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Technology/NZ And LOTR

April 27, 2002 at 1:45 pm by xoanon  - 

This article appeared in Urbis magazine (Autumn edition) in New Zealand. Here it is.

typed by Fraggle

‘Without the technology we have now there would be no Lord of the Rings’

Jamie Selkirk stated his career as a trainee cameraman in the early days of New Zealand TV. Now, as a founding partner of Weta, he’s up to his eyeballs in the Lord of the Rings. He tell us why live TV really was fun, why The Lord of the Rings was impossible (until now) and why it’s a good idea to clone Peter Jackson.

Jamie, what will your credit on The Lord of the Rings read?

My job title’s Co-Producer’. I work very closely with the producers managing the production, in particular the post-production, the things that happen after the location filming – the editing, sound, visual effects and delivery of the final film elements through the laboratory. I look after the scheduling, budgeting and management of all those things. I’m also Supervising Editor on all three movies. In fact, I’m editing the third film in the trilogy.

You got into the film and television industry before all the amazing technology that today’s film makers use.

yes that’s right. I started off as a Trainee at the NZBC, which because TVNZ. I was straight from school. I joined up as a studio cameraman in 1966. New Zealand only got TV in 1964. We used to push these big huge Marconi cameras around. Pretty much everything used to go out live. We recorded very little. There wasn’t much in the way of recording facilities then. And, of course, New Zealand only had black and whit TV then.

Was live broadcasting scary?

it was just the way it was done back then. We didn’t really think about it. You were just frantically pushing cameras around. I remember that I things weren’t ready, sometimes newsreaders, like Dougal Stevenson, would have to pad thing out – ad lib, or go to another item. They’d jump all over the place. They got very good at it. It was very funny. But we didn’t worry about the fact that we were live, the technology or anything. The NZBC was just a great, fin place to work.

Did you ever manage to get out of the studio to do location work?

A little bit. I used to shoot outside on film. Again, the cameras were huge. They were big, greay things – Pro 600s I think – that took two people to carry them. Enormous. You had to heave them up onto your shoulder and stagger round with a cable linked to the sound person. Unfortunately I had a car accident and found that the stuff was just too heavy and I though ‘I’ve got to get out of here’. Well, the NZBC were great. They’d never kick you out, they’d just move you to another department. They said ‘OK, why don’t you have a crack at film editing’.

So in some ways, that car accident put you on the road to Middle Earth.

You would say that. When I first started film editing my job was to put commercials into films. A film would arrive and I would wind through it and every fifteen minutes or so I’d find a nice little dramatic spot and cut these commercials in. After the film had been shown, I would take the commercials out and the film was sent on to the next televisions station. The same film moved round from station to station and each time it was shown there’s be a few more frames missing, there’d be scratches and splices all over it. From there I went on to news film editing. That was fun too. When a big story broke there would be this mad panic to shoot the story, get the film processed and then into us for editing. Very often we only just managed to get it on the projectors fro the newscast. If we had a news story that was shot on film in Auckland, we wouldn’t get the film here in Wellington until the nest day,. The South Island would get it the day after. News from Auckland wasn’t shown in Christchurch until maybe three days later. Even though there was that delay, we were up against the wire all the time, trying to get stuff ready.

Today editing is done digitally…

Yes, with non-linear editing systems available these days it’s all so instant. In the early days we’d use ‘hot splices’. We’d scrap a little bit of emulsion off one side of the film where we wanted to make the splice put a little glue on, put the two ends of film together, put them in a clamp, hold them together for five seconds and it would be cemented up.

Later you were a senior Editor on ‘Governor Grey’, a landmark TV series for New Zealand.

Actually, speaking of technology, that’s when I bought myself a colour TV. ‘Grey’ was shot in colour. I’d been cutting it in colour. And were was no way I was going to watch I at home in black and white. This was about 1973. It was a big production then. A million dollar production, unheard of for local drama. It broke a lot of boundaries and move New Zealand TV forward, artistically and technically. It was a very important, but gosh, I bet it would look a bit tack now, though.

On that, you’ve got some interesting thoughts on old filmmaking technologies versus the new.

I’ve always cut peter Jackson’s movies the ‘old fashioned way’ on an editing machine called a Steenback – cutting actual film up. Even ‘The Frighteners’ with all those special effects was mainly cut that way – apart from a few effects sequences when we used digital editing. I think that, sometimes, with electronic editing, the rhythm of the finished movie doesn’t feel right. With electronic editing you’ll play something down and look at just two or three shots together at a time., On a Steenback you tended to roll the whole sequence. You can’t jump around from scene to scene as you can with electronic editing. Most movies today are cut on a computer, and Avid, then matched back to film once editing is completed. Although audiences pick up stories quicker these days, I often feel some scenes are too rushed. I’d watch a movie and feel ‘you need a bit more breathing space in there’. There’s something about handling and editing physical film, it’s a kind of earthy, tactile thing.

But you’re open to new technology?

I am. Totally. 100%. There’s no way that we could do The lord of the Rings without Avids for example. It would’ve been impossible. There are so many images we have to put together. The Avids are perfecto for that. On the third film of the trilogy, which as I said I’m editing, I will basically be sitting on a couch in the editing room and giving my operator notes on how I’d like the editing to evolve.

So do you thing that Lord of the Rings could have been made at any other time in history?

No, you couldn’t have made this movie before. Now
technology’s allowed us to do the things that we have managed to do. They’re like, ‘impossible shots’. We’ve got scenes in which there are 15,000 people fighting. You could never have done that without the computers and technology we have today. Technology allowed use to pre-visualise the movie by shooting storyboards and creating simple animation. In fact we made a three hour animated storyboard of the first movie that we screened when we stared so people could get their heads round Peter’s vision. Even in this form, people were spellbound. There was an animated version of The Lord of the Rings years ago that I’ve deliberately not seen. I’ve hears it wasn’t that great. But now we’ve got the technology that we needed to do it right.

What do you feel is the big achievement in making The Lord of the Rings?

well, we’re doing a huge number of effects but to a certain extend, making three films at one is the biggest achievement – because no one’s every done that before. We used technology in a big way to help us to that. Telecom set up a system for us that allowed Peter to see what was being shot at other locations. He would be shooting at one location and have a monitor set up that would show him what was being filmed at a different location. Peter is obviously, totally committed to The Lord of the Rings. And with that system, not matter where other units were shooting, he could see what they were doing and, by talking to either the camera operator or unit director, get exactly the stuff he wanted. Y’know, ‘Oh Peter, is this the angle you’re looking for? Do you want this action to happen here?’ He would have direct input into what was being hot, even though he and they were miles apart.

Very useful.

yes, considering that at time we’ve had five units shooting in different places. Another great technological achievement is ‘Massive’ This is a software program that we’ve developed at Weta. We actually began developing it when we were planning a remake of ‘King King’. When that fell through we switched it across to The Lord of the Rings. In the movie, we’ve created scenes with enormous numbers of animated computer generated characters. ‘Massive’ is a program that basically give these little animated characters their very own individual little ‘brains’. That means they can behave as individuals. They ‘know’ who’s a friend, who’s an enemy. So they don’t fight amongst themselves, the only fight their enemies.

It sounds like, with ‘Massive’ you’ve cracked artificial intelligence.

Yeah well, it’s a bit like that. Obviously you can use if for more than just battles. You can use it for computer generated characters in all sorts of ways. It’s amazing.

Sounds like there could be some great ‘making of’ documentaries.

Huge. It’ll probably be my retirement package – I’ll be involved in ‘the making of’ products on ‘the Rings’ for years to come.

Naturally, there’s huge amount of excitement around the world about The Lord of the Rings.

Yes. That’s great. It has meant that security has been a bit of an issue. We’ve got a firewall here to stop things leaking out. We think that we’ve done justice to the books. There’s a few things that are a bit different to the books. Slight filmic interpretations of certain things. But believe that people will be very happy with the way that we’ve done it.

And after The Lord of the Rings?

We’ve got some very talented people in this country. We hope that once this movies is release film makers from overseas will say ‘OK let’s go down to New Zealand to shoot our next picture, let’s get our effects shots completed in New Zealand’. There are a few difficulties with that, but it could happen, it really could. Other things we have talked about at Weta, are getting into EAP games and computer games, PlayStation stuff. We’ve got brilliant people who are very keen on doing that.

Can you think of any piece of technology that doesn’t exist now, that you would like someone to invent?

Gosh, that’ something I’ve never thought about. Well it would be great on this production to clone Peter Jackson. Yeah, that would be great. When he was over in the UK working on the music, we’d need him here too. Every day we would send stuff too Peter for him to look at. Then we’d have conference calls so he could give his comments. We were trying to get lots of effects shots through the system. We’d sent footage to FTP sites so he could download it off the Internet. Technology has helped us make this movie. It would be better to have a clone, but technology’s taken care of most of it.

Finally, Jamie, tell us your favourite movies.

I see so many. I really enjoyed ‘Braveheart’ and ‘Gladiator’. A great old classic is ‘King King’ – still fun to watch. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – a great movie. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ – good movies. I like ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’, that was fun. I lie those light movies. Tot tell you the truth, I do really like watching movies that aren’t effects based. The Lord of the Rings has a lot of effects in it, but many are just there to enhance the ‘middle earth’ environment. The most important thing isn’t the technology, it’s the story,. It’s an awesome story and I feel privileged to have been involved.

In filming the4 entire Lord of the Rings saga, Peter Jackson was doing something that had never been done before. He was setting out to prove that it was more efficient to film three Hollywood blockbusters at simultaneously rather than three separate movies. The enormity of the task meant that up to five separate units were filming at once. The problem was that Peter could only be at one of them, and that’s not the ideal way to keep your visions intact. A few months before the cameras started rolling, the Lord of the Rings asked Telecom what they would do for them. Telecom responded with a world-first satellite link-up that allowed Peter to be on set with a video, voice and data link to three or more other locations. While directing the action, he could keep a keen eye on the work of the other units. It had to be a robust connection too, with military grade optic fibre though enough to survive the horses’ hooves and Queenstown floods.

You can visit the Weta website at www.wetafx.co.nz. The official Lord of the Rings site is at www.lordoftherings.net while www.theonering.net and www.tolkien-movies.com have plenty of Lord of the Rings info, discussion and rumours. Meanwhile, pretty well everything you need to know about film making in New Zealand can be seen at www.nzfilm.co.nz. To find out how being connected can help you keep in touch now and in the future go to www.telecom.co.nz.

Posted in Old Special Reports on April 27, 2002 by

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