The Effects of the Lord of the Rings

Published in November 2003.

In August 1998, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was bought from Miramax by New Line Cinema with an unproven director at the helm. New Line threw their weight behind the venture however and requested that the screenplay be adapted into three films instead of the already established two. As we all know, the series would go on to become one of world’s most successful. While the first two films have been overlooked in the major Oscar categories, both Fellowship and The Two Towers have both won the coveted Best Visual Effects Award. This is no small feat considering the films were up against Star Wars and specifically Industrial Light and Magic. However, WETA Digital, the company behind the effects for Lord of the Rings, have made an immense impact in the world of special effects and look to continue their journey with Return of the King.

Peter Jackson had an immense task ahead of him. He would have to create a world inhabited by a range of strange creatures and fantastic landscapes. For his 1996 film, “The Frighteners?, Jackson had set up an effects house called WETA Digital to handle the many CG shots. He was keen to get WETA’s teeth into a fantasy film and, when the prospect of King-Kong fell through, Lord of the Rings (LOTR) became that project. LOTR features many epic battles that have traditionally posed a challenge for effect artists. Whereas other films had attempted battles featuring hundreds, Jackson would have to swell the number to thousands and make each fighter appear autonomous onscreen. Needless to say, new technology was required.

In 1996, he asked fellow New Zealander Stephen Regelous, to become Technical Supervisor of WETA for The Fellowship of the Ring. Regelous wanted to start from scratch and build a system that would handle epic battles and character interaction intelligently. He spent the next several years writing Massive, a software program that generates crowds whose interaction is based on unique and unpredictable choices made by individual. Massive endows each character with a digital brain and gives it the power to act completely on its own. It was built on the understanding that the believability of a cast of thousands depends on the actions of individuals. “If (one Orc) acts naturally,? Regelous says, “so will the group.? Each character also has its own personality traits, i.e. boldness, aggressiveness, cowardliness, etc. In an early simulation, Jackson and Regelous watched as several thousand characters fought like hell while, in the background, a small contingent of combatants seemed to think better of it and run away. They weren’t programmed to do this. It just happened. “It was spooky,? Jackson said in an interview last year.

In the lead-up to the release of The Two Towers and Star Wars: Episode 2, ILM and WETA were to face off in the battle of digital characters with both Yoda and Gollum. Ultimately, Gollum came out on top, due to the sheer range of expression and realism achievable. The process, which went into the creation of Gollum, is equally astounding as the result. Andy Serkis, would first act out the scene with his fellow actors on set. Then a second take would be shot without Serkis but with the actors now aware of how the character would interact with them and the surrounding environment. The next step was motion capture with Serkis’s moves being translated by the animators onto the digital representation of Gollum. It would then be up to the digital artists to create the full range of emotion and expressions based on those of Andy Serkis. The team at WETA can be immensely proud of their achievement and it’s hard to believe that there is a lot more to come in Return of the King.

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