Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Decade in the Blink of a Digital Eye (of Sauron)

I'm a little late, but I wanted to mark the occasion.

Ten years ago, on April 27, 2000, the first preview trailer for "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was released online and promptly broke all download records for the time. It was only a quick peek, a minute forty-four consisting mostly of behind-the-scenes footage of practical and CGI effects being created, makeup, concept art, models, and quick interview clips from director Peter Jackson and our newly minted Frodo, Elijah Wood. There were only a few finished shots, almost all from the Weathertop scenes from "The Fellowship of the Rings," but there's no way to convey how amazing they were to see. After months of speculation, it was our first look at the cast in costume, the first proof that the long-anticipated project was actually going to happen. That one quick preview set out the scope of Peter Jackson's ambitions - at the end of it, the titles of the three films of the trilogy were flashed on screen, one after another, along with their projected release dates.

I think of that moment as the beginning of the modern age of mainstream blockbusters, the point at which the Internet truly became a marketing tool for the movie studios and online fandom took off. There were earlier cases like "The Blair Witch Project" in 1999, where online marketing campaigns helped to spur interest in smaller films that had otherwise limited avenues for promotion, but never anything on the level of "Lord of the Rings." For the first time we were getting extensive set reports from sites like AintitCool News, and even whole websites devoted to covering the film's ongoing production like, all months and years in advance of the films' theatrical releases. The technology had caught up to the point where it was feasible to consume a lot of information in an online setting, though only up to a point - a medium-sized two-minute trailer in the pre-broadband era could easily take an hour to stream.

From a cultural standpoint, the idea of faithfully, respectfully adapting such hopelessly geeky source material was still a novel one. This was back when the fanboy film milieu was still in the nascent stages of its ascendancy. To put it into cinematic historical context, this was before the first "Harry Potter" film, before the first "Spider-man" or "X-Men," before the Wachowski brothers broke our hearts with the "Matrix" sequels and "Star Wars" fanboys were still holding out hope that "Attack of the Clones" could salvage the prequels. At the time, the idea of New Line Cinema putting up money for a largely unknown New Zealand director to mount a fantasy film trilogy with no major stars was viewed as a risky, potentially disastrous proposition. The conventional wisdom was that fantasy didn't sell, and one only has to look at the typically campy fantasy projects of the era like "Dungeons and Dragons" and "Kull the Conqueror" to understand why. I'd love to say that "The Lord of the Rings" changed all that, but it didn't. The stigma still persists to this day - though now at least we know what's possible.

And personally, "The Lord of the Rings" was my first online film fandom, as I'm sure it was for many others, and the first time I really got consumed by the online hype. I remember that first internet preview in particular, not only because of its impact, but also because it became almost completely inaccessible in later years. The original website stopped streaming content correctly after a few Quicktime player upgrades, and the preview never showed up in any of the DVD sets. I suspect this was because of the neat little trick of the aspect ratio changing from full-screen to wide-screen midway through, which was probably too much for the DVD technology of the time to handle. Or equally likely, the creative types simply forgot about it or thought it was too dated to bother with. I had a copy of a converted file saved on my hard drive for a while, but lost it in a crash. It was only after periodically sifting through Youtube that I stumbled across a working version again a few months ago.

Watching it now, there's no question that this was a very, very preliminary preview where the direction of the marketing strategy hadn't quite been worked out yet. This was the only promo to use the lines of the One Ring inscription - the "One Ring to Rule Them All" bit Gandalf recites for Frodo. It also featured a CGI-heavy visual scheme that incorporated the forging of the One Ring and a stylized Eye of Sauron, never seen again in later promotional materials. A year after the preview's release, New Line's more broadly-aimed marketing of "The Fellowship of the Rings" shied away from such geeky touches, preferring a more horror-tinged approach that downplayed the fantasy elements. You can even spot glimpses of special effects that were later abandoned for other methods, including the giant legs that were supposed to stand in for regular-sized humans when the smaller-scale hobbits were onscreen. Yet the promise was there, in every shot. It wasn't the effects that caught me, but the style and approach to the material that was already evident from those few seconds of finished footage.

And it still makes me excited to watch the movies after all this time.

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