In the LOTR films there’s always a huge height difference between the tiny hobbit characters and the tall human characters they interact with. This means that a crucial part of any scene’s tone– even if you don’t consciously notice it– is whether the hobbits are shot in a way that downplays how small they are, or in a way that emphasizes how small they are.
Like: there are two scenes where Frodo (a tiiny hobbit) talks to Boromir (a tall powerful man). In one scene, the film downplays the height difference, and in the other scene, the film emphasizes it.
The first scene is the one where Boromir comforts Frodo after Gandalf’s death. (”You carry a heavy burden– don’t carry the weight of the dead.) The cinematography™ makes you feel like the two of them are equals.
We get medium shots of Frodo sitting on the ground:
And medium shots of Boromir sitting on the ground with him:
The camera angle is neutral….like, we’re not looking up at Boromir, or down at Frodo– we’re looking directly at both of them.
The two characters both take up the same amount of space in the frame– making it feel like they’re basically the same size.
The two of them are sitting on the ground together, while the characters around them are standing. This makes it feel like Boromir is “down on Frodo’s level” in a way that the other characters aren’t.
So we know that Boromir is much taller than Frodo, but in this scene it doesn’t *feel* like he is. It feels like they’re equals, two ordinary people who are going through the same shit, and are equally powerless to stop it.
But the scene where Boromir takes the Ring is the exact opposite!
In this scene, the height difference between the two is emphasized to make Boromir seem threatening.
Remember how the camera angle in the other scene was neutral, so that you were just looking into the character’s eyes? In this scene you’re always looking UP at Boromir, like he’s incredibly tall/standing above you:
And looking dOWN at Frodo, like he’s very tiny:
The environment itself emphasizes the camera angles, which I think is really neat! The scene takes place on a steeply sloping hill. So any time we look up at Boromir, we’re also looking uphill. Anytime we look down on Frodo, we’re also looking downhill.
Frodo is also standing next to that enormous fallen stone statue— which makes him seem even smaller by contrast. The giant statue head behind him makes Frodo feel impossibly tiny…… so small that he’s smaller than a face……….
Also again: in the previous scene, they’re shot so they look like they’re basically the same size in the frame. Boromir doesn’t look that much bigger than Frodo.
But in this scene, Boromir is often put in the foreground while Frodo is in the background….so you get shots like this, where Boromir is a HUGE looming figure in the foreground while while Frodo is a tiny-looking small guy in the background;
This is why the scene feels instantly wrong in a way their previous conversation didn’t.
Even though Boromir begins by saying basically the same thing he did in their previous conversation (”you carry a heavy burden…” “you suffer, I see it day by day…”) it feels threatening this time. You’re deeply aware of how much taller and more powerful Boromir is than Frodo, you really feel the power imbalance between them and you’re instantly aware that Frodo is in danger.
And it’s not just these two scenes that are careful with the cinematography like this? It’s EVERY SINGLE SCENE that involves a hobbit talking to a taller person.
Another obvious example is the opening with Gandalf in the Shire.
In the early scenes, Gandalf is supposed to feel like a harmless hobbit friend who is basically One of the Hobbits. So he’s always stooping down, or kneeling, or sitting down, and the camera angle is almost always neutral.
We know he’s bigger than the hobbits, but it doesn’t feel that way, because the height difference is being downplayed.
But then he gets angry at Bilbo– and CINEMATOGRAPHY SHIFT
The camera is angled UP at Gandalf, and DOWN at Bilbo…Gandalf is giant in the foreground, while Bilbo is tiny and in the background….for the first time in the film, we actually realize how much bigger Gandalf is than the hobbits.
But then another cinematography shift! As Gandalf reminds Bilbo of their friendship, the camera angle becomes neutral again, and Gandalf is down on Bilbo’s level again:
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: most major tone shifts in Lord of the Rings generally involve switching from one mode of shooting the height difference to the other.
When a likeable tall character becomes threatening to the hobbits, the film switches from downplaying the height difference to emphasizing it.
When an intimidating tall character becomes friendly, the film switches from emphasizing the height difference to downplaying it.