Sculpting Barad-dûr for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's timelines and in the little facts revealed in The Silmarillion, Sauron basically wandered Middle-Earth from the Year 466 of the First Age (F.A.) until the Year 500 of the Second Age (S.A.). He took up residence in the forest of Greenwood, in the abandoned Gondorian watchtower of Amon Lac. There, he attempted to grow more and more powerful. For 500 years, he occupied the tower, his evil poisoning the surrounding forest and drawing all manner of evil creatures into it. The forest now became known as Mirkwood, and the Elven king Oropher, who had founded the realm of Greenwood in the Yeares 40 S.A., now withdrew his people into the northern part of the forest away from Amon Lac and into the underground caverns near the Long Lake and the Lonely Mountain. (In the Year 3434, Oropher and the Last Alliance of Elves and Men had managed to push Sauron's forces all the way across Middle-Earth to the Black Gate. Oropher and his men died there, pushed into the marshes -- which became haunted by their spirits, and became the Dead Marshes.)
Sauron fled Amon Lac (now known as Dol Guldur, or the "tower of sorcery") in the Year 1000 S.A. and went to the land of Mordor, where he began construction of a new stronghold, Barad-dûr. Sauron left Barad-dûr in the Year 1200 S.A., and -- taking a pleasing form -- appeared in the Elven kingdom of Eregion, west of the Misty Mountains and near the door western door of Moria. For 300 years, he taught the Elves how to make magic rings. In 1500 S.A., Sauron convinced the Elves to begin forging Rings of Power: Nine for the Human kings, and seven of the Dwarf lords. But the Elves had a secret agenda, and forged three Rings for themselves as well. In full knowledge of the Elves' deception, in 1590 S.A. Sauron left Eregion and traveled to Barad-dûr again. There, he forged the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
There's a problem in Tolkien's novel here. Tolkien explicitly says that Barad-dûr was held together by the power of the One Ring. Yet, Sauron would not finish the One Ring until 1600 S.A. But Barad-dûr was finished in 1590 S.A. So how...?
Well, anyway: Barad-dûr was one of two projects Sauron finished in 1590 S.A. The Black Gate of Morannon was also completed the same year, essentially sealing Mordor off from the rest of Middle-Earth. Tolkien does not specify when construction began on the Black Gate, however. (In the Year 3441 S.A., the people of Gondor built the Tower of Cirith Ungol, the Castle of Durthang at the head of the Isenmouthe, and the Nelig Myrn or "Teeth-Towers" -- Narchost and Carchost, on either side of outward face of the Black Gate.)
In 1600 S.A., Sauron completed the One Ring. He put it on, and immediately took control of the nine Human kings and began turning the seven Dwarf lords into greedy psychotics. He fully intended to take control of the three Elves (Galadriel, Cirdan and Gil-galad) as well. But, instantly aware of the danger their rings now put them in, the three Elves removed their rings and defeated Sauron's plan. For 95 years, Sauron bided his time. The human kings died, and became Ring-Wraiths. The Dwarvish lords became greedy and withdrawn.
In 1695 S.A., Sauron's forces flooded out of the Black Gate. They pushed westward through what, 2,500 years later, would be Rohan and flooded into Eregion. For two years, he fought Celebrimbor, the king of Eregion. He finally captured him and tortured him to death. But a host of Elves from Loth-Lorien moved through Moria, and together with an army of Moria Dwarves they prevented Sauron from moving north and overwhelming the Elvish army led by Elrond the Half-Elven. So Sauron turned west, trying to aim for the Elvish kingdom of Lindon (ruled by Gil-galad and Cirdan) and the western coast. To help secure his position, Elrond founded Rivendell in 1697 S.A. In 1699 S.A., a huge army of Númenóreans (an ancient race of powerful, glorious Men) arrived in Lindon from their island stronghold. By 1701 S.A., the Númenóreans and Elves had forced Sauron back into Mordor. They built the fortress of Isengard and the tower of Orthanc to guard the western exit of Rohan to prevent Sauron's forces from ever again entering Eregion.
Four years of battle had exhausted the Elves, who had suffered mightily at Sauron's hand. So the Alliance did not attempt to enter Mordor. Instead, the Númenóreans began building the realm of Gondor in order to act as a guard against any breakout. In the Year 1800 S.A., Sauron began rebuilding his forces by taking over the Easterling nation of Rhûn east of Mordor. Sauron also slowly began poisoning the minds of the some of the weaker Númenóreans back on their island homeland. Over the next 500 years, his subtle influence began to turn the Númenóreans away from the Elves and toward thoughts of world conquest.
In 2250 S.A., the Nazgûl finally made their first appearance, having grown strong enough since 1695 to finally begin challenging Númenórean warriors. By 2737 S.A., Sauron's influence in Númenór had grown to the point where the kings began abandoning Elvish religion and language and using their own. Sauron knew that Men lusted for power most of all, and in 3255 S.A. his forces in Rhûn and the southern kingdom of Umbar began attacking Gondor's coastal settlements. Ar-Pharazôn, the king of Númenór, attacked Sauron in 3261, and Sauron swiftly surrendered. Ar-Pharazôn foolishly took Sauron in chains back to Númenór. But he also treated Sauron like a fellow king, and essentially put him under house arrest. Sauron had free access to Ar-Pharazôn, his court, and his nobles, and within two years he had convinced Ar-Pharazôn to try to conquer the Elves as well as the angelic Valar to the west. Sauron also caused Ar-Pharazôn to sicken, and told him that this was caused by the Valar in their jealousy of the Númenóreans. In 3319 S.A., Ar-Pharazôn attacked the Valar. The all-powerful Valar cause Númenór to plunge beneath the waves, and they wiped out Ar-Pharazôn and his army and navy.
Sauron was not prepared for the devastation of Númenór. Fleeing the sinking island, he used a great deal of his power -- and forever after lost the ability to appear in a pleasing form. He flew back to Mordor, and took up residence again in Barad-dûr. A remainder of Númenóreans had remained true to the Elves and the Valar, however, and they sailed as well from the sinking island. They became kings of Gondor, and established a realm in the far north known as Arnor. Gondor was ruled from Osgiliath, the "fortress of stars". A second city, Minas Anor ("tower of the setting sun", later renamed Minas Tirith) was built on the west side of Gondor, while a third city, Minas Ithil ("tower of the moon") was built in the foothills of the Ephel Duath in the east. This city defended the Morgul Road, which led through a series of switchbacks and passes through the Ephel Duath into Mordor. (Why Sauron had blocked the Morannon with the Black Gate, but never the Morgul Road, is not clear.) To further reinforce the plains of Rohan, a fortess named Aglarond was built between two spurs of the White Mountains near the southwestern end of Rohan. The fortress consisted of the Deeping Wall and a tower, the Hornburg.
In 3429 S.A., Sauron felt powerful enough again to attack Gondor. His forces immediately captured Minas Ithil (which thereafter was named Minas Morgul), but Gondor was incredibly strong. Sauron was trapped east of the River Anduin (occupying about half of Gondor). Nevertheless, the king of Gondor made a pact with Gil-galad, the high king of the Elves in Middle-Earth, and in the Year 3434 S.A. they attacked Sauron's forces again, recaptured Minas Ithil, and broke through the Black Gate. Sauron was forced inside Barad-dûr. The siege of Barad-dûr lasted for seven years. Sauron at last emerged from Barad-dûr, wielding the One Ring. He attacked to the southwest, in the direction of Mount Doom. He was successful, and as he neared the volcano the One Ring gained in strength. There he slew Gil-galad and the king of Gondor, Elendil. But in his arrogance, Sauron left himself open to attack. Elendil's son, Isildur, cut the One Ring from Sauron's hand.
The loss of the One Ring deprived Sauron of a body, and his spirit fled into the east. Barad-dûr still stood, as the One Ring still existed as well. But most of the tower was torn down. The structure's foundations, however, were magically held together by the One Ring, and since Isildur refused to destroy it -- the foundations of Barad-dûr continued to exist.
By the Year 1100 of the Third Age (T.A.), Sauron was able to sneak back into the west and took up residence again at Dol Guldur. The same year, the Valar sent wizards -- Maiar, lesser angels -- into Middle-Earth. It's not clear how many wizards there were, but at least five became known to Men, Dwarves, and Elves. These were Curumo (later known as Saruman), a Fire elemental; Alatar and Pallando, Hunter elementals; Aiwendil (later known as Radagast), a Plant elemental; and Olorin (later known as Gandalf), a Grief elemental. Sauron, too, was a Maiar (more specifically, a Fire elemental). But while the wizards were forbidden from using the vast majority of their powers while in Middle-Earth, Sauron was under no such compulsion -- and so appeared much more powerful.
Beginning in the Year 1300 T.A., Sauron sends the King of the Nazgûl into the far north, where it establishes the evil realm of Angmar. Angmar slowly wages war on the Gondorian kingdoms there (Arnor having split into three parts), and they disintegrate. The few remaining Gondorians take to the forest, calling themselves the Dúnedain. The Dúnedain wage a terrorist war on Orcs, trolls, dragons, and other beings for the next 1,800 years, as well as keeping watch on the Shire at the behest of Gandalf. In the Year 1980 T.A., the King of the Nazgûl leaves Angmar (which disintegrates), and returns to Mordor. That same year, a Balrog appeared in Moria, and within a year the Dwarven kingdom is abandoned.
In the Year 2060 T.A., the leaders of the Elves decided to form a "White Council" to deal with the growing presence of evil in Middle-Earth. Saruman, Radagast, and Gandalf were added to the council as well. Three years later, Gandalf went to Dol Guldur to investigate a "necromancer" living there. But Sauron fled into the east before Gandalf arrived. In the Year 2002 T.A., Sauron sent the Nazgûl and an army of Orcs to attack Minas Ithil. Once more, the city fell (permanently this time).
In the Year 2460, Sauron returned to Dol Guldur. There, he crossed Orcs with Men to create a new form of evil, the Uruk-hai. These larger, more powerful Orcs could travel about in daylight, and were more courageous than their simpering cousins. The Uruks attacked Gondor, seizing the eastern half of the nation and destroying the bridge across the Anduin at Osgiliath. Twenty years later, Sauron sent orcs into the Misty Mountains to seal its passes, and sent orcs and trolls to infest Moria.
In the Year 2850 T.A., Gandalf again entered Dol Guldur. Sauron once more fled before he got there. But Gandalf not only discovered definitive proof that Sauron was taking physical form again, he also discovered evidence that Sauron was seeking the One Ring. In the dungeons of Dol Guldur, Gandalf discovered Thráin II, the son of Thrór (the former King Under the Mountain). Thráin II died in Gandalf's arms, but not before giving Gandalf a map showing the location of the Lonely Mountain and the key to the stronghold's hidden door. Gandalf summoned the White Council and told them of his findings. But Saruman, who had spent several hundred years exploring the east and had been corrupted by his lust for power and his fear of Sauron, counseled caution. Saruman won over the Council. But he now secretly began searching the Gladden Fields -- where the One Ring had been lost 2,848 years ago. In 2939 T.A., Saruman learned that Sauron has figured out Isildur lost the One Ring.
In 2941 T.A., Saruman summoned the White Council and advocated an attack on Dol Guldur. He believed this would prevent Sauron from searching the River Anduin and Gladden Fields for the One Ring. But it was too later: Sauron had already abandoned Dol Guldur. Now he returned from the east and took up residence again in Barad-dûr. Gandalf, meanwhile, sent Bilbo Baggins on his journey to the Lonely Mountain, where he and the Dwarves re-established the Kingdom Under the Mountain and killed the dragon, Smaug.
In 2951 T.A., Sauron openly declares himself. He begins drawing tens of thousands of Orcs, Uruks, trolls, and Easterlings into Mordor, and starts to rebuild Barad-dûr. He sent three Nazgûl to Dol Guldur, however, to keep it occupied. Despite its ruination, Barad-dûr seems to have been easily rebuilt. This may be attributable to Sauron's emerging ability to take physical form again. So although it took Sauron 1,590 years to build Barad-dûr originally, it takes him just 65 years to rebuild it completely.
In the Year 3017, Sauron's Orcs attacked Osgiliath again, and the events of The Lord of the Rings were set in motion after Gandalf returned to the Shire and told Frodo Baggins that Frodo had the One Ring. On March 25, 3018, the One Ring fell with Gollum into the Crack of Doom, causing the collapse of Barad-dûr. Sauron's power in Middle-Earth was irrevocably lost, and he vanished from history.
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Barad-dûr is not well-described by Tolkien. He writes that it consisted of "wall upon wall, battlement upon battlement, black, immeasurably strong, mountain of iron, gate of steel, tower of adamant". Later, Tolkien writes that the fortress had "towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant". It had several pinnacles, but one tower stood higher than all the rest and seemed to be crowned with an iron crown. This tower was also blacker than the others, so black that light seemed to be absorbed by it. Just below this crown-like structure was a window which faced north, and it was from this window that Sauron looked out over Middle-earth.
Tolkien writes in The Return of the King that the tower was erected at the end of a long spur of the east-west trending Ered Lithui mountain range (which formed the northern boundary of Mordor). This spur jutted south, and a look at Tolkien's hand-drawn maps for the novels shows that it was about 100 miles southeast of the Black Gate. Tolkien very specifically says Mount Doom was a league (three miles) west of Barad-dûr. The fortress' west gate was immense and made of adamant. A bridge of iron crossed an immensely deep chasm before Barad-dûr, and three roads diverged from the end of the bridge. One road led due west to Mount Doom, running between two vast, smoking fissures in the earth. Man-made canals dug in the earth brought molten lava to Barad-dûr for use as a heat source, for forging and construction purposes, and possibly for use in dark magic. Another road led west-northwest, where it intersected with the north-running road leading to the Black Gate. A third road went southeast toward Cirith Ungol and the Morgul Road.
From Tolkien's description, therefore, we can imagine a Barad-dûr built of iron and black diamond. It has multiple towers, multiple courtyards, and within its walls multiple prison buildings without windows. It has many entry-gates, some of steel and some of black diamond. All around it (and possibly in its courtyards) are vast pits so deep their bottom cannot be seen or fathomed. Barad-dûr is probably positioned atop a hill of stone, and Tolkien says it is as tall as a hill. Now, for decades the government of the United Kingdom defined a hill as a landform whose summit was less than 2,000 feet. At maximum, Barad-dûr could have been built on a hill 2,000 feet high, and it could have risen another 2,000 feet into the air.
An early drawing by J.R.R. Tolkien depicted Barad-dûr as squat and built of cut stone. Its windows were tiny, sometimes barred, and glowed red from within. It was clearly set very high on a hill, for it almost overlooked Mount Doom in the distance. This drawing, however, does not fit with the final text of Tolkien's novels.
Veteran Tolkien illustrators depicted Barad-dûr in various ways. Ted Nasmith depicted it as a smooth-sided, highly elongated pyramid with an obelisk on top. The fortress was smooth-sided, almost lacking in detail. A single small, red window near the top depicted the Window of the Eye. The Brothers Hildebrandt depicted it as more castle-like, set against a craggy mountainside. Their fortress had a barbican, outer wall with towers, and two inner towers. One inner tower (set toward the rear of the keep) was a decapitated, elongated pyramid. It was connected by a spine-like structure to the main tower, which was a hexagonal structure that flared outward near the tip before coalescing in a sharp pyramid. Long spikes jutted upward from each corner of the hexagon. The walls were smooth and the tops of the walls crenellated, but there was no discernible Window.
A far more influential version was crafted by Alan Lee, who eventually worked on the Peter Jackson films. Lee depicted Barad-dûr twice. In his first painting, the base of the structure is depicted as a series of panels and ribs flowing upward, with the impression of a few courts and several towers. In his second painting, Lee depicted the top of the tower in much the same way that the Brothers Hildebrandt had done, with a squat and thick squarish structure with upward-curving horns. Lee had Sauron's window set somewhat below the top of the tower, and both images depicted Barad-dûr wreathed in smoke and clouds (as Tolkien described).
But the most influential version, in terms of the films, was created by John Howe. Howe's Barad-dûr was far more slender, arising as if organically out of the rock -- which clung to portions of the lower tower like a skin sloughing off a snake. There were no courtyards, just lower balconies. There weren't multiple towers, except for a few, slender spires around the base. Instead, his "towers" were turrets and set-backs, all part of the main structure as it soared, lean and ugly, high high high into the air. Howe's tower was all ribs, spines, and sharp points.
Howe's art formed the basis of Barad-dûr in the motion pictures. Interestingly, Howe had never drawn the top of the tower (where Sauron lived) prior to his work on the films. When he did, Howe envisioned a tower some 3,000 feet high. And, most notably, at the very top was a U-shaped set of two razor-sharp horns -- between which the Lidless Eye of Sauron floated.
Creating Barad-dûr for the movies
Howe's initial drawing of Barad-dûr was delivered to the art staff in early 1999. Visual effects art directors Paul Lasaine and Jeremy Bennett also contributed some drawings and paintings.
Initially, the art staff began work on a six foot high model. They worked closely with director of photography Andrew Lesnie to ensure that the color and lighting of the model would match the rest of the film. At one point, as the staff considered how to destroy Barad-dûr, Lasaine did a color study that showed a pulse of lava racing from Mount Doom along the lava canal toward Barad-dûr, where the lava cascaded upward to grab the tower and then bring it down. (This effect was never used.) Another problem was how to convey the idea that Barad-dûr was 3,000 feet high. For a time, Lasaine toyed with the idea (adapted from the novel) of showing the upper reaches of Barad-dûr shrouded in clouds. The approach eventually used was created by Weta Digital concept artist Dylan Cole: Depict distant mountains with their peaks in the clouds. These horizon images were below Barad-dûr, implying visually (although not geographically or spatially) that Barad-dûr was taller than they were. To emphasize the Eye, all color was drained from these scenes except for the red and oranges of the Eye and the lava. Areas of light were placed behind the tower, to help it stand out from the grey and black background, while the glowing red Eye was set against black clouds higher up. In another shot, set during the prologue of The Two Towers, Bennett conceived of a panning shot that began with a master shot of Mount Doom and the Mordor landscape, then swooped down to show ant-like swarms of Orcs on the road to the Black Gate and lava from a canal pouring into the chasm before Barad-dûr's western gate. The camera then turned upward, to show cranes, wheels, pulleys, and Orcs swarming over Barad-dûr, continuing to construct it.
Once the concept model was finalized, a scaled-up version nine feet high was created. This version had exquisite detail, to enable close-up filming. Senior miniature builder Mary MacLachlan showed the "big-ature" to director Peter Jackson, who expressed his dissatisfaction with it. It lacked "something". With the date for cinematography rapidly approaching, MacLachlan and Weta Workshop sculptor Ben Wootten began reworking the bigature. After a few efforts failed to meet Jackson's expectations, the artists hit on the right look Jackson had in mind.
Most of the finished bigature of Barad-dûr was in 1/166 scale. For certain shots, such as the prologue shot for The Two Towers, a larger-scale version of Mordor landscape, bridge, lava canal, and lower walls was built at 1/83 scale (making the model 18 feet high). It was shot separately and combined digitally with the shots of the 1/166 scale model shots.
To destroy Barad-dûr, Gray Horsfield created a digital model of the tower. He then spent an enormous amount of time writing code that would show the tower coming apart and exploding. Originally, the idea was to show Barad-dûr and the Black Gate collapsing in one long shot. But this was seen as too much of a lift, and the destruction of Barad-dûr was cut down into several shorter shots. Peter Jackson wanted to show Mount Doom erupting in the background as the tower fell, however. A shot of Barad-dûr and Mount Doom was created which significantly cheated the spatial relationship between the two in order to get this shot.
Jackson and his team also altered the geography of Mordor in other ways. They eliminated the spurs of the Ephel Duath and Ephel Lithui which enclosed the southern part of the enclosed plain of Udûn. (Also eliminated was the moat and earthen wall built across the Carach Angren (the space between the two spurs) that gave access to the Plain of Gorgoroth, Barad-dûr, Mount Doom, and the rest of Mordor.) This allowed for a clear line of sight between the Black Gate and Barad-dûr. Additionally, Jackson and his team moved Barad-dûr some 30 miles or more westward and moved Mount Doom the same distance southeast. This allowed for the Eye of Sauron to look upon Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest of their attacking army, and for the attacking army to look through the Black Gate and see Barad-dûr collapse as Mount Doom erupted in the background. Both Barad-dûr and Mount Doom were also much, much closer to the Black Gate than Tolkien's maps would indicate.
The spatial perspective was violated almost at will by the filmmakers. In the two images above, you can see the problem. The first is from The Two Towers, and shows Mount Doom a great distance away from Barad-dûr. The second, from the final destruction of Barad-dûr in The Return of the King, depicts Mount Doom much closer to the fortress.
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All the images below depict the larger 1/83 scale model.