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.
Executive Producer Philippa Boyens is pretty pleased with the casting for The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim.
“It’s exciting — we’ve been sitting on it for a little bit,” she says. “[But] it all seemed to come together in an organic way, which is what you want, I think. Suddenly, the right people come to the role.”
Boyens says that bringing in Otto as narrator was not an immediate decision. Rather it was one that gradually emerged.
She explains that Éowyn eventually felt like the natural way into the bloody and grim tale from Rohan’s past.
“Her voice was familiar,” she says. “And then I think it started to come easily for the writers.”
She hopes that it will also help locate the story for film fans who are unfamiliar with deeper cuts from Middle-earth’s history.
Yet that was not the only reason — an oral tradition felt fitting.
“It’s also so fragmentary, what we are dealing with in terms of the source material. It’s little bits of references here and there … so the oral tradition felt kind of right. The oral tradition of her telling the tale, passing the tale on.”
She doesn’t divulge to whom. But one guesses it is likely her grandson, Barahir. Tolkien not only names Barahir in The Lord of the Rings (solving any potential rights-access issues that would arise with her son, Elboron), he is also an in-world scholar and the author of The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.
Helm Hammerhand: a complex and epic role
Boyens says that both the film’s director Kenji Kamiyama, and Warner Bros SVP and producer Jason DeMarco, were well aware of Brian Cox from his recent voice role in the English dub of Blade Runner: Black Lotus.
“They’re huge fans, of course,” she says.
“Weirdly, years ago — and this is me aging myself — I tried to go and see Brian’s performance as Titus Andronicus.”
She describes how this 1987 run of the Shakespeare tragedy directed by Deborah Warner has attained a legendary status.
“It was just one of those ones which was fresh and shocking,” she says.
“And it [the Andronicus role] wasn’t a role — this is from Brian himself — that many of the other actors were interested in taking on. But he connected to it. I couldn’t get a ticket, but I had a couple of friends saw it who were just blown away. And they talked about the way in which his rage was fuelled by this grief. And the underlying horror that was in the storytelling.
“And that kind of resonated with me when we were thinking about the Helm role. Because it just — it spans a lot of different emotions.”
She says the role — and the film — is about delving into Helm’s choices.
“And the mistakes he made as well. And then his acknowledgement of those mistakes. Was there an acknowledgement of those mistakes?” she asks.
At different points she notes Helm’s hot-temperedness, and how he almost certainly under-estimated the Rohirrim lord, Wulf, who after he is outlawed leads the Dunlending invasion of Rohan.
“[Yet], I saw the tales of him slipping out [of the Hornburg] during the siege and attacking the camp for his people as literally someone trying — even with their bare hands – to protect the people as the king should,” she adds.
“So he was a true manifestation of the king-protector.”
Helm’s heirs and the overthrow of Edoras
The grim reality, though, is that Helm is unable to protect his children.
His eldest son, Haleth, is slain when Edoras is overrun and taken by Wulf’s forces while Helm is forced to take refuge in the Hornburg. We touch only briefly on Helm’s other son but I conclude that his Hama’s fate will remain the same tragedy that it is in Appendix A.
Boyens describes the first as a shocking and powerful moment. Powerful, perhaps, for readers, to finally see things they’ve long envisaged through Tolkien’s descriptions; shocking for film fans to see the unexpected — Edoras besieged and overthrown.
On the other hand, Tolkien leaves the fate of Helm’s daughter unclear. In fact, he never names her even though Freca’s bid for her hand in marriage for his son, Wulf, is a key catalyst for war. Boyens concedes that we simply do not know a lot about her.
“Where we turn to, very deliberately, is to Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians. Alfred the Great’s daughter,” Boyens says, and proceeds to provide a rapid-fire education on an era of British history that I’d barely known of until now.
“She never ruled as a queen per se; she’s known as the Lady of Mercians. But she seems to step in when her people needed her.
“Æthelflæd was also really ingenious, which comes into play in the script. [It] was an idea that Kamiyama had, and they (he and the writers) played with that. I can’t tell you too much about it. But it’s about how you save your life when you have very little to work with?”
It’s a statement that seems to suggest that Helm’s daughter – who they’ve chosen to name Héra – will play some key role after the fall of Edoras to Wulf, and the death of Haleth.
“And I really don’t think that Professor Tolkien would hate this,” Boyens says. “Because I always see him as a bit of a Mercian himself being from the Midlands.”
Héra: so named as a nod to the Anglo-Saxon
Unsurprisingly, the name Héra is chosen for alliterative effect: Helm, Haleth, Hama, Héra. Yet Boyens reveals that wasn’t initially the case.
“Someone suggested another name and I went: “Nope, it’s gotta start with “H”, sorry”,” she says.
“Actually, Fran Walsh named her. I told her we were stuck. It’s actually Héra (I get a quick pronunciation lesson and discover the é functions a little like the “ai” in hair) — that’s why it has the accent. Not so much based on the Greek [goddess] Hera, but a nod to the Anglo-Saxon.
“And I like to think she wasn’t a character that [the writers] tried to create wholesale — pulling things out of thin air. Héra is very much drawing from sources that fit with the storytelling that Tolkien himself is drawing on.”
In case you’re wondering, Boyens confirms that neither Fran Walsh nor Peter Jackson have an official production role. It’s more that, since they’re long-time collaborators and have so much experience within Tolkien’s Middle-earth, they’re sometimes just a natural sounding board for ideas.
“I also want to give a shout out to Gaia Wise who voices Héra. I think you guys are going fall in love with her. She is fantastic, she’s amazing. She just had such innate sense of who the character is and how to play her. She was great.
“She had a very natural sense of fiery-ness, but without it being petulance defiance.”
Mûmakil, mercenaries and money
While we’re discussing events at Edoras, conversation inevitably veers toward the Mûmakil that were prominent in the initial concept art released in January.
“In order to understand the use of those [ideas],” Boyens says, “you need to understand the character of Wulf and the position that Wulf is in — and had found himself in. And who he would be turning to.”
At this point she pulls in another fact, mentioning the great wealth of Wulf’s father, Freca.
“His father was not an insignificant Lord of Rohan. He had indeed grown fat and prospered,” she says, referencing Helm’s comment in Appendix A about Freca’s large waistline.
Boyens doesn’t expand any further, but my own guess is that The War of the Rohirrim will establish Wulf as the organising mind behind coordinated assaults on Gondor and Rohan, using resources wealth from his father to secure the assistance of Corsairs and Haradrim.
As Appendix A states:
Four years later (2758) great troubles came to Rohan, and no help could be sent from Gondor, for three fleets of the Corsairs attacked it and there was war on all its coasts. At the same time Rohan was again invaded from the East, and the Dunlendings seeing their chance came over the Isen and down from Isengard.
It was soon known that Wulf was their leader. They were in great force, for they were joined by enemies of Gondor that landed in the mouths of Lefnui and Isen.
A human struggle that becomes increasingly claustrophobic
If this sounds like a very human — and political — struggle, Boyens concurs. I suggest the absence of elves, dwarves and hobbits makes it a very different tale to The Lord of the Rings that most know.
She indicates that this was one of the reasons for choosing Helm’s story.
“It’s not about the Ring, it’s not about the Dark Lord. All of that is very peripheral to the story.”
She says it’s also the attraction of examining honour, revenge and familial ties — on both sides.
For Helm, there’s madness born of grief from the loss of the child. With Wulf, there’s his relationship with his father, and with Héra.
“He is his father’s son, but he has a different character. So he does actually offer [to wed] her and the writers asked: ‘Why?’ What was driving him? Was it just his father demanding that he do this? Was it his ambition? What was at play there?”
Even the historical grievances of the Dunlendings — that the lords of Gondor gave what the Dunlendings felt was their land to the Rohirrim — should come through in the film.
She says that all those things are in the Helm tale.
“When I talked to Kamiyama about it, it resonated with him. So that was the genesis,” she says.
“And there’s a moment in the film, which is incredibly gut-wrenching and powerful where Wulf commits himself to a course of action he cannot turn away from. And once he does that, the story darkens.”
She says it was here that the screenwriters Phoebe Gittins and Arty Papageorgiou really connected with Kamiyama.
“So, yes, it begins with these quite large-scale battles, but it actually becomes more intense and … claustrophobic,” Boyens says.
“And the nature of the film changes almost into a ghost story.
“As the siege takes hold, as the rumours of horror begin to spread. And I can give you a little tease and let you know that, although we said this isn’t about The Ring and this isn’t about the Dark Lord … there are the White Mountains and there are creatures [out there].”
Somewhat to my relief she squashes speculation that she might be referring to the Dead of Erech. Instead, she suggests that orcs inhabited the area — a historically more agreeable inclusion.
“Also, I can just add — and I thought it was, again, really interesting in the way that Kamiyama approached this — this was a long, cold winter that was hurting everyone.”
This suggests that there won’t be space to see Gondor’s own struggles. Gondor may come to the rescue in the end, but it seems the focus will be squarely on a life-and-death struggle within Rohan.
She won’t even confirm or deny the presence of Saruman the White in the film. We’ll just have to wait and see.
About the author: Staffer Demosthenes has been involved with TheOneRing.net since 2001, serving first as an Associate News Editor, then as Chief News Editor during the making of the Hobbit films. Now he focuses on features and analysis.The opinions in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of TheOneRing.net and other staff.
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According to Deadline, Brian Cox is set to perform the English voice role for Helm Hammerhand in Warner Bros. Animation’s upcoming anime feature, The Lord of the Rings: The War of the Rohirrim.
Helm Hammerhand is described as the protaganist of the tale, but the real surprise is the inclusion of Miranda Otto. Otto will reprise her Éowyn role from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and serve as the film’s narrator.
The story outline given to Deadline is as follows:
The anime feature, directed by Kenji Kamiyama, is set 183 years before the events chronicled in the original trilogy of films. A sudden attack by Wulf, a clever and ruthless Dunlending lord seeking vengeance for the death of his father, forces Helm and his people to make a daring last stand in the ancient stronghold of the Hornburg — a mighty fortress that will later come to be known as Helm’s Deep. Finding herself in an increasingly desperate situation, Hera, the daughter of Helm, must summon the will to lead the resistance against a deadly enemy intent on their total destruction.
Helm’s daughter is not named in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings. However, the story describes how relations between Helm and Wulf’s father Freca sour dramatically after Freca attempts to use her as a political pawn. Her ultimate fate is one of the mysteries of the ensuing war.
Warner Bros. Animation has also released a new piece of concept art that appears to show Helm at the gate of his eponymous fortress. It’s reminiscent of this scene during the depths of the Long Winter:
One night men heard the horn blowing, but Helm did not return. In the morning there came a sun-gleam, the first for long days, and they saw a white figure standing still on the Dike, alone, for none of the Dunlendings dared come near. There stood Helm, dead as a stone, but his knees were unbent.
The Lord of the Rings: Appendix A.
The voice ensemble also includes Lorraine Ashbourne (Netflix’s Bridgerton), Yazdan Qafouri (I Came By), Benjamin Wainwright (BBC One’s World on Fire), Laurence Ubong Williams (Gateway), Shaun Dooley (Netflix’s The Witcher), Michael Wildman (Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw), Jude Akuwudike (Beasts of No Nation), Bilal Hasna (BBC’s Sparks) and Janine Duvitski (ITV’s Benidorm).
It still isn’t a confirmation but it is a good indication that AintItCool was on the right track when they claimed a source told them actor Brian Cox was potentially involved in the two-part film adaptation of “The Hobbit.” One of our world-wide network of spies was able to ask him face-to-face if the rumors were true that he was involved with the film and he answered with a chuckle and said, ‘I’m not at liberty to talk about that’. It proves nothing but that sure wasn’t a denial. A guess here would be that Cox is being considered for Thorin Oakenshield. Some of us certainly hope so!
Latauro (via epleterte) from Australia chimed in to Aintitcoolnews today about a potential casting decision in The Hobbit production. Although nothing is sure, Brian Cox seems to be a strong contender to one of the dwarves. And for what my two cents are worth: That’d be awesome! Brian Cox is beyond cool. Here’s the excerpt:
This is a news item I’d love to proclaim with all-out certainty, but my tried and trusted source(s) aren’t sure if this is a total lock, or whether it’s just someone they’re seriously interested in. Either way, producers of THE HOBBIT have begun looking at casting for the dwarves (dwarfs?), and one name has emerged as a major contender: Brian Cox. He’s a brilliant choice for the role: physically, he fits with the depiction of the the race in LOTR (well, Gimli), and he’s a born Scotsman. Also, he could yell at Galadriel for adding narration. So there you go. If this comes to fruition, you heard it here first!
Brian’s name has been mentioned before, in April we announced he was voicing he audio version of ‘Sigurd and Gudrun’. We also mentioned he was a strong frontrunner in fan casting for Balin.