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“The Return of the King” gets a first-class 4K remaster

Updated: Jun 24, 2022


Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) prepares to cast The Ring into the volcanic fires of the Crack of Doom.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD & Digital copy; 2003; PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and frightening images; Streaming via Amazon Video Prime (4K), Apple (4K), FandangoNOW (4K), Google Play (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: None provided

WHAT A perfect night.

Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” had a record-breaking night during the 76th Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood and Highland. The lavish fantasy film based on J.J.R. Tolkien’s third installment “The Return of the King” (published 1955) of the Middle-earth saga, won each of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for. That was a Hollywood first and it matched “Titanic” (1997) with the most wins for a single film.

The writer/director/producer ended up winning three Oscars and during his acceptance speech for Best Director, Jackson credited his parents for his success.

“I was 8-years-old and started to make films at home on a Super 8 camera that my mum and dad bought for me. They supported me all through the years, but they died in the last few years. They didn’t see these films [“The Lord of the Rings Trilogy”] I made. So, Bill and Joan, thank you.” – Peter Jackson

Shelob’s Lair & Great Spider


Backed by New Line Cinema, Jackson was given the financial resources to make the trilogy as he envisioned. The principal photography lasted for 274 days at 350 locations across his native New Zealand. “The Return of the King” finished with a worldwide gross of $1.1 billion, and the complete trilogy grossed nearly $3 billion.

The first installment “The Fellowship of the Ring” received 13 nominations, but only won four technical Oscars – music, makeup, cinematography, and effects. A few years later it was honored by the American Film Institute during its 10th Anniversary – 100 Greatest American Films of All Time list. It landed in the middle at No. 50 right between D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Intolerance” (1916) and the modern romantic tragedy “West Side Story” (1961). Plus, it landed No. 2, right after “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) in AFI’s Ten Greatest Fantasy films.

The second installment “The Two Towers” received six Oscar nominations and only won for sound editing and visual effects.

To guarantee a greater Oscar success for “Return to the King,” New Line pitched to Hollywood and the voting membership the achievement of the complete trilogy. Many felt the first two films hadn’t been given their due. The campaign budget was doubled and like any good candidate, the studio did a lot of handshaking behind the scenes before the ceremony.

Hats off to New Line and Peter Jackson for a smart strategy.

Breaking the Gate of Gondor & The Pelennor Fields



First off, the 4K Ultra HD (Theatrical and Extended Edition) with HDR10 and Dolby Vision reveals more detailed 35mm film grain than what’s presented on the new 4K version of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” The color grading and expansive contrast levels with controlled highlights and deep and dark shadows are top-notch.

A New Zealand post-production facility owned by WingNut Films scanned the original Super 35 camera negative (Kodak film stock) in 4K (2.39:1 aspect ratio). In 2003, the film was scanned in 2K and mastered in 2K. Hundreds of VFX shots were originally rendered in 2K, and those were upconverted to 4K to produce a new 4K digital intermediate. Jackson supervised and approved the 4K remastering project not just for “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” but for the new 4K version of “The Hobbit Trilogy.”

Jackson and his 4K tech masters still dialed back the film grain to a smaller degree than with “Fellowship.” The film grain has a more natural look, but after watching a number of Super 35 format films on 4K disc (“Gladiator,” “Top Gun,” “Air Force One”) the grain should have been more pronounced.

“They never looked this sharp in the old days,” – Peter Jackson, director

During a YouTube video just released by Warner Bros. Jackson said, “Now, it’s great to have all of the films looking like they were shot at the same time, finally.” The only way to make the “LOTR” films look similar to “The Hobbit,” which was captured on 4K digital cameras was to reduce the grain. When Jackson film the “Hobbit Trilogy” a decade ago, filmmakers normally didn’t add film grain as a post-production filter, like it’s done today.

Another key element to his Middle-earth 4K remastering project has been the ability to readjust the color timing with all six films. “Being able to tweak the individual colors wasn’t possible 20 years ago. It’s fun to have all of the toys now,” says Jackson.

He was surprised how the 4K remastering revealed a number of imperfections in the visual effects. “Some of the shots weren’t holding up too well. So, we got the opportunity to go back and to remove and clean up the defects,” he said. “We didn’t upgrade or enhance the effects shots. They are exactly the same, the way you’re used to seeing them.”

The Raid of the Rohirrim



Jackson and Warner have created a new eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which provides a powerful and reference level of sound to your room of speakers. The height speakers are active from start to finish with music cues from composer Howard Shore’s second Oscar-winning score. Plus, sound effects bouncing from top to bottom and front to back with environmental sounds from the roaring volcano, clanging swords, and sweet birds during quiet moments. You won't be disappointed. The bass response has plenty of sonic punch to cause your walls to shake, while the dialogue never gets lost with all of the action. The overall soundstage is wide and dynamic to experience the Oscar-winning Sound Mix.

Final thoughts: No doubt “The Lord of the Ring” Trilogy will be a 4K bestseller and this presentation is superior to its original 35mm theatrical print since it was sourced from a 2K master.

The Theatrical Version is on one 100 gigabit disc running mostly in the 40 to 50 Mbps range, while the Extended Version is split over two 100 gigabit discs. The two discs output from the upper 50s to 90 Mbps giving you the maximum appearance.

Fans, shouldn’t get rid of their Blu-ray versions that include extras, since many of those will not be resurrected for the expanded 4K Edition planned for next summer. That’s a mistake I regret.

– Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

The final march to Mount Doom


The Black Gate Opens


Mount Doom


The Return of the King

The 4K box set from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment includes a Movies Anywhere digital code for both the Theatrical and Extended Editions.

Next summer, the 4K Ultra HD “Middle-earth” Ultimate Collectors’ Edition will be released, featuring the theatrical and extended versions of all six films, along with new bonus content, previously released Blu-ray discs of “The Hobbit Trilogy,” and the remastered Blu-ray discs of “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.”

1 comment

1 Comment

Dec 04, 2020

Hello! Great article, I agree that it is a mistake to leave the bonus features out. Question, is there any reason why the discs would be higher quality than the 4K digital Apple file? I saw my previous Apple purchases were updated to 4K and I can definitely tell the color grading is present, but many stills I’m seeing look so much more spectacular. Not sure if there’s incentive for the physical copy if they’re the same? Thoughts?

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