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(Credit: Far Out /Warner Bros / Disney / Jakob Owens)


The importance of authenticity in modern cinema


In the age of meticulous digital effects, stringent budgets and competitive cinema, there is little room for error when it comes to a film’s strict production. Hollywood executives are fully aware of this too, often spending more time on post-production and marketing to wrap their sub-par product in appealing wrapping paper and a glitzy trailer before posting it to cinemas. Time is of the essence in the contemporary industry, with your rival quick to hop on the latest trend unless you can get their first, leaving little time for the pre-production team to properly design the fantastical world in question. 

When any, and indeed all, cinematic worlds are now designed with a heavy use of computer generated imagery, the importance of authenticity couldn’t be more crucial, as audiences demand some sort of tangible reality to grasp ahold of when consuming their favourite Hollywood blockbusters. Though with CGI so prevalent across every facet of mainstream filmmaking, how does one seek that morsel of authenticity?

The answer should be no secret, with the history of cinema demonstrating that any epic, created on a grand scale, is done so using elaborate set design and a meticulous approach to character composition. From Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick to The Lord of the Rings trilogy brought to life by Peter Jackson, such films demanded total realism by splashing the same dirt and grime that is now created in post-production, onto their physical sets and dedicated actors. 

Beginning initial production design in August 1997, Peter Jackson recreated his version of Middle-earth in the hills of New Zealand and commanded every facet of production to complete his artistic vision. Hiring the special effects and prop company Weta Workshop, Jackson allowed the company the time to craft specialist pieces of armour, weapons and prosthetics that would each feed into the sense of authenticity achieved by the fantasy epic.

Using stunning vistas as their sets, Jackson spent 438 days from 1999 to 2001 shooting the film, using hundreds of props and physical effects to dirty the actors and recreate Middle Earth on the set of the film itself, without the need for CGI. The result of these efforts have been long embedded in the history of modern cinema, with audiences and film fans recognising Jackson’s trilogy as one of the best fantasy epics of all time, still being held as the gold standard despite the originality of HBO’s Game of Thrones that almost reached the heights of Lord of the Rings.

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Despite the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King, being released in 2003, somehow few films have managed to even scratch the surface of its influence ever since, with the landscape of cinema having considerably changed since the beginning of the new millennium. Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy released from 2012-2014 acts as the greatest emblematic example of such industrial change, with the flashy trilogy depicting life before the Lord of the Rings trilogy being shot in a dazzling bright light that washed away all necessary grime from the director’s original take on Middle-Earth.

By comparison, Warner Bros allowed just 266 days for Jackson to put together his new trilogy, restricting the director and forcing him to use CGI to make up for his lack of preparation. As Jackson recalled, “It was impossible, and as a result of it being impossible I just started shooting the movie with most of it not prepped at all. You’re going on to a set and you’re winging it”. Washed-out, clean and inexplicably ‘golden’ the Hobbit trilogy lacked the authenticity of the original trilogy, relying on CGI as opposed to elaborate set design and meticulously designed characters. 

Almost ten years later and the problems that plagued The Hobbit trilogy look to be infuriating hopeful fans yet again, with Amazon’s latest Lord of the Rings series, The Rings of Power, receiving similar early criticism. Arriving on a Reddit message board regarding images for the brand new series and the overwhelming consensus refers to a “smell of overproduction,” with many highlighting the “really clean, perfect, and bright” aesthetic that misses “the ‘dirt’ that was so characteristic in the LOTR movies”. 

This criticism isn’t limited to Lord of the Rings either as the recent Disney series The Book of Boba Fett came under similar fire for airbrushing the cosmic landscapes of Tatooine and elsewhere in favour of a strange clean shimmer. As The Rings of Power is rightfully compared to Lord of the Rings, so too should Disney’s series be pitted against George Lucas’ original vision that brought attention to its ostentatious set design and impressive costumes. 

For an illustrative example of how such production has changed, simply assess the revolutionary techniques used to film both the new Star Wars series, The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. Using StageCraft technology, a new method of green screen that consists of large LED video screens onto which digital environments can be rendered in real-time, this method allows for the equivalent of cinematic fast food, in which projects are completed in record time with a total disregard for authentic, long-lasting quality. 

Such remains a prevalent issue in contemporary cinema, as physical set design and practical costumes have become the afterthought of lazy production companies who believe the spectacle of fantasy lies in grand CGI vistas rather than the careful development of a compelling world, layered by the authenticity of dirty fingernails and muddy trousers. This has led to systemic laziness and a new modern standard that is already becoming tiresome by the standards of demanding modern audiences. 

Whilst the likes of The Hobbit and The Book of Boba Fett may provide momentary commercial value, their legacy is tarnished mere minutes after the end of the final instalment, with the authenticity of their worlds as fragile as wet paper. 

Like any cinematic statement, there are exceptions to this modern rule, with Denis Villeneuve’s Dune already putting up a stiff competition to Peter Jackson’s trilogy for cinematic fantasy supremacy. The dedication of Mad Max: Fury Road in 2015 delivered similar results, creating enduring images that reeled the viewer into a lavish, complicated world rather than one laden with such transparent artifice. 

Even on the small screen, Netflix’s Squid Game recognised the same importance, putting set design remarkably high on their list of priorities as they sparked a cultural obsession and the series’ vibrant design caused conversations across the world.  

When fantastical worlds can now be designed by proficient tech whizzkids living out of their bedrooms, cinema audiences crave something different from Hollywood, an authentic fantasy experience that they can’t experience anywhere else. Whilst studios can too craft such elaborate worlds, they are unique in that they have access to remarkable costume departments, insane set designers and much more. 

To reimagine modern blockbuster cinema, it’s crucial that production companies don’t demand uniformity, embracing the grime of fantastical battle scenes, the snot of snivelling villains and the beautiful blemishes of authenticity. 

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