming. This constant increases until you think these people are one step away from being completely obliterated. There was a lot of collaboration between different departments, and I remember we were very busy then and didn’t expect much going into one of the last scenes of the season. If you watch that scene where the lava bombs hit the environment, most of those are supported by special effects, with explosions going off with the crowd, safely, among all the people that we can make bigger and add the bomb itself. All of that did add up and help tremendously.”
Designing the visual effects for a show like this must have been quite the undertaking, and Ames told a story of how daunting they thought the process was going to be:
“Very early on, we were some of the first people on the job. And our office was right across from the writers’ room. Every day, they’d break and call us in and go, “Look what we’re creating, you guys!” They would show us little storylines, drawings, thoughts, and ideas and ask, “What do you think?” I would go, “Oh, my God, this is fantastic.” Jason and I would go to the other room, look at each other and go, “Oh my god, how are we going to do this shit?” [laughs]
Smith added to that story, stating, “There is that moment of respect for the task. It’s a little scary, but it’s what we do. It’s equal parts scare, fright, and inspiration. We came out of those meetings saying, “There’s no way to do this…that we currently know.” But no one had shown us these worlds before, like Khazad-dûm at its peak. There were these moments where it was just really inspiring, especially at the beginning of the project. Step by step, we were taking bites of the elephant and giving them to the best vendors in the world to plan everything. Ron and I planned everything in meticulous detail. This is something I’ve been learning from Ron. If we were doing an aerial shoot, we would go out there with multi-page documents and know exactly what we were getting and why. It was enough work to fill multiple days out there. When we came back, we had what we needed. It was an amazing experience.”
During our audio conversation, seen below, we also discussed the challenges of approaching a part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world we hadn’t seen on screen before, the collaboration between the cinematography and visual effects department, and their reactions to the visual effects department’s Creative Arts Emmy nomination.
You can listen to the full conversation below and see all episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Prime Video.
[Some of the quotes in this article have been edited for length and clarity]