In perhaps one of the most unique and mesmerizing title sequences of the past year, Prime Video’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” debuted, reaching more than 240 countries and territories worldwide.
The eight-part series took viewers into an epic world set thousands of years before the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” novels. An era in which great powers were forged, kingdoms rose to glory and fell to ruin, and a first-of-its-kind majestic world was introduced to the universe.
“The Rings of Power” series is the most ambitious undertaking in television history. Creating and producing the show required a prodigious, global team of companies and artists across the visual effects arena; 20 visual effects studios, 1500 VFX artists, and nearly 9,500 VFX shots to bring Middle Earth to life. And introducing us to each episode of Middle Earth of the series was a captivating main title sequence conceived and directed by lead design studio, Pacific-Northwest-based Plains Of Yonder.
Headed by directors Katrina Crawford and Mark Bashore with Creative Director Anthony Vitagliano, Plains of Yonder brainstormed potential main title concepts for “The Rings of Power.” The eventual winning concept was discovered hiding within the original Tolkien creation myth. Tolkien imagined a universe “sung into existence” by angelic beings known as the ‘Ainur.’
“We really loved the idea of a main title film ‘built from the world of sound.”
The Motionographer team gets the behind-the-scenes technical breakdown from the makers of this stunning main title sequence to learn how the series’ opening was created.
Science Inspires the Art.
For the actual visual solution of “The Rings of Power” intro, science held the answer for us. Cymatics is a term coined by Swiss scientist Hans Jenny in 1967 and is a natural phenomenon whereby sound can be made visible to the eye.
It’s achieved by running frequencies across a plate covered in a fine powder, often called a “Chladni plate,” named after German physicist Ernst Chladni 1878. The material on the plates form ornate, diverse geometric patterns as they react to sound. It’s science and math, but it hits you as pure, feral magic.
Together with our creative director Anthony Vitagliano, we uncovered a beautiful musical origin story and paired it with real scientific phenomena from our universe. It’s something that feels primordial and looks like the passage of time across millennia.
Cymatics felt like a perfect fit for this epic story. Tolkien’s world encapsulates time and space on a grand scale, so the fleeting nature and transformational motion of the sand felt right. The primal push and pull of powerful unseen forces gave us the drama we were looking for.
Our team was well prepared to embrace the scientific side of the project. Katrina holds a Ph.D. in Microbial Biology and has logged more hours behind a microscope than she cares to think about. Our creative director Anthony Vitagliano had recently creatively led all exhibit design at The Museum Of Science and Industry in Chicago. In fact, the conceptual spark of cymatics was born from one such exhibit. Without meaning to, almost everything we make at Plains Of Yonder connects back in some way to the natural world.
Experimenting with Earth’s Grain: Sand
After storyboarding, pitching, and winning the project, initial motion experimentation was initiated by Katrina using a small cymatics kit, an iPhone, and every powder she could get her hands on.
When we played back the slow-motion sand organizing itself in response to a Gregorian chant, it was evident that we had something unique. It was wild, untamed. It was its flaw that lent it real beauty.
The concept of “flaw” became a through-line concept and barometer for our work on the production. In the Tolkien origin story, the discordant notes of Melkor, a rebel “angelic being,” were present from the beginning and incorporated into the harmonious elements.
I think we wrote 'FLAW' on every piece of paper we had for the entire seven-month production.
When dirt and earth are guided by the modal vibrations of angelic songs, it’s not an immaculate conception but a chaotic one.
But real-life cymatics don’t form perfect mountains and trees, so the team knew the final piece would need to be a blend of live action and exceptionally artistic particle and VFX work. With the particle work, we were always guided by the question: Would real-world phenomena create this shape? Would cymatics really look like this?
Designing and Animating a Primordial Universe
To produce these effects, we reached out to Nexus Studios (London) and their team consisting of animation director Fernando Domínguez Cózar, VFX director Germán Diez, Executive Producers Colin Davis and Laura Breaden, and producer Nicole López Naguil.
The making of the sequence was the very definition of a “mixed media” production. We began with an extensive live-action shoot in Madrid.
Cymatic motion was filmed on two stages simultaneously. We (Crawford, Cózar, Diez, and Gimferrer) spent a week filming our experiments to better study and understand cymatic motion at a deep level and determine how best to hybridize with the CG work.
Fernando Cózar, Nexus Studios’ animation director, was instrumental in bringing what we see on screen to life. He and his team looked to the live-action shoot to establish camera moves, angles, lighting and discover the logic of all the movement.
Each shot required its own bespoke approach – there is a little of this and a little of that in every shot.
Cozar teamed with digital studio Makmac in Barcelona to lead the daunting CG particle animation work. Cózar, along with Mauro Gimferrer, Marcos Coral, and JA Duran under Makmac, were the perfect animation teammates.
They all took a relentlessly experimental approach to the CG work. We knew we needed to create a team that would essentially work to “break” CG particle perfect algorithms in a way that reflected the real motion of cymatics in all its unrestrained, unpredictable glory.
They, like us, were drawn to the random, the organic, and the imperfect worlds of nature…something that is very rare to find in the CG/VFX profession.
Makmac VFX art director Mauro Gimferrer understood that real cymatic motion is tempestuous and that it looked to the live-action shoot constantly when creating the particle work. Calling it “reference” is not right – it was a true guide that led the way.
Nexus Studios VFX director Germán Díez led the team at Nexus, handling all compositing and finishing work. He and his team fully embraced the importance of mixing live-action cymatic motion with the CG particle work. In the end, about twenty different real live-action plates were used. Real footage was mixed with 3D simulation for every shot.
The Final Touches
Back at our Seattle headquarters, our team at Plains Of Yonder handled the edit and shot selection, building different chapters within the sequence, all in complete lockstep to Howard Shore’s main title score. We worked daily – and digitally – with our European animation and VFX teams.
We ultimately built a sequence that holds over a dozen hidden symbols reflecting themes and storylines within season one. Some symbols are obvious, others well-cloaked. New meanings and clues are revealed as the storylines of successive episodes unfold. Some have yet to be found…
Even the typography was a mixed-media experiment. New Zealand-based calligrapher and map maker Daniel Reeve hand-drew an entirely original typeface, which our CD Anthony Vitagliano then animated and set within the sequence.
We set out to create something primordial, timeless, and elegant. We’re especially proud that it has struck a chord with true Tolkien followers as well as the newly initiated.
We think of it as a short abstract art film. The imagery is not conspicuous… people will see different things within it…and Tolkien followers will see far more than the casual viewer. That’s very rare in main title design.
We credit this group of incredible talents above all else. We could not be more proud of them. The ask was beyond ambitious: a colossal technical and artistic challenge with collaborators in Seattle, Chicago, London, Barcelona, Madrid, and New Zealand who came together across holidays and a very tight deadline, and all in the midst of a global pandemic.
This was one giant science experiment, and the team came with the deep curiosity of scientists and the hearts of artisans.
You can currently watch all episodes of Amazon Studios’ “Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” on its streaming platform Prime Video.