'Lord of the Rings' Cinematographer Andrew Lesnie Passes Away at 59

Lord of the Rings cinematographer Andrew Lesnie passes away

Today brings the sad news that the Oscar-winning Australian cinematographer Andrew Lesnie - well known for his collaborations with such filmmakers as George Miller and, in particular, Peter Jackson - has passed away at age 59. Lesnie reportedly died from a sudden heart attack; while the Australian Cinematographers Society has confirmed his "sudden death," Lesnie's family will issue a statement about his unexpected passing at a later time.

Weta Workshop heads Richard and Tania Taylor - who worked alongside Lesnie on his many collaborations with Jackson - posted the following response online:

The Weta Workshop team are saddened to hear the news that Andrew Lesnie has passed away today.Our memories of Andrew will always be of a wonderful and caring person who looked out for the technicians around him, was keen to have a good laugh and keep everyone jollied along even when things were at the most stressful for everyone. What an incredible man and we are very fortunate to have had the chance to work with him on so many wonderful projects.Our condolences to Andrew’s family from all his friends at Weta Workshop.

Andrew Lesnie was born in Sydney, Australia in 1956 and began working as a camera operator back in 1978, while he was still a student at the Australia Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS). He served as the director of photography on various short films in the early 1980s, in addition to being part of the camera crew on numerous projects - such as George Miller's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (in 1981), where Lesnie was the documentary cameraman. That was before his feature debut as cinematographer on John Meagher's 1984 film Fantasy Man.

Lesnie and Miller collaborated a number of times over the decades after their work on The Road Warrior together, as Lesnie was the director of photography on Babe (which Miller co-wrote) in 1995; served as both the cinematographer and camera operator on Babe: Pig in the City (co-written/directed by Miller) in 1998; and led the live-action photography unit on Miller's Happy Feet (a CGI-animated film that features live-action elements) in 2006.

The sharp bright/dark colors and the memorably off-beat fair tale aesthetic of these Miller films can, to no small degree, be attributed to Lesnie's efforts behind the camera as one of the key visual designers. Similarly, Lesnie played a role in establishing the template for the wild setting of the Mad Max setting, which was still evolving when The Road Warrior was filmed.

Andrew Lesnie and Ian McKellen on the Hobbit set
Andrew Lesnie and Ian McKellen

Of course, it was Lesnie's work on Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy that brought him the most critical acclaim, in addition to snagging him multiple awards for his efforts (including an Oscar and a BAFTA). The sweeping landscape vistas and vivid lighting contrast between different regions of Jackson's Middle-earth (the sunny and cheerful Shire, the shadowy caverns of Moria, the hellish imagery that defines Mordor) are, to no insignificant degree, partly the creation of Lesnie. The cinematographer's epic visual style was carried on through his later collaborations with Jackson, including his 2005 King Kong and The Lovely Bones.

Lesnie also played a role in Jackson's decision to shoot his The Hobbit film trilogy in 3D at 48 frames per second (FPS), making it the first movie to use such technology. The decision may have proved controversial when the first Hobbit feature was unleashed in theaters, but the innovative approach has already inspired other noteworthy directors - like James Cameron and Ang Lee - to follow the path Lesnie helped pave and shoot their 3D films at higher FPS rates.

Russell Crowe and Andrew Lesnie filming The Water Diviner
Russell Crowe and Andrew Lesnie filming 'The Water Diviner'

Beyond his collaborations with such directors (and friends) as Miller and Jackson, Lesnie also served as the director of photography on such visually-stunning tentpoles as I Am Legend, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the critically-maligned (but great-looking) The Last Airbender. Lesnie also worked as a "guest director of photography" on Alex Proyas' Dark City in 1998 and was the camera operator on Martin Scorsese's 2008 Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light.

Lesnie's final project was The Water Diviner (which just debuted in the U.S.), the historical drama starring and directed by Russell Crowe - a close friend of Lesnie. Crowe posted the following message on Twitter, in response to the news of Lesnie's passing:

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