PictureFramed at 2.35:1, this anamorphic transfer is a sublime example of how video transfers should be mastered. As the extended edition opens with the camera sweeping over a mountain range, we see images that look razor sharp, with wonderful colour saturation and detail. When the sequence culminates with Gandalf and the Balrog plummeting into the depths of Moria and switches to Frodo and Sam climbing down a treacherous cliff face, the grimness of Mordor is perfectly portrayed on the screen before us. The images of the craggy rocks are as sharp as they would be in reality, with the grey, shadowy land of Mordor holding detail yet never looking “fake” or processed. The scenes have an intentional washed out appearance, and you almost feel tired watching the two pale hobbits, whose skin looks authentically unhealthy under the dank skies.
Shadow detail is superb throughout with no sign of blocking or other artefacts troubling the transfer, and indeed detail in general is stunning. Witness the scenes where Merry and Pippin first enter Fangorn forest, which is a labyrinth of twisted trunks, rocks and undergrowth, all of it looking crisp and detailed and three-dimensional. See too, the movie's crowning moment - the battle of Helm's Deep. Armour and blades reflect convincing in the half-light, with intricate patterns perceivable even in the shadows, and the hoards of Orcs and Uruk-Hai can be made out perfectly, despite the rain, darkness and seething mass of bodies. Fantastic stuff, and I must say it's worth calibrating your video display properly for a movie such as this.
The plains of Rohan scenes are also wonderfully realised, and taking on a bleached, muted look the colours and detail are both solid and crisp, with skies in particular being clean and solid. The only problem I could find is edge enhancement, and this is more noticeable in the Rohan scenes than at any other time. The vast sweeping vistas have a permanent halo where the land/mountains meets the horizon, and although not overly distracting, it is visible on a large display. Character outlines exhibit some ringing at times also, though it's worth noting that this is only visible if you're looking for it, and again probably only on a large display.
The print itself is unsurprisingly clean and free from any scratches and dirt, with the additional scenes fused seamlessly into the existing cut with no noticeable degradation in quality. Overall then this is a sublime transfer. We have clean, crisp, three-dimensional images with excellent colour reproduction, and it's just a shame that it's let down by some minor edge enhancement. A perfect 10? On a normal size TV that's a big yes, and it's worth noting that this offers improvements on the previous standard Region 1 edition, with a crisper, more detailed transfer and less edge enhancement, no doubt helped by the fact that the movie is spread across 2 discs instead of one.
SoundIn keeping with the extended edition of The Fellowship of The Ring, The Two Towers contains both Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES (Discrete) soundtracks and without question both these soundtracks will push your sound system to its limits.
Right from the opening scene, the soundstage proves itself capable of at once subtle and powerful moments, making full use of the frequency range: as the camera pans around the mountain range the wonderful score fills all channels, then gradually the echoes of the fight inside Moria permeate the soundtrack. Then all at once we're inside the mountain, witnessing the final moments of Gandalf's face off with the Balrog on the Bridge of Kazadum. The sound is dizzying, such is the swing in dynamics - as the fight plunges into the darkness the LFE channel bursts into life with forceful, tight bass which ploughs through the 20hz barrier, and the remaining channels crackle with the fire and impact of the duel before us.
From there, the soundtrack takes off and gets better, with an utterly transparent mix that places effects effortlessly around the room. All elements of the soundstage are used to full effect, with vocals in particular coming across rich and deep. Of note is Treebeard's voice and his footsteps, which sounds sublime. With real depth, his voice is a rich, deep drawl, whilst his creaking limbs sounds authentic in the background along with his footsteps which - at reference level - will likely sound like an earthquake in your living room.
Effects placement - both action driven and ambient - is superb, with sounds flying around the viewer like you were in the centre of middle earth itself. The panning is both pin-sharp and smooth, with Legolas's arrows fizzing through the air over our heads, the Nazgul's mount's wings flapping over our shoulders, and frequent blades clashing and battle cries echoing in the surround channels.
But for all the “demo” moments of ground-shaking bass and sweeping, dynamic effects, perhaps the most impressive element of this soundtrack is the subtle layering, for always there are new sounds to hear, many of which will likely go un-noticed as you'll be swept up in the story. This is no bad thing, however, as many of the effects are really there to enhance the immersiveness and don't draw your attention to them. Some good examples of this are the section where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli meet the Riders of Rohan. As the Rohan warriors encircle them and the conversation begins, the rich, crystal clear voices are accompanied by the sounds of individual weapons and armour clanking, along with intermittent grasshoppers chirping in the left front channel, and an underlying, bass-reinforced cry of the wind. Fantastic stuff. Another example is where Faramir and Frodo talk when they're inside the cave: as the conversation progresses - and Faramir's voice is especially rich - in the background we hear a whole host of ambient noises as his soldiers go about their business. It never detracts from the conversation, but listen for it and you'll hear a whole new range of sounds.
No doubt you're probably wondering how the DTS track compares to the Dolby Digital variant. Well, at odds with The Fellowship extended edition where there were quite noticeable differences, there is very little to tell between the two variants on The Two Towers. I compared a number of scenes, of varying tempo and ambience, and the differences were extremely difficult to spot, such that I wouldn't like to call it. Certainly, the LFE levels between both mixes were on a par, and scenes of multi-layered sounds (such as I've described above) held up no differences in detail or smoothness. As such, I would challenge anyone to be able to tell the difference in a blind, side-by-side test, and I don't believe anyone could distinguish the two mixes.Overall, regardless of your preference for sound formats we have a soundtrack that is by turns bold, subtle, clear, dynamic that's a delight to listen to, and is full of rich clean detail. Thinking of upgrading that sound system? Think no more, you have your excuse now...
ExtrasAre you sitting comfortably? I hope so, because disc 3 and 4 of this stunning set contains a whole host of features that will see the dent in your sofa becoming permanent.
But before we look at the Appendices - as disc 3 & 4 are fittingly called - it's worth noting that there are four (yes four!) separate audio commentaries accompanying the movie. From the director, writers, design team and cast, you'd be brave to sit through them all as at 3 ½ hours each, they represent a considerable time commitment. All of them hold some interest, although I'd have to say that some of the comments and observations are repeated in the Appendices documentaries. Of particular note however is the cast commentary which benefits from the number of people contributing and also the humour and enthusiasm that comes through.
Onto disc 3, and this opens with a brief but informative introduction by Peter Jackson, before we move on to the first of the documentaries - J.R.R Tolkien: The Origins of Middle Earth. I was actually expecting this to be the weakest of the material on offer, but in fact I found it fascinating. Covering many details such as the struggles Tolkien had writing The Two Towers, it also deals honestly with the weaknesses and problems with Tolkien's writing, a fact that is so often overlooked by many of his fans - I found this particularly refreshing.
From Book To Script: Finding The Story gives us a sense of the problems the filmmakers encountered when trying to adapt the book for the screen, and it's quite amazing when you look at the task of making it into a workable script. Of particular interest to fans - or indeed anyone who has read the book - is the section where Jackson and the writers explain the reasons behind the changes they made from the original story, which includes references to Shelob, Tom Bombadil and other events that Tolkien readers will be familiar with.
Designing Middle Earth is a fascinating documentary which mainly deals with the set design and production, and there are some great moments where we learn that the Dead Marshes sequence was actually filmed in a parking lot beside a railway line, and the mammoth effort and logistics involved in creating Edoras. We also see the designers at work - Alan Lee and John Howe - and how difficult it was for the team to get Jackson to review all of their designs (they followed him up mountains just to see him!). Following on from this is a detailed Weta Workshop documentary, which focuses on the design process for weapons and armour for the various races and some of the creatures of middle earth (e.g the Fellbeasts); of particular interest is the section which focuses on the swordsmith who crafted all of the blades in the movies, and the costume section where we see the hurdles the design team encountered when filming the Helm's Deep battle. Bolted onto this section is an interactive gallery containing a staggering number of images from the production. Normally these are passable on most DVDs, but a number of them are accompanied by commentaries which explain the context and background - excellent.The Taming of Smeagol is perhaps the most enjoyable documentary on this disc. It shows extensive footage of Andy Serkis acting his guts out (in “The Gimp” suit), the development of the character from concept to screen and how Serkis' own role developed from voice only to the full-on role that we see. Highlights include Serkis's screentest (you can see why he got the part!) and a snippet of footage showing him dressed as a hobbit (which I believe makes an appearance in The Return of The King). Also here is a short piece Gollum's “Stand In” and another interactive gallery.Wrapping up disc 3 are two interactive maps which gives those viewers who aren't familiar with the novels an idea of the different paths across Middle Earth that the key characters take, and also where in real world locations these sequences were shot.
Moving on to Disc 4, and this opens with a short introduction by Elijah Wood before moving onto the meat of the content, which deals primarily with the filming and production of The Two Towers. I'm sure people will have different preferences here, but without any doubt this disc is the most interesting of the two. We have a documentary entitled Warriors of Middle Earth, which is a fascinating piece on fighting choreography, the stuntmen (and woman!) and in particular this focuses on the lengthy ordeal that was the Helm's Deep shoot. Excellent.
Cameras of Middle Earth is an extensive look at the overall production of the entire movie, with a location-to-location structure that works very well. This is incredibly comprehensive, dealing with how certain scenes were shot, the challenges they encountered along the way and various tales from the cast (all of them interesting, and several funny!), including how they were all battered and bruised (and broken in one case) through the filming of the movie. This documentary is to me the real “guts” of the extras, showing the movie itself being shot (as opposed to puff-pieces which simply show “in-film” footage). Utterly fascinating, and again wrapping up this section is a photo gallery accompanied by commentaries.Next up is a series of documentaries on the effects of The Two Towers, which includes some amazing shots of the miniatures used to re-create Middle Earth, and the transition from concept art to either CGI or models. We also have a short but interesting “Animatic” sequence which shows the flooding of Isengard scene before they shot it for real, and you can also see this side-by-side with the final scene in the movie itself. Again, like the previous documentaries, this section is concluded with yet another gallery.
Next up we have Editorial: Refining The Story, a documentary that deals with Jackson's decision to have separate editors for each of the three movies, and how they cut each of the movie's together to get to a “fine cut”, which is actually the first time Peter Jackson sees the movie's in a form which is “close” to their final cut.
Music For Middle Earth and The Soundscapes Of Middle Earth are excellent documentaries dealing with the various aspects of music and sound production for the movie. Interesting in itself, but those with an interest in surround sound will no doubt enjoy the Helm's Deep Sound Demonstration which contains all the isolated elements that make up action scenes. It's almost surreal, but fantastic watching this.
Finally (phew) we have a short documentary entitled The Battle For Helm's Deep is over... which is essentially a piece of reflection by Jackson and Co., and a look forward to the final instalment. Will it be as good? Well we'll know soon enough...
Overall this is a stunning (if exhaustive) set of extras with the documentaries running for between 20 minutes to an hour each, of which none can be accused of being promotional puff. If you have the time then settle into your sofa, dim the lights and experience how this gem of a movie was really made....
VerdictA wonderful, epic movie and a worthy follow-up to The Fellowship, this 4-disc set is reference material in every single sense. If you only buy one DVD a year...this should be it.
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