Sunday, 16 December 2018

The Forge World Nazgul of Dol Guldur are bad

As I've been getting back into the newly re-branded 'Middle-Earth Strategy Battle Game',  I've been digging out all my old LOTR miniatures and really enjoying getting them ready to play with. While doing this I began contemplating starting a Hobbit-era force and my first thought was to do a 'Dark Powers of Dol Guldur' army as it would be fairly small, I love the Nazgul, and I'd get to use the Necromancer miniature I already own. So I went to look at the Nazgul miniatures that would make up the bulk of the force. It was the first time I'd really looked at them in any detail and I found myself really disappointed.  So much so, that I felt the need to write a long, rambley post about it on my blog complete with hastily thrown together diagrams.

Thoughts after the jump:

This is the clearest image I could find from the Hobbit movies which shows all nine Nazgul at once
First off, we need to talk about the designs from the final Hobbit movie that the Forge World miniatures are based on. The Hobbit movies themselves are widely considered to be of lesser quality to the LOTR movies, something I will readily agree with, though I believe there are many great ideas buried or underdeveloped in the films. I do think that the designs of the Nazgul in the final film are quite cool, and I like the idea of seeing armoured ringwraiths who each have personalised flair; like the named Nazgul that GW came up with (the Dark Marshal, the Knight of Umbar, the Tainted, etc.). I do believe however that the final execution was problematic for several reasons.

Firstly, I have problems with design continuity both within the Hobbit trilogy, and between the Hobbit and LOTR trilogies. Within the Hobbit trilogy itself, we see the Witch King twice: in the first movie as he attacks Radagast the Brown, and in the third film he appears alongside the other Nazgul to face the White Council. He looks different in both of these encounters: the first time appearing the same as his 'twilight' form in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, the second as you can see in the image above (centre). It smacks as poor decision making that they should have the same character appear twice in the same trilogy appearing entirely differently, which only gets more bizarre when you consider the fact that while the twilight design was taken from the LOTR films (so there is some continuity there), the armoured form of the Witch King in the Battle of Five Armies doesn't evoke his iconic armoured design from Return of the King. One has to wonder why they did not elect to use the twilight designs throughout, or reuse the helmet from ROTK in his armoured form.

It appears from concept art that the intention was to do with the Nazgul seen in the final Hobbit movie what they did with the Witch King in ROTK, i.e. take their black-rider look and put personalised armour over the top. The decision to make them largely transparent greatly reduced the appearance of black robes and by not reusing the Witch King's ROTK armoured appearance continuity is lost entirely.

Can you tell which one is supposed to be the Witch King?

Secondly, they don't even follow through fully on the individual design premise by repeating some helmet and torso designs. If you look at the movie image you'll notice that the Nazgul to the left of the Witch King, and the one second from the right share the same owl-like helmet, the same body armour, and even the same weapon held differently. The Witch King himself looks strikingly similar to his comrade on the far left (something even more noticeable in miniature form), and the figures second from the left and at the far right seem to share the same helmet, robe and pauldrons. This is even represented in the rules that GW have given them. Several miniatures share the same rules rather than all nine having unique abilities as some of them appear functionally the same aesthetically and aren't on screen long enough to display anything worth differentiating them rules-wise.

Forge World are therefore not responsible for the base design decisions behind the Nazgul of Dol Guldur, and I would say that faithfulness of the miniature's design to the characters in the movie cannot be slighted in that regard. If you are upset or disappointed by repeated character designs or the Witch King looking bland and nothing like his ROTK counterpart, then these are grievances to hold towards the movies and are no doubt a result of a rushed and tumultuous production which has been discussed in great length elsewhere (for the record, I think the films would have been a lot better if Peter Jackson had had more time planning like he did for LOTR, and if there had been less studio meddling). The Forge World miniatures must therefore be discussed on their own, technical merits rather than on the aesthetic limitations inherited from the movies, and it is here where my true disappointment begins. I'll briefly note that I don't intend on commenting on the painting, there isn't much one can do with grey, black, and silver so I don't think anyone can accuse the miniatures as being bland in that sense as the colours are at least accurate.

A bit rough but you get the idea
The proportions on these miniatures are just off, notably in how short their legs seem to be. I think this is quite noticeable to the naked eye anyway, but after noticing that you can easily see the hem of the robe and feet of some of the Nazgul in the image from the film, I thought I'd throw together a quick comparison. I chose to use the Dark Headsmen for this example, but you can easily see the difference in length of legs on a few of the others as well, particularly the Witch King. As you can see in the movie Nazgul, the length from the waist area to the bottom of the robe (I didn't count the feet as they are pointed down in the movie as opposed to the flat-footed miniature) is significantly longer than the torso. As you can see from this hastily put together diagram, the Forge World miniatures have legs and torsos which are roughly the same length, being unusually short in the leg by average human standards and proportioned differently to what we see in the film.

I also threw together this diagram showing the proportions of an average human male body compared to the miniature. A variant of this diagram can be found in quite a few learning to draw books and it shows how the average male body is usually eight 'heads' high: one head being the head itself, three for the torso down to the groin, and four for the legs. I've overlaid the miniature onto of this diagram, lining up the head and shoulders as appropriate, and as you can see the miniature is sculpted with a torso and arms that are roughly as long as you might expect but the legs come up short by a fair bit. While I realise that the figure in the diagram is standing with legs together, and the miniature's feet are apart, the distance is big enough that the Nazgul would have to be pulling an awfully weird squat under his robes to shorten the distance by that much.

This looks particularly weird in the miniature of Khamul where you can clearly see his belt buckle, and therefore ascertain where his waistline is. On the image above, I've drawn a red line indicating roughly where his groin ought therefore to be in relation to the waist, and the green line indicates roughly how much distance there is between the base of his groin and the floor, i.e. how long his legs are. Needless to say this is comically short and out of proportion. Though it is more apparent on some miniatures than others, and some of Forge World's photography (like that at the start of this post) is done at such an angle as to try and mitigate this effect, it still gives the models an odd look as they seem to be standing with legs straight (if a little apart) rather than with bent knees.

The worst thing about these miniatures though is the laziness of their posing. They are all stood in a nonchalant pose, standing still with their weapons at rest. They seem to have chosen the poses based on the same image from the movie I have included at the top, which is the moment they are most static. A moment that comes straight after a dynamic fight scene, which one would have thought to be a moment better suited for adapting poses from.

Ethereal and dynamic poses, I especially love the bottom two
When engaged in combat with Elrond and Saruman, the Nazgul appear extremely dextrous as they jump around the environment cloaks and weapons aswirl. This is reflected in the 1:30 and 1:6 scale sculptures of the Nazgul of Dol Guldur created by WETA workshop which you can find on their website. I think we can all agree that these Nazgul are much more dynamic than the Forge World ones, more visually engaging sculpts, and evoke the most interesting thing that the ringwraiths even do in this appearance which is fight!

Not only are the poses less static than the Forge World ones, but they incorporate some of the ruins of Dol Guldur which allows for extra colours and textures to appear which breaks up all the grey and silver, and the many folds of the robes which twist and turn in different directions make for a more eye-catching sculpt than the fairly flat and straight down folds of the FW miniatures. Both the addition of ruins and the swirling robes add not only dynamism, but also variation to a set of fairly visually similar characters.

One needs only look at the last time Games Workshop put out a set of nine Nazgul to prove how dynamic and varied they could produce a group of nine similarly-looking individuals. Despite the fact that all of these are simply heavily robed guys with swords, each one has been given a unique pose and distinctive silhouette. I'm a big fan of this set because it shows what a clever sculptor can achieve from a very basic brief, and shows off a level of flair and imagination that the FW miniatures lack entirely.

Compare the variety of poses
Only two of the Hobbit Nazgul miniatures are not holding their weapon at exactly the same angle, and only two of them are doing something with their left hand other than holding it limply next to their body (see the three on the left). The LOTR Nazgul however have swords variously being raised, being drawn, pointed to the ground, pointed left, pointed right, held in one hand, held in two hands, etc... A great deal more effort has gone into making each one be doing something recognisably different, despite ultimately having the same weapon. If you were to strip both sets of Nazgul down to their basic skeletons, you'd have trouble telling most of the Hobbit Nazgul apart, whereas each of the LOTR ones would be instantly identifiable.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that these miniatures are constrained both in terms of what the two different versions of the Nazgul do in their respective movies, and the materials available at the time. On the first count, the Nazgul of the Hobbit films are much more acrobatic in their movements as entirely CGI constructs, whereas the Nazgul in LOTR were actors who moved with physical limitations. You need only compare the flashy duels they have in the Battle of Five Armies to the more grounded confrontation with Aragorn on Weathertop to see that the former gives you access to all kinds of leaping and spiralling poses while the other does not. Secondly, the Forge World miniatures are cast in resin, whereas the LOTR ones were in metal. If you look at some of GW and FW's miniatures in recent years you can see how much modern sculpting and materials can allow for incredibly dynamic poses, often with very few and small contact points. Look at Fulgrim, whose entire miniature can be assembled to balance solely on one foot, and at the entire Nighthaunt range which is made to appear floating and ethereal. You'd therefore think that with a more dynamic movie scene, and with better technology and materials that the Hobbit Nazgul would be the ones in more interesting poses rather than those of the LOTR films.

The fact that they achieved more interesting and varied poses in metal over ten years ago, and the fact that they have the technology to create miniatures that could easily imitate the dynamics of the WETA sculpts (as we see in other GW and FW ranges), suggests that the Nazgul of Dol Guldur miniatures we have ended up with are the result of exceptional laziness. Ultimately the Forge World Nazgul are poorly-proportioned, low-effort sculpts notwithstanding any problems with the designs they are based upon. These scream to me of a contractual need to represent these characters in miniature form and no real passion has gone into them which is a real shame. These Nazgul models feel soulless, which saddens me greatly when one considers what potential they could have held. I certainly won't be buying them myself, and I hope that recent resin miniatures by Forge World like the Wardens of Gondor and the new plastic hero series (I really like the dynamism of Gandalf) are indicative of more passion and care being put into the range going forwards.

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