To the Unsung Heroes of Cinema

While in the midst of revisiting The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, I was reminded of all the hours I spent watching how the film was made. The extra features on the Extended Edition DVDs taught me a lot of what I know about making a film. Almost every aspect of a film was examined and the film talked to all sorts of people about the process of making various aspects of the film. And the primary truth and overarching theme I took away from all those hours is that a film is made by a lot of people.

This got me thinking about how we write about films. In many cases, we credit a film to a single person: the director. Yes, we’ll also talk about the great performances by the actors as they’re the people we see on screen. If the music is good, we’ll praise the composer for a fantastic score. Or maybe if we talk about the story, we talk about the great script by the screenwriter. If we’re particularly generous, we might even mention the cinematographer for some great visuals.

The point is that, at most, we’ll mention ten people in a review (unless you write one of The Void’s exhaustive reviews) as being the people that made it great. The truth is that hundreds of people work on films, even a tiny film is likely to have a large crew that could be around a hundred people. But when it comes to giving praise, it’s the director’s great vision that made the movie what it is, the performers who brought it to life and the screenwriter who laid the groundwork.

But what about all the fantastic craftsmen (and woman), the hard working technicians, the countless administrative workers, the crusading producers and generous investors who put part of their life into a film? It’s almost inconceivable that these people would be praised in an average review. The idea of talking about the fantastic work of a gaffer or the social skills of a producer in a film review is ludicrous.

And yet, these are the talented individuals that shape and hue the film. Going back to The Lord of the Rings specifically, I think the films would look drastically different if not for the great talent of Richard Taylor’s team at Weta Workshop. Those hardworking men and women crafted a lot of what the audience sees on screen, whether it’s the grand scale of a great miniature or the detailed ornamentation of a single sword.

Even then, a lot of what the audience sees is the work of computer artists at Weta Digital who did a fantastic job of crafting the massive battles as well as the more fantastical creatures, such as the trolls and the character of Gollum (which is built off of Andy Serkis’ performance). They are a large part of what makes The Lord of the Rings a conceivable visualization of the books, as it would be near impossible to physically bring about a lot of Tolkien’s writing.

But, of course, not everything we see in The Lord of the Rings was crafted by man, whether by machine or by hand. The great country of New Zealand hosted the shooting of all the films on location scenes. And not only that, there are plenty of Zealanders themselves who offered their services as extras for the film. Without the support of New Zealand, none of the country’s grand landscapes would be seen in a Lord of the Rings film.

So this paltry article is for the gaffers of the world. For the animators who spend fourteen hours a day for months to make sure the film makes release. It’s to the people who gave up some of their land for weeks of filming. For the craftsmen (and women) who wore their hands bringing shape details that we may only see for a moment. For the producers who had to manage impossible situations, work with the complex array of human personalities and emotions in tight, crowed space to make the impossible possible. This is to every person who has every worked on any film I have ever praised.

Thank you. I likely didn’t mention you by name, I probably never will know your name, but I am glad for your contribution to cinema. So here’s to the unsung heroes of cinema. Your name may be lost in the rolling sea of letters that form names more well-known than your own, but know that your contribution is part of the reason people like me even get to take delight in seeing any motion picture make it to the big screen.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing


  • Sam

    This is why I love watching extras on films … to see how the picture was made and how many damn people work on it. It’s crazy to me.

    So many take jobs that will receive zero recognition … and yet I bet it’s very fun .. doing what you love with directors and actors, etc.

    Great post James.

    • I use to watch extras all the time for that reason. Now, I find it a lot harder to get to them, in part because I have more movies I want to see and in part because a lot of them end up being filler and not all that insightful.

      The Criterion releases are some of the great exceptions as they’re always filled with people passionate about sharing their insights into films.

  • The extras following LOTR is in a completely different class than ordinary extras. There’s no detail that is too small to talk about and I absolutely love it. I’ve seen it all, the extras that followed the extended versions. And it’s an insane amount. It’s absolutely fascinating to get behind the scenes. Hundreds and hundreds of people involved, just for the crafting of items… Amazing! Like the guy who made the swords…. Each one different. Will anyone ever notice? But it’s the attention to details like that which make the difference I gather.
    Lovely post on something I’ve thought about a lot myself. Thanks!

    • Those special features are one of the biggest contributors to getting me interested in film. I love how in-depth it goes. So many films simply have a series of small featurettes or an hour or two of people talking. This is on an almost unparalleled scale of depth. Fox Alien Anthology might be the only other contender in terms of extra feature depth.

      • To be honest I almost think the extras are better than the movies. Not that the movies aren’t great, they are, absolutely, but I’ve read the books about 10 times by now and I know everything by heart. The extras on the other hand feel fresh somehow. And it’s quite impossible not to be charmed by Peter Jackson! Biking around the premisis, writing new scripts at night, being in 10 different places at the same time… It’s crazy. But he managed to still feel human and nice. I’m so looking forward to Bilbo. Especially the extras! 🙂

  • Thanks for the mention. I often see film as a collaborative effort and to me, a great director is best when he/she has collaborators to help them. Hell, I want to be a filmmaker as I’m currently stuck on my script at the moment. I need people I want to work with constantly and do commentary tracks with them.

  • Awwww, this is a sweet post. Just so you know, us Kiwis are crazy about LOTR, and we all know someone who helped in the film (for example, I know at least half a dozen people who rode horses in the film). But yes, we all have to remember all of the people who work on films!