We are not making a Documentary

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
aka, why this project is going to take so many seasons!

I know that this is something we have said at various times over the years. We're telling a story, not making a documentary. The Silmarillion is the history of the Elves during the Time of the Trees and the First Age of Middle-earth, and so it would, perhaps, be possible to view Silm Film as an attempt at making a historical account of those events. To tell the story more or less as written in the book (which has more in common with a history text than a novel in many places).

But we aren't doing that. We are fleshing out the stories, telling them as stories, and allowing the audience to get to know the various characters. That takes a lot more time!

As an example, here is a 12 minute documentary film about the Chernobyl liquidators who contained and mitigated the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster. It consists of photographs and video footage from the time, with a voiceover narration explaining what was done.
This short video touches on the various different types of work done during liquidation efforts - the firefighters and first responders, the miners, the nuclear engineers, the military personnel, the 'biorobots' who cleared debris off the roof, those were responsible for killing animals in the exclusion zone, etc. In other words, the information contained in this short video is quite similar to the information about the liquidators provided in the HBO miniseries about Chernobyl. Obviously the miniseries includes other topics (such as the cause of the disaster in the first place), but most of the show is focused on the liquidator efforts. And the HBO series takes 5 hours and 40 minutes to tell that story.

When we try to include too much content in an episode or a season, or focus too much effort on exposition and 'information dumps', we run the risk of losing the emotional connection of the audience to these characters, and flattening the story into a recitation of events rather than an actual...story. That is one reason it has been so important to give our stories 'breathing room' to fill in the details that will lead up to events described in the book, and explore how characters may be thinking or reacting to things before they know how it will all turn out.

One of the main differences between a documentary and a dramatization is that in the latter, you see the story from the perspective of those who are living through it, whereas in a documentary, you have the perspective of an outsider, looking in, with the distance of history to guide your perspective. The narrator of the published Silmarillion definitely has this distance, making comments about how things will turn out before the story reaches that point. The narrator knows how the First Age is going to end - the importance of Eärendil, the ultimate failure of the Noldor and the loss and destruction of every single elf kingdom in Beleriand...these things are known, and that knowledge colors the way the story is told. But for the Noldor living through it at the time, it might not seem that defeat is quite so inevitable, and they might not be able to imagine what circumstances would have to be in place for the Valar to intervene.

Here is another video, this one focusing on the use of perspective in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl to transform the story from a documentary to a personal dramatic event unfolding in 'real time' for the characters living through it. Naturally, the perspectives used here are very different from the impersonal view of a documentary (at least prior to the final episode). [Ignore the 1 minute ad at the end of this video]
 
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Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
aka, why this project is going to take so many seasons!

I know that this is something we have said at various times over the years. We're telling a story, not making a documentary. The Silmarillion is the history of the Elves during the Time of the Trees and the First Age of Middle-earth, and so it would, perhaps, be possible to view Silm Film as an attempt at making a historical account of those events. To tell the story more or less as written in the book (which has more in common with a history text than a novel in many places).

But we aren't doing that. We are fleshing out the stories, telling them as stories, and allowing the audience to get to know the various characters. That takes a lot more time!

As an example, here is a 12 minute documentary film about the Chernobyl liquidators who contained and mitigated the radioactive fallout of the 1986 nuclear disaster. It consists of photographs and video footage from the time, with a voiceover narration explaining what was done.
This short video touches on the various different types of work done during liquidation efforts - the firefighters and first responders, the miners, the nuclear engineers, the military personnel, the 'biorobots' who cleared debris off the roof, those were responsible for killing animals in the exclusion zone, etc. In other words, the information contained in this short video is quite similar to the information about the liquidators provided in the HBO miniseries about Chernobyl. Obviously the miniseries includes other topics (such as the cause of the disaster in the first place), but most of the show is focused on the liquidator efforts. And the HBO series takes 5 hours and 40 minutes to tell that story.

When we try to include too much content in an episode or a season, or focus too much effort on exposition and 'information dumps', we run the risk of losing the emotional connection of the audience to these characters, and flattening the story into a recitation of events rather than an actual...story. That is one reason it has been so important to give our stories 'breathing room' to fill in the details that will lead up to events described in the book, and explore how characters may be thinking or reacting to things before they know how it will all turn out.

One of the main differences between a documentary and a dramatization is that in the latter, you see the story from the perspective of those who are living through it, whereas in a documentary, you have the perspective of an outsider, looking in, with the distance of history to guide your perspective. The narrator of the published Silmarillion definitely has this distance, making comments about how things will turn out before the story reaches that point. The narrator knows how the First Age is going to end - the importance of Eärendil, the ultimate failure of the Noldor and the loss and destruction of every single elf kingdom in Beleriand...these things are known, and that knowledge colors the way the story is told. But for the Noldor living through it at the time, it might not seem that defeat is quite so inevitable, and they might not be able to imagine what circumstances would have to be in place for the Valar to intervene.

Here is another video, this one focusing on the use of perspective in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl to transform the story from a documentary to a personal dramatic event unfolding in 'real time' for the characters living through it. Naturally, the perspectives used here are very different from the impersonal view of a documentary (at least prior to the final episode). [Ignore the 1 minute ad at the end of this video]
I am in one hundred percent agreement with this. Moreover, I'll add that the less time Tolkien spends with certain events, the more we have to expand upon them and zoom in. In order to tell a good story, we need to spend time with characters. We need to show the audience why they should care about these people so that the events of their lives have emotional weight. If we fail to do that, the characters are just meaningless redshirts, strangers whose fate is only background noise.

This is why I advocated so strongly for putting off Beren and Luthien for another season. Because squeezing the stories we are trying to tell about humans into a mere seven hours would have meant their lives (and deaths) would be unimportant. The relationship between Finrod and the Bëorians would have had no impact on the story of Beren and Finrod. The relationship between the House of Hador and the Noldor would not explain why Huor and Hurin would be so willing to give their lives to protect their retreat at the Nirnaeth. The story of Haleth would have been over in the blink of an eye.

Alternatively, stories we don't have time to tell in a meaningful way should be skipped. This is what happened with Uinen's storm back in season 3. By the time we were ready to tell that story, we could only give it a few minutes and couldn't show its impact on our characters.

Ultimately, any story that deserves a place in our show deserves the time it takes to tell it in a way that matters to the audience.
 

Haakon

Administrator
Staff member
I agree with both MithLuin and Nicholas. I think that the distanced perspective of the PubSil is very far from how we should think of the narrative of SilmFilm. The people whose destinies we paint out here are often just names with one noted action (or less) in the Silmarillion. If this was a real project, I’d argue for really fleshing out the stories of the three kindreds of Men and make this season at least three seasons. But that would take so much more work, and we would have to be more skilled as script writers. (but, well...the Tolkien Estate would not allow it). The option is to cut out names and focus on the few, as Corey has decided, and wisely so. But maybe it’s not enough anyway. I fear that the few episodes of seeing Bëor still will feel shallow, and that we won’t feel we’ve shown enough of Haleth and Andreth. And...who is Hador, really..? In short, I fear it will feel rushed. Also, we could stretch Aredhel and Eöl some if we pushed things forward a bit.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
I agree with you guys, but just in case...did anyone think we were making a documentary? o:
I don't think so. But the impulse to "just do it the way it is in the book" regardless of how it impacts the story is something we've all struggled with from the beginning and are likely to continue to do so.
 
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Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
I agree with both MithLuin and Nicholas. I think that the distanced perspective of the PubSil is very far from how we should think of the narrative of SilmFilm. The people whose destinies we paint out here are often just names with one noted action (or less) in the Silmarillion. If this was a real project, I’d argue for really fleshing out the stories of the three kindreds of Men and make this season at least three seasons. But that would take so much more work, and we would have to be more skilled as script writers. (but, well...the Tolkien Estate would not allow it). The option is to cut out names and focus on the few, as Corey has decided, and wisely so. But maybe it’s not enough anyway. I fear that the few episodes of seeing Bëor still will feel shallow, and that we won’t feel we’ve shown enough of Haleth and Andreth. And...who is Hador, really..? In short, I fear it will feel rushed. Also, we could stretch Aredhel and Eöl some if we pushed things forward a bit.
I feel like we could have easily squeezed another season in here, but... yeah.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
I should say that no one views this project as a documentary. This thread is not meant as an argument against that! It is more saying that, given that, how do we make solid adaptation choices to further our story? I had some thoughts, focused on perspective and screentime, but figured I'd open up this thread to see what others were thinking as well, here in Season 5.
 

Alcarlótë

Active Member
I certainly think we could have made more seasons out of the source material, but I'm not too worried about the current pace either. Of course we need to make smart choices and have good ideas (as with any complex creative work), and it's certainly different from many television series in how it handles chronology and characters (necessarily, given the lifespan of characters and how important events are spaced), but that doesn't mean it can't work in its own way. The published Silmarillion is certainly not a typical fantasy book, but it's still awesome =)
 

amysrevenge

Well-Known Member
I think this sort of leans into one of the major problems we are just this season starting to deal with, that is affecting our pacing in a way it never has before - the injection of mayfly-Men. All of a sudden we're beholden to the calendar in ways we never have been before. Elves only have one fixed date - "born on". Humans have two, or at least have an upper span that has to include a "died on", where for Elves they only have a "died on" if there is a narrative reason for it, and the timing of it can be fudged as far as we need to.

So where in seasons past we've had an easy enough time massaging and playing with the story in exactly the way we like, starting now and moving forward we have this enormous constraint to work within, so that we can't alter or amend the story to turn out exactly as we like at all times. Those pesky characters keep reaching the ends of their lifespans, or not overlapping with each other's lifetimes, or other timing issues.

And then there's also the issue of character development - we've had a steady roster of characters spread over time, where we can skip 500 years if we want to and keep right on going. Now, with our mayfly-Men, we either need to skip over generations, or dramatically slow down our story. Documentary impulse is to skip generations. Dramatization impulse is to slow down.
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Documentary impulse is to skip generations. Dramatization impulse is to slow down.
We definitely have had that issue with the Dwarves, but have been trying our best to ignore that. :p

For establishing the mayfly nature of Men here in Season 5, I think we have to start out with the rapid passage of generations. The audience has to see Men as the Elves see Men, and they won't if we slow down the clock immediately. So, I am fine with Bëor's life passing by very quickly after the first episode. To the elves, he should 'suddenly' die 40 years later.

But once we establish that...we have to slow the clock down. We have to progress through the rest of the season at a more leisurely rate, allowing characters to stay alive for multiple episodes, and not being instantly old the moment we let them out of our sight.

So, I am picturing the next 80 years being spread out over Episodes 4-13, while Episodes 1-3 take care of the first 40 years. We would still have 5-10 year jumps between (or within) episodes doing it this way, so we're not slowing down fully, but we are slowing down enough to capture these stories (hopefully!)


Our story's timeline is going to slow down dramatically over the next few seasons. Season One took ??? countless years. Eons. Season Two was slowing down into measurable timeframes, but still presumably took thousands of years. Season Three...well, the timeline was a bit wonky, as the Beleriand stuff took time, but the Noldor storyline was quite rapid. Season 4 took approximately 260 years. Season 5 is currently slated to cover about 130 years.

Season 6 will cover the Beren and Lúthien story - and Beren will start as an adult man and still be alive at the end of it (well, with a slight detour through death). The whole thing probably won't take more than about 12 years. Season 7 will (presumably) be the Nirnaeth season - beginning with Húrin and Huor in Gondolin, so that's a span of 17 years (which includes the Beren and Lúthien story in it). Season 8 will (presumably) be the Túrin season, so again it spans the lifetime of one man. We'll see his early childhood in Season 7 (probably), but even if we do a minor flashback to his childhood at some point, Túrin only lives 35 years, so...that's the limit of the timeline (unless we add Húrin/Nauglamir stuff to the end of this season, but I imagine that will be separate).

So, yes. We are about to slow. Way. Down. With our story.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
We definitely have had that issue with the Dwarves, but have been trying our best to ignore that. :p

For establishing the mayfly nature of Men here in Season 5, I think we have to start out with the rapid passage of generations. The audience has to see Men as the Elves see Men, and they won't if we slow down the clock immediately. So, I am fine with Bëor's life passing by very quickly after the first episode. To the elves, he should 'suddenly' die 40 years later.

But once we establish that...we have to slow the clock down. We have to progress through the rest of the season at a more leisurely rate, allowing characters to stay alive for multiple episodes, and not being instantly old the moment we let them out of our sight.

So, I am picturing the next 80 years being spread out over Episodes 4-13, while Episodes 1-3 take care of the first 40 years. We would still have 5-10 year jumps between (or within) episodes doing it this way, so we're not slowing down fully, but we are slowing down enough to capture these stories (hopefully!)


Our story's timeline is going to slow down dramatically over the next few seasons. Season One took ??? countless years. Eons. Season Two was slowing down into measurable timeframes, but still presumably took thousands of years. Season Three...well, the timeline was a bit wonky, as the Beleriand stuff took time, but the Noldor storyline was quite rapid. Season 4 took approximately 260 years. Season 5 is currently slated to cover about 130 years.

Season 6 will cover the Beren and Lúthien story - and Beren will start as an adult man and still be alive at the end of it (well, with a slight detour through death). The whole thing probably won't take more than about 12 years. Season 7 will (presumably) be the Nirnaeth season - beginning with Húrin and Huor in Gondolin, so that's a span of 17 years (which includes the Beren and Lúthien story in it). Season 8 will (presumably) be the Túrin season, so again it spans the lifetime of one man. We'll see his early childhood in Season 7 (probably), but even if we do a minor flashback to his childhood at some point, Túrin only lives 35 years, so...that's the limit of the timeline (unless we add Húrin/Nauglamir stuff to the end of this season, but I imagine that will be separate).

So, yes. We are about to slow. Way. Down. With our story.
It's going to get worse in the 2nd age, too. There are a few important historical elements during that period, but they are often separated by generations. So unless we want to eliminate the Numenorean POV entirely, we will need to have entire seasons that zoom in on events that occupy less than a paragraph in the text, then leave those characters behind and move on to other events.
 

Alcarlótë

Active Member
Interesting outlook Nicholas! You're right about the stories in the Second Age - they are widely distributed throughout ~3400 years and can take anywhere from months to centuries...so what can we do story-wise in the Second Age? Thinking about somewhat complete narratives as well as mere story outlines and templates, these come to mind:

Beleriand slowly sinking, everyone fleeing
Founding of Lindon
Founding of Numenor
Dwarven migration to Khazad-Dum
Evil Men fleeing Beleriand gain influence among eastern Men
Sauron's return and establishment of a power base
Numenoreans travel to Middle-Earth
Founding of Eregion
Friendship of Khazad-Dum and Ost-in-Edhil
Numenorean exploration
Elves visit Numenor from the West
Aldarion, Erendis and Ancalime
Annatar going among the Elves
Galadriel and Celeborn moving around throughout the Age
Other Elven stories around important characters (Orodreth, Amroth, Elrond, Cirdan, Gil-Galad)
Arrival of Glorfindel (and Blue Wizards?) from Valinor
Forging of the Rings, Sauron revealed
Sauron almost defeats Elves and Dwarves in war
Numenoreans intervene in the war
Rise of the Nazgul
Numenoreans question the Ban
Establishment of Numenorean colonies
Stronger and stronger anti-elven sentiment in Numenor
Politics of the last Numenorean kings
Tal-Elmar/Men of Middle-Earth under Numenorean oppression
Numenoreans fighting Sauron
Ar-Pharazon and Amandil's early years together
Ar-Pharazon's rise and capture of Sauron
Sauron takes control, Amandil goes west, White Tree burnt, Elendil prepares his ships
Morgoth cult spreads, Valar send warnings
Ar-Pharazon attacks, Downfall of Numenor
Arrival of Faithful in Middle-Earth, contact with Elves and surviving colonies (Pelargir)
Umbar loyal to Sauron
Establishment of Gondor and Arnor
Sauron takes Minas Ithil
Isildur allies and later curses Men of the White Mountains
Different Phases of the War of the Last Alliance

Of course we can always add more Dwarf and Middle-Earth Men stories (so many populations we basically know nothing about), expand on Elvish and Numenorean history and even do stories in Valinor connected to the Elves travelling to Numenor and observing its slow decline. But we will have to embrace more isolated stories (again)...which could be seen as interesting challenge if we don't want to be just be worried about it.

If we're feeling particularly bold, we could also tie the Notion Club Papers into the Fall of Numenor :D Who wouldn't want a frame story around Alwin Arundel Lowdham set in the Seventh Age?
 
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My only concern with fleshing everything out to "get buy-in" is that it can't be EVERYTHING. The best stories leave some important information unseen and unsaid, and expect the reader/audience to make some inferences. I worry sometimes that we get too in the weeds and risk losing the magic. Tolkien himself understood this better than almost anyone, even in his most fleshed-out narratives. To tell the best possible version of the story, and stay true to the spirit of the author, we need to be willing to let some things go. I don't know that we've actually crossed that line yet but it's a constant risk.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
My only concern with fleshing everything out to "get buy-in" is that it can't be EVERYTHING. The best stories leave some important information unseen and unsaid, and expect the reader/audience to make some inferences. I worry sometimes that we get too in the weeds and risk losing the magic. Tolkien himself understood this better than almost anyone, even in his most fleshed-out narratives. To tell the best possible version of the story, and stay true to the spirit of the author, we need to be willing to let some things go. I don't know that we've actually crossed that line yet but it's a constant risk.
There are certainly things we will leave mysteries even to ourselves. It is important to note, however, that there will be things we make firm decisions about but never show those decisions to the audience. Just because we have an idea in our minds about how the Orcs are actually made doesn't mean we have to depict that. We have made decisions about how the "dark spirit of the smith" thing works, but we don't need to detail what that means on screen. Just because we discuss something in detail doesn't mean that discussion goes onscreen. Because ... ahem ... we're not making a documentary. :)
 
There are certainly things we will leave mysteries even to ourselves. It is important to note, however, that there will be things we make firm decisions about but never show those decisions to the audience. Just because we have an idea in our minds about how the Orcs are actually made doesn't mean we have to depict that. We have made decisions about how the "dark spirit of the smith" thing works, but we don't need to detail what that means on screen. Just because we discuss something in detail doesn't mean that discussion goes onscreen. Because ... ahem ... we're not making a documentary. :)
I've heard this brought up occasionally in the podcasts so I know that's sometimes what's happening. Maybe it's not always clear to me what 'makes the cut' for on-screen presentation because it is a lot to follow... it just feels like the project sometimes has an undercurrent of "tell them more, tell them more..." that needs occasional pushback. Potentially great stories are sometimes ruined by a reluctance to edit and reduce.
 

Nicholas Palazzo

Well-Known Member
I've heard this brought up occasionally in the podcasts so I know that's sometimes what's happening. Maybe it's not always clear to me what 'makes the cut' for on-screen presentation because it is a lot to follow... it just feels like the project sometimes has an undercurrent of "tell them more, tell them more..." that needs occasional pushback. Potentially great stories are sometimes ruined by a reluctance to edit and reduce.
And sometimes potentially great stories are ruined by reluctance to give the audience enough information to care enough to keep listening. ;)

It's a balancing act.
 

Rhiannon

Well-Known Member
Something that's been brought up before, although I'm not sure it's been given serious consideration, is doing "bonus" or "special" episodes in order to address things that don't quite fit in with the rest of a season. If we ever come up with a story that we really want to tell but have to cut because of other constraints, perhaps we could consider telling it in a bonus episode.
 

Alcarlótë

Active Member
Well I'm sure that when SilmFilm is finally done in a few decades, we'll go back through the old seasons and do Extended Editions or something similar to keep the project from ending :D
 

MithLuin

Administrator
Staff member
Tolkien was a master at creating glimpses on the horizon - telling the reader just enough to let them know there was an involved history that was casually referenced, or a whole world beyond the horizon. It makes his world feel grounded and real, and it makes the reader want to know more about these things they have glimpsed.

We are deliberately setting out to turn some of those distantly glimpsed references into stories we tell the audience more fully. Numenor, in Lord of the Rings, is an ancient, distantly glimpsed land. We know a few things about it, and we know the reverence the characters hold for it. But we don't know the story of Numenor.

Silm Film is going to set out to tell the story of Numenor as it unfolds. We are going to put important characters from that story onscreen. The audience is going to experience Numenor as current events, not as history. So, yes, it will destroy that glimpse-on-the-horizon feel whenever someone says 'Numenor'.

But if we do this right, there will be new horizons that the viewer wants to know more about, but only catches a glimpse of.
 
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