“The Lord of the Rings” in 4K: An Epic Transformation
I don’t think I’ve ever been more wrong in my life than I was when I predicted early this year that the rumored 4K release of The Lord of the Rings might not look substantially better than its HD forebear. To be fair, that prognostication was based on the fact that the upgrade from standard definition to high definition did the trilogy no favors. And as we’ve seen with recent Ultra HD releases like The Blues Brothers and The Birds, 4K can be so revealing as to make less-than-perfect film elements
nigh unwatchable. As much as I love them, the LotR films never looked perfect to begin with.
Having now seen the new 4K HDR release of Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King in their Extended Edition forms, though, I’m forced to eat pretty much every word I wrote in that editorial. And I do so gleefully, because I’ve frankly never seen a more effective and transformative film restoration in all my life.
What I didn’t know when I wrote that myopic diatribe is that in remastering The Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson and his team at Weta returned to the original 35mm camera negative for all three films, as well as the VFX film-out elements (digital effects printed to film for compositing with the live-action shots). All effects completed entirely in the digital domain were also upscaled from 2K to 4K and touched up in places, though none were re-rendered or replaced.
The result of all that labor is that the films look substantially better now than they did in their original theatrical run. By a long shot. And I’ll give you one specific example of what I mean here, because it’s not merely detail for detail’s sake. In the extraordinary Appendices included with the SD and HD releases of the Extended Editions (although sadly not with the UHD Blu-ray discs, a point I’ll return to in a bit), costume designer Ngila Dickson goes into quite a bit of depth about the little nuances of haberdashery and millinery that were too fine to appear on the screen: The carefully
considered mix of linens, silks, and embroidery included in Saruman’s robes, for example, just to give the all-white costume some contrast and to help Christopher Lee fully inhabit his character. (Shown in the photo at the top of the page.)
These details were lost on the big screen, and needless to say they were lost on DVD and Blu-ray as well. But in this gorgeous 4K restoration, we can finally see and appreciate those little costuming details. Far from being mere eye candy,
discoveries like that simply make the world of Middle-earth feel more real, more tactile, more lived-in.
Further enhancing the verisimilitude is the fact that the trilogy’s visual effects are better integrated with the live-action photography. This really stood out in the “Last March of the Ents” from The Two Towers, a scene I referenced in my earlier
article as one I didn’t think I wanted to see in more detail, due to the mismatch between the foreground and background elements. But in recompositing the effects shots and—perhaps more importantly—doing a new digital color grading for the entire trilogy (which, yes, removes that persistently funky green tint from Fellowship), Jackson and his team have made this sequence look like it always has in my imagination. Is it perfect? No. But it’s every bit as good as one could hope for from a relatively low-budget special-effects extravaganza from two decades ago.
Really, the only effects shots in the entire trilogy that still look distractingly dodgy in any significant way are the “Bridge of Khazad-dûm” sequences in the first film. The digital actors and other effects shots in these scenes require a bit of an apology, no doubt, but only in comparison to the other 12 hours’ worth of 4K imagery. Compared to what they’ve looked like in previous releases, I’m only seeing improvements.
Virtually every other VFX shot in the trilogy is an order of magnitude better than before—again, not because the computer elements have been re-rendered, but simply because more care has been put into ensuring that the foreground and background elements more closely match in terms of color temperature, lighting, and shadow depth. Rivendell, the Last Homely House East of the Sea (shown above), now looks less like a collection of models and matte paintings and more like a true refuge in the moorlands and foothills of the Misty Mountains—one that you could step into the image and visit for yourself, if only you could locate the Ford of Bruinen.
Needless to say, though, the best-looking shots in the trilogy are those that come straight from the camera with no effects other than perspective tricks orchestrated on set. The landscape cinematography is simply jaw-dropping and benefits from the new HDR grade as much as any of the wizardry or action. Not to sound like a broken record here, but what I love most about the application of HDR is that it’s not merely about enhanced visual spectacle. The superior shadow detail and vibrant
specular highlights truly enhance the story being told.
One prime example comes in The Two Towers, when Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas first meet the white wizard in the dankest depths of Fangorn Forest. The glow he emits is so startling as to catch our heroes off-guard, forcing them to shield their eyes and avoid looking at him directly. Much as I’ve loved that scene in every incarnation—theatrical, DVD, Blu-ray, etc.—this new HDR presentation is the first time I’ve truly felt what the characters are feeling, experienced what they’re experiencing, wincing as they wince and averting my eyes as they avert theirs.
I could go on and on about the visual splendor of these new transfers and how they defied my every expectation, but before I overstay my welcome, I should also point out what was perhaps the worst prediction I made in my previous post. Of the sound for these films, I said that “the thought of
WHERE TO SEE THE
EXTENDED EDITIONS IN 4K HDR
Because of the unexpected number of orders, snagging a copy of the UHD Blu-ray Disc boxed set is iffy at the moment, so your best alternative is definitely the Kaleidescape downloads, which include the must-see set of Appendices. Failing that, you could turn to either Apple TV or Vudu, which are the only two services streaming the extended editions in 4K HDR. Apple provides access to the Appendices as well. (I haven’t had a chance to compare any of the online versions to the UHD Blu-ray release, so I can’t really vouch for their quality.)
this meticulous mix being tinkered with and remixed in the era of Dolby Atmos frankly fills me with dread. Pull one thread the wrong way and the entire thing will simply unravel.”
Well, Jackson and his team did indeed pull many threads. All of them, in fact. And the resulting Atmos remix is simply better than anything my imagination could have conjured. If every Atmos mix sounded like this, I would be an unapologetic fan of the format. First things first, it seems pretty clear to me that in remixing the films, the team at Weta balanced the sound more for the needs of a 400 sq. ft. room than a 4,000 sq. ft. cinema auditorium. The soundscape here is still every bit as dynamic and impactful, but dialogue and sound effects are balanced better for the acoustical realities of a home cinema. No longer are the films a torture test for dialogue clarity. Every line muttered, uttered, or screamed is perfectly intelligible.
On the old 6.1-channel DTS-ES mix included with the SD and HD releases, for example, Gandalf’s admonishment of the Balrog while standing on the crumbling Bridge of Khazad-dûm was such a garbled mess by the time you added surround
channels and subwoofers that even the most devoted Tolkien enthusiasts struggled to understand the words, though we know them by heart: “I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow!”
Mind you, those words might not mean anything to you unless you’re as big a
geek as I. The point is, you can now hear every one of them without a hint of strain or struggle, despite the onslaught of rock and flame roaring out of every speaker around you (and overhead!).
As hinted at above, if I have one grumble with Warner’s new UHD Blu-ray release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s that they’ve left the amazing Appendices out of the package, assuming that if you’re interested in watching nearly an entire day’s worth of bonus features, you’ve had nearly 20 years to buy them in some form or another. That, in my opinion, is a massive oversight, especially given the renewed interest in the films over the past year and the fact that this 4K release will be the first time many younger fans buy them.
I discovered last night, though, that there is a way to access the bonus features without buying the older releases: The digital code that comes in the packaging supports Movies Anywhere, which means that if you redeem your digital copy on Vudu, you also own it on Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, and any other supported digital retailers you have connected to your Movies Anywhere account. And iTunes has, as of the UHD release, updated its streaming version to include all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices, all of the audio commentaries, and the rare documentaries made by Costa Botes during the original production. True, you need an Apple TV to enjoy them in your home cinema, but at least they’re available in some form.
As I understand it, those of you who buy the 4K Extended Editions via Kaleidescape—once they’re available on December 15—will also have access to all of these bonus features. If for whatever reason you’ve never watched the Appendices, now is the time to dive in. Simply put, they’re more relevant than ever, given that you can now see the fruits of the labor poured into these movies in a way that’s never been possible before, neither at home nor in cinemas.
I won’t sit here and tell you The Lord of the Rings is the most visually perfect 4K release on the market. But I will say this: It benefits from 4K and HDR (and Dolby Atmos) more than any film re-release I know of. And I’ve never been happier to be so wrong in all my life.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.