LOTR - Army of the Dead Audio Breakdown
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is arguably one of the best movie series ever made (my personal unbiased opinion). Creating the fictional world of "Middle Earth" with all of its creatures, battles, and magic whilst making it look visually accurate (in the sense that you could believe it actually exists) would be no easy task. The first storyboards for the films started in 1997 with a massive 438 days of filming for all 3 films from the October 11 1999 and ending December 22 2000, with each film having a year of post production. A lot of time was put into the creation of the world and making it look amazing, but visuals are only half of a movie with the other half being audio. Audio in LOTR really helps to put the audience in the world of Middle Earth and plays a vital role in conveying emotion and enhances the stories narrative.
I shall be analysing a small scene from the last film in the trilogy, The Return of the King, where the trio of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, are on a quest to recruit some undead to help them in the battle of Minas Tirith. The scene has some interesting music, SFX, audio processing, all coming together to produce a very spooky and compelling ghostly environment. I'll be breaking down these 3 specific elements to try and work out why this scene works as well as it does, and to perhaps bring some of these elements into my own productions. See clip below.
Scene 1 - 0:00 to 2:08
This scene starts of with the trio after they have just entered the mountain side cave where the undead reside. They are faced with a bleak environment with jagged stone, human skeletal remains, and whispy ghost like hands reaching out to them. The music throughout this whole section is very minimal starting of with soft brass instruments which die away around 0:56 where slowly building and swelling strings take over and a soft male choir coming in at around 1:30. All of the instruments in this section are played extremely softly and at a slow tempo, the main focus here is not to over saturate the scene with music its predominantly there to add tension and ambience. They also appear to be in a minor key and often play somewhat dissonant notes, this further adds to the already tense atmosphere produced from the bleak and spooky visuals. The notes that are being played are long and drawn out which doesn't produce much of a melody, because of this the audience is put on edge due to the fact there is no real sense of where the music is going heightening the fear of this unknown location.
The dialogue has a heavy amount of reverb which is used to try and define the space that they are in, but in my opinion this would be too much for this narrow cave environment. I believe this amount of reverb has been used to add more impact to the ghostly environment, its more like having a voice on the wind that isn't supposed to sound completely natural. It also softens the voices of the trio making them seem more distant and ethereal than what they actually are. I quite like this effect as it works well with the softer style of music, if the dialogue didn't have as much reverb it might not sit as well in the scene and become too forward in the mix.
There are multiple SFX in the scene used to depict the ghostly nature of the environment. Up until 0:56 these SFX are mostly just wind noises with reverb that are panned all around the stereo spectrum often sweeping from one side to the other, this creates a feeling that the dead really are all around them as they trek ever deeper into the cave. These sounds are also relatively soft and nonthreatening at this point, just spooky not menacing. After this point the intensity of these SFX increases as the spectral skeleton hands start reaching out and wrapping around the trio. This increase in intensity makes you feel like the undead really are trying to capture them now, there is a lot more low end rumble in the SFX along with washed out human growl sounds. A close approximation would be heavily processed zombie noises made to appear like ghosts on the wind, its not a natural wind sound there is defiantly some form of voice in there as well.
All of these sounds die down a little at 1:36 when the trio reach a point where they are having to walk on human skeletons which make an exceptionally nice bone crunching sound. The reason why the other audio reduces in this bit is to really heighten the sound of these bone crunches and allows for the almost comical expressions of Gimli to come through and not be drowned out.
All of the audio in this section sets up the environment really well, the audience is on edge, you don't know whats going to happen apart from some form of encounter with the undead. The tone is eerie and you defiantly know that this cave is ominous and supernatural.
Scene 2 - 2:08 to 5:22
This next scene is where things start to get a bit hectic and we first see the ghost warriors, there is a lot happening here so the analyses of this section will be a little more disjointed than the last. The trio enters a large cavernous area with what appears to be a large entrance to a lost living human civilisation cut into the stone. The music changes from strings and choir to a single brass instrument (tuba I presume) which is played with the same type of feel as the strings before, long, slow, drawn out notes but a little more ominous now. There are a few environment sounds and character Foley but for the most part this scene begins relatively quietly, this spareness of sound leaves space for the moment when we hear the king of the dead speak for the first time and appear in front of the trio. When he speaks the tuba stops playing and the only other sounds that are apparent are the same ghostly wind SFX in scene 1 as well as heavy reverb on his voice. His voice also has a decent amount of low end frequencies in it that help to fill the space of the environment, this with the reverb makes him sound like he is everywhere in the cavern producing an otherworldly effect. This really is done to make him seem more menacing and produce a greater impact of seeing him for the first time.
As he appears strings and some brass slowly start to come in again and build tension, the king of the dead then lets out a very typical evil laugh that echos around the cavern which acts as a calling to the other undead warriors to show themselves. This evil laugh is made to sound like it is coming from a being that isn't natural and gives him this sense of power and danger, almost like the trio shouldn't have come here (but we secretly know they are going to be ok). From 2:53 to 3:59 as we are being introduced to the undead army the instrumentation goes between the strings and the brass, rising and falling depending on when the king of the dead is speaking providing constant space for his dialogue to come through clearly. This really is essentially seeing as his voice has so much reverb washing it out, if there is too much other audio happening he might not be able to be heard as clearly.
All of this tension is building to where the king of the dead declares that "now they must die" and him looking almost cocky with with the trio being surrounded by his undead army with no hope of escape. A very nice but subtle sound design comes in next when Aragorn tries to persuade the king of the dead to "Fulfill his oath" to that he responds "None but the King of Gondor may command me", right at the moment he says this Aragorn lifts up his sword which appears dead centre of the screen and a magical metal ringing sound can be heard. The significance of this is that the sword he is lifting defines him as the true heir of Gondor, the only person and weapon that can work against these undead warriors. A subtle effect but one that foreshadows what is about to come.
The king of the dead charges in, swings his sword which connects with Aragorns, all other sounds disappear apart from the metal clash of these two swords, all the tension that has been building up to this point has now been released and the king of the dead is now left powerless (and very surprised). Horn instruments now come in signifying the power triumph Aragorn now has over the undead, these horns also somewhat resemble a fanfare which further symbolises his kingly dominion whilst still being eerie to suit the mood and environment.
Most of the music, SFX and audio processing is the same from this point, a lot of reverb on dialogue, ghostly wind SFX, and rising strings and brass with some more magical sword sounds as Aragorn is trying to convince the horde to fight for him. This scene ends with the king of the dead doing another evil laugh that's a bit more bass heavy and processed than the first one as the horde now disappears without answering Aragorns call and the music swells to its loudest point so far.
This scene has a lot of different stuff going on all of which helps to build tension, set a very ominous environment which culminates in a turning of the tides for the undead with them now not having any power over the trio. The audience is no longer afraid of what could potentially happen to the them, all with the help of the musical audio queues from the horn fanfare something that has not been heard in the scene until Aragorn confronts the undead.
Scene 3 - 5:22 to 6:27
Just when you think the trio are safe they encounter danger yet again. With the departure of the horde the music stops completely, a large wind gust SFX plays for a few seconds then low rumbles and falling dirt Foley comes in. This results in a scene where the rock walls of the cavern start crashing down and an obscene amount of human skulls begin to pour out from the openings. There is absolutely no music in this scene, the audio is taken up with low rumbles (sounds almost like low passed thunder) and the crashing and falling of the skulls around the trio as they try to escape and not be pushed into the chasm below.
This really is all that is going on in this scene, the dialogue is a lot quieter and can't be heard incredibly well over the background sound, this is to produce the effect that the skulls and rumbles are really loud and their shouts can barely be heard over this noise. With this effect there really is no sonic space for music nor is it needed, there is enough tension in scene from whats happening so it doesn't need to be helped along. It also helps to connect the audience to whats happening more because you hear what the characters would be hearing in a situation like this, skulls and rumbles a freaky enough.
Scene 4 - 6:27 to end
The trio now escape from the mountain with the camera panning to reveal a wide vista with multiple villages on fire and enemy ships sailing down river. Solemn and sad music starts to play with strings as Aragorn looks defeated at not recruiting the undead army to come fight for him, meaning that battle for Minas Tirith will most likely be lost and evil will now conquer Middle Earth. Until we hear a familiar SFX, the sound of the ghostly wind we heard back in the mountain with the strings now being played frantically and increasing in volume. The trio look back towards the mountain rock face where none other than the king of the dead walks out from the sheer rock up to Aragorn, the music dies down and he declares that "We Fight". The frantic and loud strings quickly build tension again to put the audience in a situation where they don't really know whats going to happen next, with this tension being quickly released by the king of the dead's statement, all is well again in Middle Earth.
The music in this scene is probably the most important aspect to convey the emotion Aragorn is feeling in defeat and disrepair at the fact that he probably isn't going to win this battle all to be built up and resolved within a matter of seconds. The characters don't need to speak for the audience to know what they are feeling which is a good example of how music can really be used effectively in connecting people to the story.
All of the audio in this clip has been used very effectively to convey what is happening in each specific scene, from soft swelling strings, fanfare horns, ghostly SFX, heavy reverb on voices, and magical sword sounds. This shows where music is useful and where its not needed and that it doesn't always need to be super intense to convey a certain mood or atmosphere. The change in instrumentation to provide better audio clues that something has happened, either for better or worse, in this case better with the horns. Using reverb on voices as more of an effect that to just make a space feel real is a good tool to use to make things more spooky, magical, or even removed from reality. Everything has a purpose and nothing is over done, its all well balanced together, when the audience needs to focus on a specific sound such as the sword clash everything else drops out, full focus and attention both visually and sonically is on this one pivotal moment.
If I have learnt anything from this analysis its that creating space for certain sounds to come through can really heighten the effect they have, which is similar to mixing music, if you want something to come through more its often better to reduce the thing that is masking it in the first place rather than making it louder. Also the simplicity of the musical scoring and instrumentation meant that the music didn't detract or overtake the scene, it was there to help set the tone and build tension, it was quite and loud when needed allowing for an overall more interesting and dynamic piece. A short scene with a lot going on with it.
The Lord of the Rings (film series). (2019). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lord_of_the_Rings_(film_series)