Does anyone remember The Lord of the Rings’ semi-animated movie from 1978?

As The Rings of Power dominates the headlines, let us revisit the 1978 semi-animated The Lord of the Rings movie that changed everything.

The Lord of the Rings remains one of the best, most popular and iconic fantasy stories ever produced.

Whilst JRR Tolkien’s original novels were the basis of its success, it was Peter Jackson’s original movie trilogy, starting in 2001 with The Fellowship of the Ring, that shot the franchise to global acclaim.

However, Peter Jackson didn’t actually produce the first movie from The Lord of the Rings franchise and was in fact around 23 years too late.

For millions of LOTR fans around the world, the first time we experienced Middle Earth on screen was the now-forgotten semi-animated movie from 1978 – a film that would showcase the very latest film production techniques for the time.

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power | SDCC Trailer



The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power | SDCC Trailer





Revisiting The Lord of the Rings 1978 movie

The Lord of the Rings’ first ever feature film was produced by Fantasy Films and Bakshi Productions, releasing on November 15th, 1978.

The movie, with a runtime of 133 minutes, was directed by Ralph Bakshi (Mighty Mouse) and produced by Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The star-studded voice cast included John Hurt, William Squire, Anthony Daniels and Michael Graham Cox.

It was a loose adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and was originally planned to be a trilogy, before funding issues and problems within the production team forced cancellations.

The film was widely adored by fans of Tolkien’s original work and in 2022, the movie is still scoring a respectable 6.2/10 on IMDB and 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. Moreover, the movie would actually become a major financial success for a semi-animated production at the time.

With a working budget of between $4 million and $8 million, The Lord of the Rings’ 1978 feature would eventually earn more than $30 million – ending as the 20th highest-grossing movie of the year.

“As a kid I was quite astonished with the dark and gloomy tone of this film, especially in comparison to Rankin/Bass’s take on the same material around the same period. Also at the time I didn’t really care for the animation, which I found to be rather cold and creepy (having no idea it was rotoscoped or even what rotoscoping was). However as the years have gone by and the Jackson adaptations come and gone, I feel more and more drawn to this rare piece of absolutism as I would a painting by Vincent Van Gogh or Salvadore Dali.” – User review, via IMDB.

However, film critics were extremely harsh towards the movie and this is widely touted to be one of the reasons why the planned sequels never made it to the big screen.

“Ralph Bakshi’s valiant attempt at rendering Tolkein’s magnum opus in rotoscope never lives up to the grandeur of its source material, with a compressed running time that flattens the sweeping story and experimental animation that is more bizarre than magical.” – Critic’s consensus, via Rotten Tomatoes.

Evolving the rotoscope animation technique

One of the most fascinating aspects of the 1978 The Lord of the Rings movie was the use of rotoscope technology.

Rotoscoping is a film production technique where, frame by frame, the animators trace over a live-action motion picture for later inking or painting in order to create realistic action or movement sequences.

By using this technique, The Lord of the Rings 1978 movie was able to combine live-action footage with 2D animation in a manner that had never been seen before in the film industry.

“Up to that point, animated films had not depicted extensive battle scenes with hundreds of characters. By using the rotoscope, Bakshi could trace highly complex scenes from live-action footage and transform them into animation, thereby taking advantage of the complexity live-action film could capture without incurring the exorbitant costs of producing a live-action film.” – Marea Boylan, via The Animation Movie Guide by Jerry Beck.

Speaking during the PR campaign for the film, via Web Archive, Bakshi was worried about the action becoming cartoony. He explained how “The question then comes up that if you’re not going to be cartoony, why animate? I think it’s the same reason Howard Pyle illustrated. Why illustrate? Why not just take a photograph? The reason is that there is an energy there and that’s important.”

Well, Bakshi revealed that “it is the traditional method of rotoscoping but the approach is untraditional. It’s a rotoscope realism unlike anything that’s been seen. It really is a unique thing for animation. The number of characters moving in a scene is staggering.”

He continued how “In The Lord of the Rings, you have hundreds of people in the scene. We have cells with a thousand people on them. It was so complex sometimes we’d only get one cell a week from an artist. It turned out that the simple shots were the ones that only had four people in them.”

“I didn’t start thinking about shooting the film totally in live action until I saw it really start to work so well. I learned lots of things about the process, like rippling. One scene, some figures were standing on a hill and a big gust of wind came up and the shadows moved back and forth on the clothes and it was unbelievable in animation. I don’t think I could get the feeling of cold on the screen without showing snow or an icicle on some guy’s nose. The characters have weight and they move correctly.” – Ralph Bakshi, via Web Archive.

The legacy of the 1978 The Lord of the Rings films is one of progression within the animation industry, with Bakshi expertly addressing “What was I trying to do? I wanted to bring another level to animation. I wanted to try to get away from the WIZARDS cartoon work. The goal was to bring as much quality as possible to the work. I wanted real illustration as opposed to cartoons.”

By Tom Llewellyn – [email protected]

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