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.

Dead to the world

Have been fairly lazy over the past few weeks. I’ve been chasing a couple of jobs but have to wait on responses before I really start searching. My mate Paddy has been sending out a lot of CVs and has yet to receieve anything back which is not a good sign. I don’t want to get submerged in the rythem I’m in at the moment (ie. getting up at midday and going to bed late) for sure. Had a good night in Paddy’s on Tuesday. We had a few beers and played Super Monkey Ball on the Gamecube for hours. Highly addictive game and recommended. Till next time.

Big Bad World

The last official college function for the class was held today with the project breakfast morning. People from industry were invited to take a look at the projects and a couple of awards were also handed out. I was pleased with how it went and presented mine to James O’Riordan from Vision Consulting who was also the keynote speaker. I subsequently sent my CV off to him so fingers crossed. 🙂

I’m completely shattered after finishing the project and still haven’t got back to full strength. It’s suprising how being focused on one particular task can take a lot of energy out of you. It’s almost two weeks since I submitted the final draft and I thought I’d be grand by now. 🙁 Anyhow, onwards and upwards. The big bad world awaits……

Almost over

Well, Orion (my final year project) was finally handed in on Monday. Had a nightmare job finishing it. Got an hours sleep from Sunday to Monday as I printed it out on a mates printer. Took a day and an age because there was so much of it. Well, at least I wasn’t in Dar’s position. He had to pay 95 euro to get his printed and bound. A ridiculous amount of money. I have my presentation to do tomorrow and that’ll be the end of college. Hopefully it’ll go well.

Saw the Matrix: Reloaded on Thursday 22nd. The action sequences were out of this world but there is a lot of story to take in with just one sitting. Will be seeing it again soon to pick up the stuff I didn’t get the first time round. The Animatrix is also out soon on DVD so I’ll probably buy that. Have downloaded the ones they made available via the Web and they’re fantastic.

The Electronic Election: Coming Soon

Published May 2002.

As the politicians begin to form the next government, Anthony Mc Guinness, Voice Technology Correspondent, takes a look at the new voting system we’ll all be using at the next election.

Many herald it as an essential update to a system which has dated from the 19th century while others regard it as a system which presents security hazards and takes away the traditional aspects of the Irish electoral system. The issue of course is that of electronic voting. For the first time ever voters in the constituencies of Dublin North, Dublin West and Meath have had the chance to cast their votes electronically. It must be said that this move is almost unique in Europe with only the Netherlands and Germany having used these systems previously. However the issue has become a contentious one with many people complaining that the system has not been tested enough and also that it removes an aspect, which has been at the centre of Irish voting for years, the count. It’s supporters’ say that the system has been fully tested during its time in the German cities of Cologne and Dusseldorf as well as the Netherlands. The machine’s mechanical failure rate has been extremely low and any issues have been carefully examined and studied.

Many people have also asked what the benefits of changing the existing system are. Well, it does away with spoilt votes, provides greater accuracy in vote counting, earlier results and it modernises electoral administration. An information campaign began in April to distribute leaflets alongside a travelling road-show which visited a range of locations in the three constituencies. The actual voting procedure itself has not changed all that much. “The essential thing for voters to remember is that this system is simple. They go to the polling clerk in the normal way, get a permit which authorises them to use voting machine, put the candidates in order of preference by pressing the buttons beside the candidates’ names and finalise their vote by pressing the CAST VOTE button? said former Minister Noel Dempsey. “It really is a case of using your finger instead of a pencil.? The administration of the vote will be easier to maintain as there is a lot of unseen work in the organisation of elections. Supplies of materials ranging from ballot boxes, ballot papers, polling booths, forms, pencils, rubber bands, twine, sealing wax, stamping instruments and much more has to be requisitioned and returned after a poll. The voting machine will eliminate this complexity serving as a polling booth, ballot paper and ballot box. On the environmental side, it will also reduce the number of ballot papers from approximately 3 million to about 30,000 for each national poll.

The secrecy of the ballot has also been questioned with many fearing that the individual vote could be traced back to the voter. The software behind the machine prevents this eventuality though. There are also contingency plans in the event of data storage failure, power failure and the attempt to switch a ballot module with a fraudulent one. When all votes have eventually been cast, the vote modules are brought to the central count centre where a result can be obtained almost instantaneously. The returning officer will have detailed documentation on the result and the machine will produce a report from each count.

With the results of the election now known (aside from a few recounts) we asked a spokesman from the Department of the Environment about the pilot of the electronic voting system. “It was a great success and we had no technical issues with the software or hardware units? he said. When asked if there would be any changes to the system for the next general election he said, “The hardware and software will largely stay the same except for the possibility of tweaking the interface after receiving feedback from the voters?. He also outlined that security was of the utmost importance. “We decided not to transmit the results from the polling stations because of fears over security. We cannot compromise in that aspect of the system.? So with a successful pilot programme completed the future is looking good for electronic voting in Ireland.

Q. How will people vote on polling day?
A. Very simply and in four easy steps:

  1. Voters will have their name marked off the register in the normal way and will be given a token by polling staff
  2. They will go to the poll clerk at the voting machine and hand over the token
  3. They will record their preferences by pressing the buttons beside the candidates’ photograph on the ballot paper displayed on the machine and finally.
  4. They will cast their vote by pressing the “Cast Vote? button on the machine

Q. What if the voter makes a mistake?
A. If the voter makes a mistake or wants to change their mind they simply press the button opposite the candidates’ name a second time. This will delete that preference and any other lower preferences and they can start again.

Q. Is it possible for the controller to see how a person is voting?
A. No. The controller can only see a visual display that the voter has pressed the “Cast Vote? button on the Control Unit screen.