Why I Can Wait for “Lord of the Rings” in 4K
The “Last March of the Ents” scene from The Two Towers is one example of the subpar compositing
that could become even more obvious in a 4K version of The Lord of the Rings
Pretty early on in our most recent journey to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, it struck me how silly my wife and I were to hold off on watching The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King Extended Editions in anticipation of a 4K/HDR remaster (a professional upsampling of the 2K digital intermediate) or restoration (involving a new scan of the 35mm film elements), whichever we end up getting later this year or next year or whenever it comes. Truth be told, these films have always been a bit dodgy-looking in places even when they were first released, especially from a special-effects perspective.
True, the sprawling landscapes of New Zealand, cast in the role of Middle-earth, are a wonder to behold. And the costumes and prosthetics are among the best ever committed to film. But the handful of digital effects (aside from Gollum, one of the
trilogy’s main characters) were never that great to begin with, and the compositing was pretty subpar across the board even for the day
Not that it really matters, since these films exist mostly in the viewer’s imagination, but their visual shortcomings can probably be blamed at least in part on the reported $250 million budget for the entire 12-hour trilogy—which, to put things in perspective, is less than twice what Sam Raimi was given to make the first Spider-man film, released around the same time (with roughly one-sixth the runtime and far fewer special effects); and it’s less than a quarter of of what Amazon is spending on its upcoming Middle-earth
TV series (sadly now on indefinite hold). Jackson did what he could with his relatively meager budget, but if the seams showed in the early 2000s (and they did), you could forgive them for not having gotten any better in the nearly two decades since.
What has held up amazingly well is the film’s sound design and mixing. I’ve yet to discover any subsequent home video release that uses surround sound as effectively as the Blu-ray release (or Kaleidescape downloads) of the Extended Edition trilogy does, not only in creating such a compelling sense of space, but also in dropping the viewer right into the middle of a war.
The sound goes through such radical shifts of amplitude—from the quietest whispers in the dankest caverns to the thunder of 45-foot-tall pachyderms stomping across the battlefield and clashing with hordes of horsemen—that it serves as a torture test for even the highest-performance home audio systems. In fact, to this day, the Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition is the first Blu-ray I grab to gauge the dialogue intelligibility of any new speaker system or surround processor that passes my threshold for review purposes.
It’s also the reason I called my friend Anthony Grimani, world-renowned acoustician and designer, many years ago for advice on how to dampen the sound of my HVAC system, because even the subtle whoosh of air rushing through intake vents is enough to disrupt the delicate balance of this immaculately crafted audio experience. So too are any egregious reflections or standing waves in the room itself. In truth, the mix is as much a torture test for room acoustics as it is for gear.
More than anything else, though, the thought of 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. Fortunately, the 6.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix (on Blu-ray and Kaleidescape) up-mixes beautifully into Atmos via a good AV preamp or receiver, so those of you who demand some overhead sound effects have that solace.
(I’ve never tested the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital+ remix available on Vudu and Amazon and other such services, but those digital releases lack the Appendices found on the disc and Kaleidescape Extended Edition releases, so you should avoid them anyway.)
All of this is simply to say that this most recent viewing of the films in their HD form left me convinced they may not look substantially better in 4K/HDR, and there’s a good chance that if they do by some miracle end up looking better, they could end up sounding worse. But we’ll cross that Bridge of Khazad-dûm when we get to it, I suppose.
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.