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Why Ian McKellen nearly quit as Gandalf

Lord of the Rings movie actor Ian McKellen almost quit his role as Gandalf because working with green screen VFX was making him so miserable

Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit

Ian McKellen nearly quit The Hobbit movies because he found the over reliance on green screen technology distressing. Alongside his role as X-Men character Magneto in the X-Men movies, Ian McKellen is best known across the world for his tremendous performance as the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies.

For his role in The Fellowship of the Ring, the actor was nominated for an Oscar and when Peter Jackson returned to Middle-earth to make The Hobbit movies, Ian McKellen was brought back on board as Gandalf, complimenting Martin Freeman’s wonderful portrayal as Bilbo Baggins.

However, while the actor recalls that his time on the Lord of the Rings fantasy movies was nothing but positive, he came very close to quitting as his Lord of the Rings character in The Hobbit movies due to their use of VFX technology, specifically their excessive use of green screen.

In a behind-the-scenes clip from the extended edition of the first Hobbit movie, An Unexpected Journey, McKellen shared the revelation. Speaking very candidly about working with the green screen, he said “I felt pretty miserable … and thought perhaps, has the time come for me to stop acting altogether if I can’t cope with these difficulties?”

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The actor continued “It was so distressing and off-putting and difficult that I thought ‘I don’t want to make this film if this is what I’m going to have to do’. It’s not what I do for a living. I act with other people, I don’t act on my own.”

McKellen was asked about the situation in a subsequent interview with Time Out, where he added more detail to his comments about The Hobbit and drew an explicit comparison to his time on Lord of the Rings.

“I was miserable. It may be my impression but I don’t remember a green screen on The Lord of the Rings. If Gandalf was on top of a mountain, I’d be there on the mountain. The technology was being invented while we were making the film. [In Lord of the Rings] I wasn’t involved in any of that, I was away acting on a mountain. I tend not to remember the bad times, but I don’t think there were any. I think I enjoyed every single moment of making those films.”

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That marks a stark contrast between the two experiences. McKellen’s own time working with green screen may have been worse that others, because his character is taller than the rest so he specifically would have to record his scenes alone, against a green screen, which would then be super-imposed over other sequences to look as if he was there too.

Still, it shows that the impact of the extensive use of green screen and CGI – as opposed to the Lord of the Rings movie which were celebrated for their use of practical effects – was felt by the actors, as well as being obvious to the audience.

For more on Lord of the Rings, learn all the details about the upcoming new Lord of the Rings movie War of the Rohirrim, as well as our guide to the Rings of Power season 2 release date. Alternatively, get into the lore of Middle-earth with our explainers on Eowyn, Helm HammerhandElrond, Galadriel, Celebrimbor, Sauron, and the One Ring.