I just re-watched The Return of the King, and I couldn't help but wonder whether they really built the Beacons of Gondor on mountaintops and lit them in order to get the shots used in the movie, or at least some of them. It would strike me as quite a task to haul the logs up there, whether by vehicle or helicopter, but it also looked quite realistic. Does anyone know if they really built the beacons atop the mountains in real life, or whether they just animated the scene?

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    "It would strike me as quite a task to haul the logs up there, whether by vehicle or helicopter..." -- If they had actually attempted that, someone might have realized how utterly silly a notion it was that Gondor should actually build -- and support, for centuries! -- those beacons without the aid of helicopters (which actually have a hard time flying that high, even without additional payload)... consider a watch shift change on a mountain high enough to give a climber altitude sickness... I am pretty sure Mr. Tolkien had something a tad different in mind.
    – DevSolar
    Jan 21 at 14:59
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    @DevSolar If you're concerned about feasibility, Minas Tirith is probably the bigger obstacle than some log piles.
    – ceejayoz
    Jan 21 at 15:40
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    Remember the Great Wall of China. That thing must've been a hassle to build and support as well. Also the Incas built cities with stone masonry on mountain tops and connected them with roads. If these pyres were unfeasible in real life, I doubt the the ancient Chinese and the Incas would've had as much success. Jan 21 at 17:26
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    @DevSolar --- Tolkien did indeed have something different in mind. In the book, the beacons are on hills, not mountains. Jan 21 at 21:28
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    To support @IanThompson 's point regarding the location of the beacons: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/96054/27988 The beacons were in the foothills, not on top of the mountains themselves. But putting them on top of the mountains made for much more impressive cinematography, however less practical their usage and maintenance would have been. Thus, Peter Jackson (not Tolkien) put them on the mountains.
    – reirab
    Jan 21 at 21:55

Two (2) different beacons were constructed and set alight by the film team. All others were made in some manner with special effects.

  1. The first is the initial one that we see Pippin ignite.

  2. The beacon that begins to enter the shot from the left at the time position embedded within the following video shows the second beacon that the production team built and genuinely set ablaze. They helicoptered in the necessary resources for the beacon itself, as well as the huts for the guards.

All other beacons involved the use of special effects.


Note: text in brackets at end of blockquote is an addition of mine to aid the narrative

The following quote is directly regarding the second (2) beacon.

"The beacon you're looking at here is actually built on the mountains. We helicoptered the beacon in and the little hut that these guys live in and we flew around in the helicopter and shot it being set on fire. But what you see here is real; none of this is a special effect apart from the distant beacon that lights at the very end [of the shot]." — Peter Jackson, Film audio commentary, 1:06:03

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    Awesome spot! I was going to add in a caveat that the commentary might have more, I just don't have access to them. I'm reckon the production commentary has even more content
    – Edlothiad
    Jan 22 at 7:18
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    On the number of beacons, I've seen an argument that the additional 6 beacons are merely the same beacon seen from the distance of the previous shot up close. Counting 7 total beacons and staying true to the books.
    – Edlothiad
    Jan 22 at 7:24
  • Wouldn't these be really hard to see on a bright day? Unless they smoked a lot? Better get some tar in there. Jan 23 at 18:33

According to an article on Polygon for the 15th anniversary of The Return of the King with visual effects supervisor Christian Rivers the suggestion seems to be that only the first beacon was "actually lit".

The article editor writes (unsourced) that:

The pyre that Pippin (Billy Boyd) lights is real, which meant that the stakes of the shoot were high.
Return of the King’s soup-eating Gondorian guard tells his LOTR story - Polygon

It later quotes Rivers as saying:

"They actually lit it, and the idea was that we’d look up, and then quickly put the fire out" ibid.

This seems to suggest not only the surprise from the visual effects supervisor that they used real fire. But also that they wouldn't leave a fire burning for a long time. The article goes on to describe how Rivers in his nervousness flubbed the first take and that the pyre had nearly entirely gone up in flames:

"The thing that actually caught fire, the whole pyre was about to go up."

This seemingly suggests they weren't interested in having large fires go up with people nearby. Further supporting the idea that the latter seven beacons were animated and not really lit.

As noted by bob1 in the comments, the scene was filmed at Mt Gunn which is located in a National Park. New Zealand has specific laws for the setting of fires in National Parks and the crew almost certainly had to acquire permits for their fires and to ensure they did no damage to the surroundings. Lighting that many bonfire-esque pyres would've meant plenty of paperwork and increased risk dramatically.

  • Bummer these quotes only seem to refer specifically to the main beacon at Minas Tirith. I'd like to see something more explicit about the other pyres strewn across the mountains.
    – TylerH
    Jan 21 at 16:46
  • I would guess that they were nervous having large fires as this bit was filmed at Mt Gunn on the West Coast of NZ, in a National Park - damage to National Parks is forbidden under NZ law, and there are specific rules for fires. They would have needed a special permit to light the fire and been responsible if it got out of hand. Putting out wild-fires is very very expensive.
    – bob1
    Jan 21 at 19:23
  • @TylerH As bob1 says, and as far as I can tell, they weren't actually strewn across the mountains but just took some shots of Mt Gunn and the surrounding mountains and just added the animation onto it (With the footage of the people "lighting" the fires just being taken at Mt. Gunn)
    – Edlothiad
    Jan 21 at 20:41

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