Ringer Spy Nazz attended the MANY press confrences during the ROTK media blitz last month. In this article he chats with Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie.

Special thanks to Rip It Up Magazine in South Australia for this transcript.

Andrew Lesnie On The Red Carpet
Andrew Lesnie at the ROTK Premiere in NZ

Andrew Lesnie – Academy Award winning cinematographer of The Lord Of The Rings films (for The Fellowship Of The Rings) Cinematography: The art or technique of movie photography, including both the shooting and development of the film.

Andrew Lesnie won an Academy Award for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and was nominated for the American Society of Cinematographers Award and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts cinematography award, among other awards and accolades.

Lesnie held the Australian Cinematographers Society’s coveted Milli Award for 1995 and 1996, making him Australia’s Cinematographer of the Year two years running. He also won the 1997 Australian Film Institute Award for best cinematography for Doing Time for Patsy Cline, and a 1997 A.C.S. gold award for the same film. He won the 1996 A.C.S. Golden Tripod Award for Babe, in 1995 for Temptation of a Monk, and in 1994 for Spider and Rose. His other feature credits include Two if by Sea, The Sugar Factory, Fatal Past, The Delinquents, Dark Age, Boys in the Island, Daydream Believer and Unfinished Business, among others.

Lesnie also handled second unit photography on Farewell to the King, Incident at Raven’s Gate and Around the World in Eighty Ways, and shot the documentaries The Making of The Road Warrior, Stages (about Peter Brook and the Paris Theatre Company in Australia), and The Comeback, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. His television credits include “The Rainbow Warrior Conspiracy,” “Melba” (A.C.S. Merit Award), and “Cyclone Tracy” (A.C.S. Golden Tripod Award for best photographed miniseries). In addition, Lesnie has garnered A.C.S. Awards for the short films The Outing and The Same Stream.

How are you feeling?

AL: “Good, glad we’re almost done.”

These films seem to be a return to classic cinema right down to the great close-ups and an almost David Lean style. When you came into this, how much input did you have. For instance, we’ve seen the storyboards of the initial concepts ­ can you help us see where your influence came in?

AL: “No! Next question [laughs]!”

How was the food?

AL: “The food was great [laughs].”

“I don’t know what I wanted. I never go into a project that set in my ways. I try to have as few preconceptions about what I’ll do as possible: what it’s going to look like, how we’re going to do it etc. You end up just trying to immerse yourself in, I suppose, the subtext of the story.

“I’d read the books as a teenager, but obviously you’re up for reading the books again. The project was well under way when I came in. The art department and visual effects departments had been well under way ­ there was quite a range. I came aboard pretty late in the scheme of things, even though I did three and a half months of prep.

“So I came aboard and y’know, I read the books, I read the scripts, I talked to Peter Jackson and he’d done storyboards, so I looked at them. He was always saying, (I’ve done these storyboards but they’re not the bible.” It’s just a game-plan but we can change it.

“Then I started going around to Pre-Viz [the Pre-Visualisation Department, which essentially amount to computer generated, moving storyboards]. So I’m watching the guys in Pre-Viz three dimensionally doing shots. It ends up that Peter’s dumping me in there because they’re trying to do the stairway at Khazad-Dûm. They’re really quite talented young guys and graphic designers but they’ve got no concept of (shots’ as such. What they’ve got, of course, are these virtual cameras that can go anywhere so they’ve got these insane shots that are moving a lot but aren’t really communicating anything.

“So I’m spending days in there [chuckles], trying to formulate these sequences saying, (you can say the same thing only with a lot less movement and much more economically.’ So anyway, it was like my pre-production was spent more in I’d like to say I had this massive think tank and came up with this big, formative game-plan; but it was just a result of conversations and immersing myself in the artwork, reading the booksŠ you start dreaming a bit and coming up with ideas. We decided there were certain stops that appealed to me [camera and lens term. An aperture stop is a physical constraint, often a lens retainer, that limits the diameter of the axial light bundle allowed to pass through a lens.. A field stop is the aperture located at an image plane of an optical system that determines the size and shape of the image]. Sometimes you can’t really put a reason on why certain things pop up or stand out. Hopefully you’re grounded enough in your craft that your palette is large enough that you know enough things to draw on in any given circumstance. So when you get an instinctive feeling for things you can say, ŒI feel that that’s appropriate.’ But if anyone asks you to rationalise it, you might be completely stuffed!

“At the same time, I know that Peter is a filmmaker who likes to be flexible. He can change his mind at the drop of a hat so you gear up in a way that allows for that. You start designing lighting scenarios that allow for him to change his mind and come around to do this and that, instead of that and this. Then you can keep up a certain momentum up on the floor ­ which is also very important too for the castŠ not to actually grind things to a halt for too long. So you start trying to imagine how you want this world to be, but also juggling that with the practical working systems of the shoot.”

Let’s go back a step. How old were you when you first read the book of The Lord Of The Rings?

AL: “About 17.”

Were you already into the craft of cinema by that stage?

AL: “Yeah I think so. Maybe not cinematography but film-making, definitely. I had a Super8 camera out there and I was making little thrillers.”

Did you picture any sequences from the book in your head when you were reading it?

AL: “No but it did leave me with several graphic images. The image I most remember out of absolutely everything was one that was emblazoned in my mind. I imagined the two little figures [of Frodo and Sam] climbing up the slope of Mount Doom, which was in the foreground ­ and in the background, on these huge plains, there were just millions of people fighting. It probably hit me then that you could tell really personal stories within a really epic context.

“In this particular image, knowing the back stories, that these two little figures that were climbing were going to directly affect the outcome of what was happening down below. That makes where they’re going, how they’re going critically and whether they’re going to get to where they’re going, critically important. Even if you didn’t know their whole story, their success or failure will affect everything that’s going on down below ­ and I learned how important that could be as a dramatic device. It’s like it raises the stakes and makes everything more excitingŠ without ever knowing why. You’re telling more of the story at once.

“People ask me what cinematography is and I always answer that it’s conveying the subtext of a scene. You look for what a scene is about, when you stand there onset, even before the actors turn up to block it through. You stand there and, even though you may have asked it several times before ­ or even have left it until the day, you sit there and ask what the scene is about. Now it’s a pretty basic question but it’s sometimes the most important question. I look at some films that people haven’t asked themselves that question and they’ve gone and filmed it ­ and they definitely haven’t answered that question! In the entire process of making it, I see films where I look at scenes and go, Œthis is about nothing. This isn’t progressing the film in any way shape or form [laughs]. I’m learning nothing more about the characters and it’s adding no depth to this film.’ At which point you go, Œwell obviously, no one asked themselves the question.’ It seems basic but it’s too often overlooked.”