ARRI Rental goes behind the scenes on Amazon’s flagship fantasy show, captured with Alexa large-format cameras and DNA LF lenses.
For its hit Prime Video series set in the fantasy world of Middle-earth, Amazon Studios delved into the rich mythology created by J.R.R. Tolkien, the original author of The Lord Of The Rings. Set thousands of years before the Middle-earth stories told in Tolkien’s bestselling books and Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movies, The Rings Of Power charts the forging of the eponymous rings and the rise of the Dark Lord Sauron.
The Rings Of Power was captured in large format with ARRI Alexa Mini LF and LF cameras combined with DNA LF and Signature Prime lenses supplied to the New Zealand-based production by ARRI Rental Munich. With multiple units shooting simultaneously and the pandemic restricting travel, the producers set up a sophisticated cloud-based workflow to facilitate remote collaboration on a massive scale. This workflow, as well as the complex visual effects requirements, depended on metadata supplied by the cameras and lenses.
Keen to share details of the cloud-based workflow, the importance of metadata, the blending of live action with VFX, and the prioritisation of creative freedom amid such ground-breaking technical wizardry, Amazon Studios and ARRI Rental collaborated on an exclusive 17-minute behind-the-scenes video featurette.
A pivotal moment in season one is the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Doom at the end of episode six, its aftermath providing the backdrop to the opening of episode seven. Cinematographer Alex Disenhof ASC, who shot both episodes, chose this sequence as a perfect case study for the ARRI featurette. He and senior VFX supervisor Jason Smith were interviewed on camera at ARRI Rental in London, while producer/VFX producer Ron Ames and VFX producer Jesse Kobayashi were interviewed at ARRI’s facility in Los Angeles.
“When I hit the ground in New Zealand, one of the first things we had to tackle was how to shoot this post-apocalyptic landscape,” says Disenhof. Production designer Ramsey Avery provided some initial looks for the immediate aftermath in a village near the eruption, described by Jason Smith as “basically a version of hell. We want the audience and our characters to feel that we’ve descended as far as possible before you die.” The solution was a narrow colour palette consisting purely of gradations of red and the yellow flames of multiple fires – a look so extreme that it needed the control of a studio environment.
Disenhof rigged a sound stage with hundreds of ARRI SkyPanel S60 and S360 LED fixtures behind muslin screens around and above the village set, allowing him to fine tune the red colour and create soft backlight in every direction. Fire and smoke on set was supplemented by VFX in post, adding more fires, airborne particles, and shadowy details in the background for greater compositional depth.
What Disenhof loved about working in large format with the Alexa Mini LF and LF was “the ability to shoot at my desired stop and still have a shallower depth of field, which was important in this scene because ultimately we did have a lot of visual effects and we wanted the world to be a bit hazy behind our characters, not just through smoke but through focus. If you were using the Super 35 format, you’d have to be a little wider.”
From the studio scenes set immediately after the eruption, episode seven progresses through a series of visual transitions as the characters leave the village and ascend forested hillsides until eventually emerging to clear skies. These sections of the sequence were shot on location, with Disenhof matching the red colour from the sound stage with tobacco filters of gradually decreasing intensity, finessed by on-set grading.
The DNA LF lenses used on the series were designed and built by ARRI Rental as part of its in-house lens development program, combining vintage optics with modern housings. “They are my favourite prime lenses,” says Disenhof. “I love the fact that you have all the modern mechanisms that allow us to shoot fast or lightweight…for me, trying to visually realize the story, they provide this roundness to the image that is hard to explain.” Jason Smith adds: “The other nice thing about these DNA lenses is that, in spite of the fact that they’re using vintage glass, they’re still capturing metadata…that feeds into our visual effects pipeline.”
The mix of studio and location shoots, and the incremental visual transitions from an extreme red look back to normality, made the camera and lens metadata invaluable. “The journey of the metadata for this particular sequence was of extreme importance,” says Jesse Kobayashi. “Having all of that information from all those different departments all in one place, accessible to the VFX teams and to the post teams, was I think what made that sequence look as good as it did in the very end.”
Ron Ames describes the extent to which cloud computing was incorporated into the workflow of The Rings Of Power as unprecedented. “ARRI has been there from the very beginning,” he says. “Alexa cameras and smart lenses all communicating together is really how cloud-based computing works.”
Despite the cutting-edge workflow, Disenhof felt creatively free. “We didn’t have to worry about getting really specific for visual effects because, first of all, the metadata was already baked into the pipeline,” he says. “The visual effects team…were essentially surrounding us with this tech bubble that we could just work within and not think about, and then they would take care of everything. And so, it was actually one of the most freeing experiences I have had on this kind of level of filmmaking in terms of the technical side. I didn’t have to worry about any of it. We could just focus on telling the story.”
Season two of The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power is currently shooting in the UK, with the Alexa Mini LF and LF cameras, and DNA LF lenses, supplied by ARRI Rental London.