Battalions of Orcs have played pivotal roles throughout The Lord of the Rings franchise, but the creators behind The Lord of the RIngs: The Rings of Power intend to showcase the creatures more than ever before. In preparation, we’ve got an exclusive first look at some of the variations we’ll see throughout the series.
At the end of Tolkien’s First Age, the Orcs were deciated nearly to the point of extinction in the War of Wrath. Since The Rings of Power will be taking place in the Second Age, we meet the creatures as they’re scattered across Middle-earth. Thousands of years before they become the earth-shattering force that helps level the realms of elf and man, Orcs are low in numbers, down on their luck, and fighting for survival.
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – Exclusive Images
Wanting to get a better idea of what’s in store when The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power comes to Prime Video in September, we sat down with Jamie Wilson, head of The Rings of Power’s prosthetic department, and Lindsey Weber, executive producer on the series. Both come from lovingly nerdy backgrounds, with Weber working in the Star Trek and Mission: Impossible franchises and Wilson joining the project as what they call a “Sevener.” (It means this dude has been on every single live-action Lord of the Rings project. He knows his Orcs.) Perhaps most importantly, Jamie, Lindsey, and the entire The Rings of Power team care about these creatures a great deal.
“Well, I love Orcs,” Weber starts. “I love creature design, so I’m very happy to talk about this stuff. JD and Patrick — the showrunners — the very first page of their bible was about Orcs. They have a real passion for them, they love practical prosthetics and design, and they felt that they needed exploration given that this is the Second Age and thousands of years before the events of the Third Age. It was really important to them to treat them as their own culture and explore their world on their own two legs in their own right.”
Because this is a wildly different age for the Orcs, with the timing being much earlier than the Orcs we’ve seen on screen up to this point and their numbers being so diminished, it was important that they look and feel different from the creatures we already knew.
“We spent a lot of time talking about what it would mean to be an Orc in the Second Age,” said Weber. “It felt appropriate that their look would be different, part of a wilder, more raw, Second Age, Middle-earth, closer to where the First Age ends. As we meet them, they’re not yet organized into armies, they’re a little more scattered and they’ve been scavenging. So it’s just a different time in their total story.”
A different time in their story, indeed. As mentioned, the armies we see in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy – which this television series is not tied to – are yet to be created. “They [the Orcs] kind of disappeared,” notes Wilson. “Everyone thought, ‘Yay, they’ve been wiped off Middle-earth.’ But really they regressed into the dark in small little groups, and hid away, and lived in tunnels and sort of under Middle-earth, because the only way they could hide, because of course they were hunted for so long. So this is really them coming back out as they reform under a so-called new leader who’s going to lead them forward.”
It’s hard to imagine the Orcs outside of the swarms of warriors we’ve become accustomed to, but Weber dropped a major reveal for the series in regards to the Orc’s repopulation when teasing her favorite moment of the first season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. “There’s some female Orcs that I truly loved,” she said. “But there’s one Orc in particular, who’s very, very tall and strong, who has a particularly enjoyable fight with one of our Elvin characters that I suspect will be, or hope will be a favorite among fans.”
The Rings of Power team isn’t giving us all of their secrets just yet, though. When we asked about the potential of ever seeing the creation of the Orcs (even though their creation takes place in the First Age rather than the Second), Wilson played it coy. “Well, that would just be telling you too much,” he said with a smile.
Given that these Orcs look so much different from their future selves, Wilson was able to break down how they approached their appearance. “The way I described it to my team, it’s a bit like these are the baby versions,” he said. “They’re not actually babies, but it’s them coming out from the darkness. So this is early on. So for example, if you go to past films about them, you’ll see them and they’re quite battle damaged and scarred and all that kind, because there’s been lots more battles. This is kind of before the next range of big battles. So there’s a lot more smooth texture. There’s still wrinkles, lines, shape, and form, but they’re not so battle scarred, but they are dealing with some skin conditions because of their exposure to the sun. They’re coming back out for the first time again. So it’s all a bit new. That’s why they’re not as dark skinned, necessarily not as muscle-y and not as battle worn as you’d seen in previous productions.”
As with Jackson’s Lord of the Rings’ films, practical effects remain very important to the creatives behind Rings of Power And, like the Orcs, prosthetics and chemicals have evolved since Orcs first started ruining the lives of the Fellowship and their allies.
“Time has changed a lot,” says Wilson. “You go back 20 years and we used a basically foam latex, which is like a porous-y kind of rubbery, spongy material with a smooth or whatever textured surface. It was great at the time. But it was actually just at the end of doing Lord of the Rings that we did the very first encapsulated silicon for Gimli. At the end of that, he got to start wearing silicones, but now it’s common. So all the ears, noses, orcs pieces are all made in encapsulated silicon, which is basically two layers of silicon with a moveable piece of silicon in the middle, so when it’s applied to the actor’s face, they can move and it works. It also gets the same temperature as their skin. And you can see the translucency and then you paint on the top of it, a bit like doing makeup on a human rather than having to seal and gently paint like we did in the old days.”
Now, we all love our practical effects, but both Wilson and Weber want to make it clear that this series is a marriage between CGI and practical. (This is the case for every film and series, don’t panic.)
“The most sophisticated prosthetics are thin and nimble and allow people to move their mouths really freely and emote in all the ways human faces do,” says Weber. “We work really hard to make our prosthetics really thin and more comfortable for our performers and all of that. But there are times when they’re wearing things, teeth for example, and all sorts of other stuff that do make that hard. And over time, as you’re shooting, those things can just take on a little wear and tear as the day goes along.”
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Wilson agreed, adding, “in this particular production, we work very closely. In fact, directly together because at the end of the day, you will have visual effects involved, that might be minor tweaks, right. A lot of it, because bear in mind, when you get into stunts and action, some of the stuff the human physically can’t do. So therefore it turns into a visual effect. So there was a lot of that. Also, a lot of stuff with prosthetics is beasts and creatures that then need further enhancements or whatever. So there was a very close link.”
But, again, don’t worry about the series looking top-tier. Not only is a close marriage between visual and practical effects commonplace, but the Orcs that you see up close and personal are about as pure practical as you can be. (Note: touch-ups and such will still apply.)
“When they are up close to the camera, Orcs are really practical and almost exclusively,” notes Weber. “And the places where the visual effects team help we’re in more numbers when we need larger quantities than you could amass on a film set anywhere in the world. That’s what they sort of, when they come in and do some of, work their magic. We did a lot of planning so that we knew in advance which performers would be closest to camera and they looked fast and then as you get further back, they had simpler applications in some cases to allow for those things because it was so important to us to have them all be as in camera as they could be to get everyone in the mood and make it feel real as we were shooting.”
“We did decide from the outset that we would try and make this a very real show,” Wilson added. “So therefore, we tried to use real prosthetics and everything and minimize the visual effects, because there are hundreds of productions that are heavy on visual effects, and you can see it, that the human eye is getting better and better and knows what is real and knows what isn’t, because we are just getting so deloused with all this product that you begin to know.”
There’s a lot riding on The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Prime video spent a pretty penny on the series, and armies worth of folks have put their blood, sweat and tears into creating the show. When it comes to the orcs, Weber’s ideal scenario comes down to the viewer, though. “My hope is that people will find dimension in them that they didn’t previously consider and that they will be thrilled and horrified and also maybe feel a little something along the way,” she says.
Some quotes have been edited for clarity.
Amelia is the Streaming Editor here at IGN. She’s also a film and television critic who spends too much time talking about dinosaurs, superheroes, and folk horror. You can usually find her with her dog, Rogers. There may be cheeseburgers involved.