In watching Lord of the Rings, it’s both easy and hard to overlook the Orcs. It’s easy because of how many of them there are, and how clear it is that they very rarely think for themselves. It’s hard because, visually, they are pretty repugnant. That disgust is intentional, of course, but it doesn’t make them any easier to look at.
Orcs are a fixture of Middle-earth, but who exactly they are remains shrouded in mystery throughout the series. Like most of the creatures inhabiting Tolkien’s incredibly complex world, Orcs have a long and fascinating history that is well worth diving into. That history is characterized by a fair bit of tragedy, and lots of interesting behind-the-scenes information to boot.
Peter Jackson was tasked with creating massive hordes of Orcs for all three of hisLord of the Rings films, and the strategies he used were diverse and remarkably innovative. The Orcs of the films felt as lifelike as they had been on the page, though Jackson stumbled somewhat with his CGI-heavy Orcs in The Hobbit trilogy. Orcs are designed to be malicious creatures, and in designing them the way he did, Jackson definitely succeeded.
Here are 15 Things You Never Knew About Orcs.
Although this gets a passing mention in the films, many Lord of the Rings fans may not be aware that Orcs were originally Elves. They were born alongside the rest of the Elves during the First Age, but were taken by Melkor/Morgoth and tortured cruelly until they were turned into Orcs. The two species do share a vague resemblance, and it’s that which serves as a constant reminder of what Orcs used to be.
These kind of transformations are common in the world of Lord of the Rings. For proof, we need look no further than Gollum, who used to be quite like a Hobbit until he was tortured for centuries by the ring. It seems as though the Orcs underwent a similar process - one that combines typical torture with dark magic, and turned elves into an entirely new species of being. They’ve come a long way from the glistening, glowing eternal life granted to the Elves.
The Orcs don’t have any redeeming qualities. In Tolkien’s story of heroes and the monsters that stand in their way, there is often very little room for any sort of gray area, and the Orcs are definitely as evil as it gets.
With their rough skin and terrifying faces, Orcs are designed to instill fear in those who come across them, and they often do just that.
Orcs also tend to be ruled by a deep hatred for everyone and everything. These are creatures that Tolkien created to burn down the ideas of order and sanity that govern the realms of men, and so their desires are basic and unapologetically cruel.
Orcs may seem too evil to make for part of a compelling story, yet Tolkien always deploys them effectively, using them as puppets of a greater, more all-powerful evil. Orcs may be evil, but they're nothing compared with the masters they serve.
Morgoth is the biggest of big bads inside of the Lord of the Rings universe. While Sauron is the main enemy of the characters inside of the series, even he is subordinated to Morgoth.
Sauron actually has Morgoth to thank for the Orcs, who were hugely important in helping Sauron rise to power. Millennia ago, when Morgoth was battling against the Elves, he bred thousands upon thousands of Orcs to fight for him in a battle that lasted over 500 years.
Orcs are fierce creatures, and they seem to be highly disposable for those who employ their services in battle. If the battle truly lasted all that time, then Morgoth would have had to produce army after army of Orcs to do his bidding.
Considering the lives that Orcs led, it’s no wonder that they would up hating most everything about the world. They were bred as killing machines. Their sole purpose was to fight and die for masters. That’s a hard life, no matter who you are.
It’s pretty well known at this point that Andy Serkis is a hugely talented actor. He broke-out huge in these films as Gollum, and has since become a master of the motion capture technology that he proved could be effective. Now, Serkis uses motion capture to play Caesar, the lead in the new Planet of the Apes films, and seems to be the big bad in the world of Star Wars as well.
Back in the day, though, Serkis was willing to contribute his voice not only to Gollum, but also to some more minor characters in the Lord of the Rings films. During one scene in The Two Towers, Serkis voices three different Orcs who are conversing with one another as they chase after Merry and Pippin.
Serkis has always been incredibly good at creating a variety of voices, and he used those talents throughout Lord of the Rings, even in smaller roles where he didn't receive as much recognition.
Orc sounds are often more horrific than the physical image that they present, and those sounds were created painstakingly. They were taken in large part from the sounds of animals from the natural world, including otters and sea pups. Every sound that’s ever been used in a film originated somewhere. While the sounds that Orcs make might seem quite unnatural, they come from combinations of sounds produced in the natural world.
The otters and other animals that Jackson used came from The Marine Mammal Center in Saulsalito, California. The hospital rescues and rehabilitates a variety of sea mammals from the wild, and releases them after they’ve been treated.
Jackson’s team of sound designers knew that sea mammals had the perfect tenor to replicate the sounds of a horde of Orcs, and so they recorded these animals and combined the sounds they got in order to create something truly terrifying.
By the time we catch up with Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings, Orcs have become a pretty major issue. There’s at least one major battle involving Orcs in every film, and it often seems as though there are massive hordes of them that never really end. For a large portion of their history, though, Orcs were a relatively minor deal. They caused some problems for the dwarves, but they were never really a world-conquering force.
As Lord of the Rings shows us, that changed, and it changed pretty quickly. Morgoth eventually gathered them into an army, and used them against the world of Middle-earth. This suggests that, while Orcs may be malicious creatures in their own right, they’re not particularly problematic unless they’re given marching orders by someone else.
When Morgoth, Sauron, or Saruman decides to use them as an army, they’re incredibly dangerous. Otherwise, they’re fairly harmless.
Although it’s easy to miss, especially if you’re not looking too closely, Jackson actually put a lot of work into creating a variety of different Orcs. Some are lighter skinned and some are darker skinned, but most seem to have black or brown skin.
There’s also a great deal of variation in how much the Orcs resemble humans. Part of this gives audiences a better chance of telling the Orcs apart from one another, especially the ones who have a somewhat significant role in the plotting of the story.
In general, though, Orcs are shorter than most men, and most also have hunched backs and broad arms that make them appear more menacing. Orcs aren’t meant to have many redeeming qualities, but Jackson’s team worked incredibly hard to distinguish Orcs from one another.
This not only helps audiences tell them apart, but also contributes to a more interesting visual palette - one that’s better capable of holding the audience’s attention.
John Howe was well-known before the films as a great illustrator of Tolkien’s work. His illustrations made Middle-earth come to life long before Jackson got the chance to film his trilogy. Because Howe’s reputation in the world of Lord of the Rings was so legendary, Jackson and his production team brought Howe in to help with the designs for the Orcs in the mines of Moria.
This is the first time in the trilogy that the audience gets a chance to see the ferocious terror of the Orcs, and Howe’s ability to bring Tolkien’s words to life helped make them the fearsome creatures that they are.
Jackson’s trilogy worked so well in part because of his deep knowledge of the world of Lord of the Rings, and those who had examined it as closely as he had. Hiring Howe gave Jackson the chance to work with true experts on every aspect of the films. Every detail matters, even the design of the villain’s henchmen.
Peter Jackson made sure he got a cameo in each film in his trilogy. That kind of commitment is something that Jackson shares with many of the greatest film directors of all time.
In the second movie, Jackson’s cameo comes during the battle of Helm’s Deep, when he’s depicted as one of the soldiers of Rohan throwing a spear at the Orcs who are lined up below the wall. It’s only a split second, but it’s long enough to make you do a double take if you know what Jackson looks like.
Jackson also had cameos in the other two films. In the first, he plays a man eating a carrot in Bree, and in the third, he plays one of the Corsairs of Umbar.
One of the benefits of directing a movie is deciding whether or not you want to be in it. Jackson took his chances when he got them, and has a moment of screen time dedicated to his visage in each installment, including a pretty incredibly spear toss at some Orcs.
The battle at Helm’s Deep is perhaps the most cinematically wondrous sequence in any of the Lord of the Rings films, and that means that it took quite a bit of time to shoot. After all, this is a battle with multiple locations and many members of the cast.
The work that went into the sequence is clear in the final product, but it meant that much of the cast had to sit around and wait for their scenes while other things were being shot.
To fill this time, the Orc actors would entertain one another by singing songs. This is a fairly typical habit of actors working on a set, but it must have been particularly striking to watch these actors, in all of their horrifying makeup, singing folk songs with a guitar.
It’s a fun reminder that, while the Orcs look pretty disgusting on screen, there are people underneath all that makeup, and they deserve to sing songs too.
The early 2000s isn’t always remembered for its stellar computer graphics, but the Lord of the Rings series remains something of an exception to that general trend.
With a program called MASSIVE, Peter Jackson and his digital effects team managed to create an enormous army of Orcs with only the aid of a computer. Of course, part of what made Jackson’s original trilogy so great was his favoring of practical effects and actors over CGI.
Jackson used CGI to extend his army of extras, not to create one out of whole cloth. Part of the reason the Hobbit films were never as successful as the original trilogy is because Jackson began to favor digital effects over practical ones. Nothing feels as tactile as an actor in makeup, and that’s what makes many of the Orcs in the original trilogy so terrifying.
MASSIVE turned the onset actors into massive hordes, and made the scale of the films what it was.
The scale of Helm’s Deep and the series' other major battles were impressive. The stakes of these battles stemmed from the impossibility of victory against the massive army of Orcs that were unlike any force ever seen in Middle-earth up to that point.
The scale of the army was unthinkable, and so Peter Jackson had to go to a place with plenty of screaming people in order to find the proper sounds for the Orc horde.
Jackson eventually found that massive crowd one made up of more than 25,000 cricket fans. Of course, the chants were in a fictional language, but with the aid of the massive screens in the stadium, Jackson managed to lead the crowd through a very specific set of chants.
The Orc army at Helm’s Deep is supposed to sound truly intimidating, and Jackson managed to take a real world effect and transform it into something that raises hairs. He did that a lot in the original trilogy, and that’s a large part of what made it work.
One of the most impressive and terrifying shots in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy comes from The Two Towers, when Saruman reveals just how deep his preparation is for his upcoming attack on Middle-earth. We see blacksmiths working on weapons for soldiers beneath Isengard, and come to understand just how serious the threat of Isengard will be. These smiths are good at their jobs, that much is clear.
The actors portraying the Orcs in those scenes were actually members of the WETA staff. WETA was responsible for many of the props on the set of Lord of the Rings, so it’s fitting that they would be depicted as blacksmiths creating those very weapons.
It’s a great moment of meta storytelling from Peter Jackson, and a great way for him to say thank you to some of the many people who helped make the world of Middle Earth feel so real.
The Orcs, like dwarves, lived much of their lives underground, and were quite comfortable there. As Gimli is fond of stating throughout the original trilogy, dwarves are outstanding miners, and they produce the best weapons as a result of their skills.
What Gimli would probably be less willing to readily admit is that Orcs also have quite a bit of skill in mines, and there’s even some suggestion that that skill outstrips the skill of an average dwarf.
Orcs never made good things, but they’re exceedingly clever creatures who are fascinated by the world of industry. One of the major themes in Tolkien’s books is the idea that the industrialized world brings evil with it, and that evil is represented by the Orcs. They’re very good at building machinery, and are delighted by wheels and explosions. They also happen to be some of the most evil creatures in Middle-earth. Tolkien’s anti-industrial message wasn’t always subtle.
Orcs have black blood. That’s something Tolkien revealed in his voluminous writings about the world of Middle-earth. As Orcs have black blood, it would naturally follow that their mouths would be black as well, and in the film series, they are. That was one of many practical effects that Jackson employed for the film, and it involved asking the actors to drink licorice-flavored mouthwash prior to the shoot.
Licorice obviously gives the inside of the actors mouth that black color that makes it seem unnatural, and it also happens to be a remarkably simple way to achieve the effect. Of course, it might have been an unpleasant taste for some, but it was well-worth that minor pain.
The effect of those blackened mouths really works in the films, and it makes the Orcs seem all the more fearsome. When the effect can be achieved so simply, and enhance the power of the Orcs so much, it’s well worth doing it.
Do you have any trivia about the Orcs from Lord of the Rings to share? Leave it in the comments!