Our anime-insider has brought us this exclusive report from the Warner Bros. panel at Annecy in France that presented an exciting “first look” at The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim.
Be warned: depending on your knowledge of the Helm Hammerhand story and what you’ve been reading of our coverage so far, there may be spoilers below!
Kenji Kamiyama – Japanese director
Philippa Boyens – writer/producer (Philippa shared shoutouts from Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Andy Serkis.)
Joseph Chou – producer and owner of Sola Studios
Jason DeMarco – studio creative exec with WB. (Described as being “made in a lab to make this movie” because he’s an anime and Lord of the Rings nerd.)
Making of the film:
WB raised the idea of an animated film. Philippa felt the question was “Do we want to see familiar characters from the live action films animated?” Her kids love anime, which is her connection to the medium.
She talked about the need for a level of realism, to bridge the gap between live action and animation.
They wanted to tell a complete story that was separate from either of the trilogies, and a story without the direct influence of the Ring or the shadow of Sauron.
Wanted to find a story in Middle-earth that “fit with anime, culturally.”
Kenji Kamiyama is also a writer, so Philippa found it was an easy collaboration — he’s really good at keeping the story together, understanding place and scale, and keeping Philippa on track when she went down rabbit holes.
The writing process began with Will Matthews and Jeffrey Addiss [Editor’s note: they recently won an Emmy for their Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance] who have comedy chops but were not versed in the lore of Middle-earth. And Philippa didn’t want to write it: “I felt too old, honestly.” So she brought in her daughter Phoebe and her partner Arty Papageorgiou. Phoebe literally grew up on the sets and most importantly, she understands the rhythm of Tolkien’s language. Kenji was so excited to have a young female writer onboard.
They collaborated with many people from the live action film. We saw concept art from John Howe, Alan Lee, Richard Taylor, and Mark Wilshire were also involved. They also worked with WETA closely, and literally used their models of Edoras. It fully takes place in the world of the film trilogies and many of the images will look very familiar to fans!
When Kenji was approached with this idea, he thought it was “impossible”.
Adapting the world to animation was a struggle. They worked with Daniel Falkner (sp? Editor’s note: Dan Falconer, I think!) who was an art director on the live action films and “knew where the bodies were buried” — [he] could help them find old assets and consult about the history. They talked about the number of horses — so many! — and how hard horses are to animate. But that’s a huge part of the story. Kenji said they needed to use all their tricks to pull this off. They sent the animation crew to horse barns to film, ride, and “be scared”.
Animation process: they used detailed CG models of the characters and layouts, some from WETA, and assembled a layout in Unreal. They would choose shots and cuts from this and assemble a rough cut. This served as a base for the mocap director who would film actors. Then it all went to the animators, who used that to do the animation. Kenji stressed that this is NOT ROTOSCOPE — it’s an interpretation/translation.
Kenji said that usually, a character animator will take a lot of time to learn a character. They really need to understand them. But this movie had a tight timeline, hence the motion capture.
I don’t think Howard Shore is composing the music, but they are using his score — so cool to hear it!
Philippa said it’s been “a joy” to work on an animated project. She also talked about working with Jason DeMarco, and how he made sure to get some “monster vs. monster” moments in the film.
I talked with Philippa later and she wanted me to share a detail: in Carpenter’s Tolkien biography, when Tolkien first had a room in college he decorated it with Japanese prints. She found that really cool to now be doing this distinctly Japanese take on animation.
While they mostly seem done, Kenji and Joseph have a lot more to do, they’re still deep in the production process. Kenji seemed stressed! “Probably the biggest film he’s ever worked on”. Kenji kept talking about the challenge of it, and was clearly still thinking deeply about “how he’s gonna finish this film.”
Joseph described it as “a huge privilege” to work on this. They want to do Japanese animation proud, and they are very aware of all the fans who are watching and want this to be done right. Also this is the first time he and Kenji met Philippa in person! This was started during Covid.
Joseph jokes about how the crew is going to have to work nights and weekends to finish this movie, which really bummed me out. Can we not normalize the brutal working hours in animation? I expect better tbh.
They ended with saying that they are currently recruiting talent for the film. Presumably in Japan. (Editor’s note: I wonder if that means additional animators … or Japanese voice talent?)
Finally, the movie will be out 4/12/24 in theaters only!
Spoilers below – you have been warned!
There may be “a character or two we recognize” from the live action films. (Editor’s note: Saruman, Saruman, Saruman and Saruman.)
It’s about the failure of Helm Hammerhand, the war that results from it, and the characters who stepped up in the wreckage. Edoras is destroyed at the end of act 1 — we saw some beautiful art of a burned Meduseld — and the rest of the movie as about “the wreckage of war”.
Discussion of the Rohirrim culture as being based by JRRT on the Mercians — a warrior culture with a code. Family-based power structures and struggles, with honor and loyalty being more important than wealth and riches.
Alluded to a “ghost story” and a “surreal story” within this movie — all suited to the medium of animation.
We saw concept art images of Oliphants and orcs (I think — maybe they were wildmen) surrounding Edoras. We saw a rider with long yellow hair and a horn riding in front of an Oliphant. The art style reminds me of some 90s anime. We saw art of Isengard on its own, and surrounded by tents and wildfires. We saw a lot of background art of Meduseld — really beautiful translation in my opinion, and so familiar.
Lots of consultation with experts to figure out what Middle-earth would look like 260 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings.
The movie begins with a voiceover from Éowyn — Mirando Otto herself! She talks about Héra, how she is a rebellious child and how she is not named in the old tales. We got to see a rough cut of this beginning, with a combination of CG models and hand drawn animation. Héra rides across the plains, rides to the top of a bluff, and tosses a huge hunk of meat into the air, where it’s snatched by a giant eagle. She almost touches the eagle — but it flies away before she can.
We saw another scene in Meduseld, where a herald talks to Fréalaf about heraldry, and then Héra comes in to explain the shieldmaiden herald and what it means. She and Fréalaf are cousins i think? Reminiscent of Éomer and Éowyn. Helm comes in, commanding the attention at the room, and sits at the throne.
We saw a still image of Helm frozen in front of the Edoras gates, knee deep in enemies. Again I’m not sure if they’re orcs or Wildmen or both. (Editor’s note: maybe the concept art below? Which is more likely to be the gates of the Hornburg (then called Súthburg), not Edoras)
Héra (VA: Gaia Wise) – female main character. Not named by Tolkien, but Helm’s daughter is mentioned and she was the character they wanted to explore. Wanted to explore a female POV in Middle-earth, but she’s not a warrior princess per-se — she doesn’t become king. For her character, they they drew on the historical figure of Æthelflæd — the Lady of the Mercians, who defended her people.
We saw expression sheets and designs for Hera. She reads very 90s anime girl — kind of reminds me of the Rankin Bass Éowyn. She has red hair in a messy braid, leather armor, and a sword. We also see designs of her in formal dress. They describe her as “vulnerable and wild”, a tomboy type character. She has a growth in the film — maybe tied to needing to lead her people in a time of chaos. Philippa loves that her hair is never perfect.
Wulf (VA: Luke Pasqualino) – the other main character, the main antagonist. I think he’s from the Wildmen? He’s a big muscly dude with long hair, scruffy, an axe and furs and a ragged cloak. A scar over one eye. They solicited “lots of ideas from the female staff” in the studio. The note they got was “he does bad things, so make him beautiful”. And he is.
Helm Hammerhand (VA: Brian Cox) – daddy vibes. he’s got a big beard and a crown, we saw an expression sheet and a polished design. Red and blue clothing with beautiful intricate gold details.
Freca (VA: Shaun Dooley) – He’s the leader of the Wildmen, and he offers his son’s hand in marriage to Héra. That’s the inciting incident of the movie and leads to “Helm’s big mistake”. He’s wide with leather armor, a cloak, and some kind of bearpaw maul on a chain. He has facial tattoos. “Helm doesn’t take him seriously.” He’s trying to take over Rohan with this marriage. He’s strong and tragic, but also a comedic figure. Philippa quoted a line from the movie: “fat and prosperous is when men are at their most dangerous”.
Fréalaf (VA: Laurence Ubong Williams) – I think he’s Héra’s cousin, he “wins everything in the end” and becomes king.
Thank-you WB and Philippa Boyens for all your kindness and generosity. We look forward to seeing The War of the Rohirrim next April.