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A Long-Expected Report

November 20, 2003 at 6:04 am by Demosthenes  - 

It was a tale that grew in the telling – wait, I think that’s been done before. Anyway, a more than several weeks ago now – more like two months, in fact – I had the privilege of representing TORn at the Best of Both Worlds convention in Canberra, Australia.

My report has been delayed on several occasions by the triple evils of work, a near-fatal lack of internet and moving house, as well as my finely honed skills of procrastination, but here it is finally. Enjoy!

You might notice a distinct lack of photos throughout this report – if you feel the need to go hunting for photo evidence of the event, Peter Fallon was BoBW’s official photographer, and has some great photos up here.

Best Of Both Worlds

When you think of conventions, you usually conjure an image of thousands of people wandering round huge exhibition halls, stopping at booths to occasionally glance at merchandise and perhaps exchange a few awkward words with the person staffing the booth. Not to mention huge lineups to get into convention theatres where the guest presenter may as well be a mile away and your question is competing with hundreds of others.

Now imagine, if you will, a convention of just a hundred or so people. An intimate, friendly atmosphere. Where organisers greet you by name and are genuinely interested that you’re enjoying yourself. Where the guests don’t feel overwhlemed by the fans and are happy to just stop and chat during the day.

This is Best of Both Worlds 19.

Glenn (BOBW’s MC) tells me they usually focus on Stargate, Babylon 5 or Andromeda. Best of Both Worlds 19 is their first venture into Lord of the Rings. Still, the guest lineup is great – Bruce Hopkins (Gamling), Sarah McLeod (Rose Cotton), David Weatherley (Barliman Butterbur), John Noble (Denethor), Craig Parker (Haldir) and Ben Wootten (Senior Designer, WETA Workshop) – I find myself really looing forward to it.

Costume recreations

I roll up on Saturday morning. I’m a little late – there’s already a photograph session underway – but I haven’t missed any of the talks.

I wander into the main room from the reception area. It’s smallish – perhaps 20 tables set out in 10 rows, with half-a-dozen chairs at each. They’re all laid out with white tablecloths, bottles of water, glasses and small bowls of complimentary Minties.

I catch up with a friend from the Barliman’s chat channel – Luthien Amandil – while waiting for the action to begin. She’s just there for the day with her friend Holly. I end up sitting with them for most of the day, but after the banquet in the evening, they’ll be heading back to Sydney.

A short while later, a young girl in a fabulous-looking replica of Arwen’s funeral outfit wanders past. We express wonderment; she tells us her Dad made it for her.

“He’s a total Tolkien nut,” she says, describing the many volumes of Tolkien books throughout his house.

“Can we swap Dads?” Luthien jokes plaintively.

Glenn tells us each guest will be onstage for 45 minutes. If that seems like a long time – it’s not. Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

Sarah McLeod

Sarah McLeod begins the day’s proceedings. Someone asks if her daughter had any part in the film, drawing a comparison with Sean Astin’s daughter being drafted as Elanor for Return of the King. Sarah answers her daughter has a (presumably brief) appearance as baby Frodo – one of Sam’s 13 children.

She tells us she didn’t have a size double, from which I conclude that she doesn’t have any scenes with “Big People”.

She entertains us with a rendition of the hobbit dance from the Long Expected Party. She confesses her memory of the steps is rather hazy more than two years on, but she still draws generous applause as well as a few “ooohs” and “aaahs” when she tosses in a turn or two and a signature flick of the fingers above her head.

Applause becomes laughter when she describes an embarassing moment dancing with Frodo. She tells us she and Frodo were supposed to step in towards each other, then step apart. She drafts an audience member to demonstrate. Unfortunately, on this occasion they got to close, and when Elijah attempted to dance away, he left a large chunk of big toe behind.

Sarah had stood on it.

She expresses a little bit of regret that a great deal of her dancing scenes will never see the light of day – even on extended DVDs.

Someone asks how well Sean Astin dances. She answers that she’s sure that Sean is a great dancer, but Sam’s a bit shy. “I had to take the lead,” she tells us.

The realism of the sets just amazed her – and listening to her describe the feeling of having real butterflies fluttering about her in a garden of sunflowers at Hobbiton, you can’t help but agree. Even the tankards at the Green Dragon Inn, for example, were wholly authentic.

Apparently, hobbit feet feel a bit like plastic slippers. She says that it was rather difficult to adjust to the extra length, though. She confides that if you didn’t lift your foot just that little bit extra, you could easily catch and bend the big toe, or even fall over on your face.

The tells us about the makeup and prosthetic process. The wigs were held on tightly with clips, and while the bodices gave her sore ribs by the end of the day they weren’t full corsets. “How people coped in the old days, I don’t know,” she says.

Call times could be as early as 5am, and the process of applying the feet was very particular – apparently the WETA guys would attach a bit, then spray, then attach it the next section.

Sarah says she would have liked to have kept one of her wigs, but she does have a keepsake – she managed to hang onto her scripts and call sheets.

David Weatherley

David Weatherley (Barliman Butterbur) reveals that he got into acting by accident – literally. As a young man newly arrived in New Zealand from Canada in the 1950s, he was looking to join the army. However, when his bicycle collided with a fast-travelling landrover his knee and hip were so badly damaged that an army career became impossible to pursue.

Crutch-ridden and unhappy his situation, his life changed when his mother invited him along to a reading of the Crucible. When they got there, one of the people meant to read hadn’t showed up. He says his mother turned to him and said: “Oh, you’ll read, won’t you David?” To this day, he suspects it was a setup. But he adored it and immeditely leapt into a career in acting.

David says his injury – for which he’s had both a hip and knee replacement – made standing on the set of Lord of the Rings quite uncomfortable and difficult. Understandable, given that he had to endure a week of 14-hour days. Two hours of that was makeup where he would wait patiently while he was padded enormously and had his signature sideburns and moustache applied.

He displays his incredible talent for accents, rapidly switching through a variety of English accents – West Country, Cockney, Yorkshire and several others. I’m no expert on accents at all, but each is perceptibly and subtly different. It’s most impressive.

He says it proved useful when he auditioned. He asked the casting director: “Well, what accent would you like?” He tells us that accent makes a difference to the characterisation – cockney english is “cheekier”, for example. He doesn’t explicitly say it got him the part, but I get the impression it may have helped a lot.

He reveals that Barliman – sadly – won’t be making a reappearance in Return of the King. I’m guessing that means we can firmly strike a return to Bree – and definitely the Prancing Pony – off the list of possible scenes for the final film. He says his teenage son – a Tolkien devotee – was somewhat disappointed, but David seems unfazed himself.

Asked if he prefers stage or screen, he says he has a definite preference for the former – on stage he’s always in control of his performance. He know that everything he does is going to be seen by the audience – there’s no cutting-room floor.

“You’re it”, he says. “You’re on; you’re in control.”

He tells of his mild horror on discovering that Barliman was actually described by Tolkien as bald. “Enter Barliman: short, red faced and bald,” David recounts. He recalls telling the makeup artist this on his first day.

“You’ve got such lovely hair, I don’t think we’ll bother,” he says the artist replied. Later on, the guy wanders back. “Me and PJ have just had a talk …”

When you next see Barliman on screen, spare a moment to think of David’s locks, reduced to a mere combover for the sake of art.

John Noble

I was privileged to speak with John at length. Sadly the tape of the interview is simply not comprehensible – something that has caused me a great deal of frustration. Many of you will have seen John’s work in the Tower’s Extended Edition by now – I can only say that from my chat with him, the part of Denethor is one of the things I am anticipating the most for Return of the King.

Ben Wootten

Ben Wootten treats us to an inside look at how WETA Workshop produced the enormous amount of armour and weaponary for the films. He tells us that there was at least 1,500 ‘units’ of armour created, and a total of some 48,000 different items – which seems a vast output, even across a four or five years.

Some items are undoubtedly tiny, but Ben tells us others are huge – the “bigature” of Orthanc, for example is five metres tall, while Minas Tirith is more than 20 metres in diameter. These are not items you can churn out in just five minutes.

To cope, WETA Workshop adjusts to the circumstances – sometimes there may be as few as 15 peoples, or as many as 150 when the need is there.

Ben says that the first project they worked on – the design of the Uruk-hai – was possibly the most difficult. Often it felt like they were drawing in circles. It certainly took the longest time – it was some 16 weeks from when they kicked off until the final designs crystallised.

He throws up a few early images on a projector screen to illustrate – they bear only the scratchiest resemblance to the final uruks that we’ve all seen in Fellowship and Towers.

Ben says everything changed when John Howe turned up. John Howe, of course, had been working in the Tolkien milieu for many years. John, a recreationist with real-world experience of how armour worked, brought a new level of realism to the work. Form – meaning appearance – became subsidary to functionality.

Ben describes John’s beserker sword concept as a case in point.

“It’s massively simple – you just hit people with it,” he says. “The hook end is for pulling riders off their horses – either by snagging their armour or their cloak.” He points out that the semi-circular divot on the end of the blade is for decapitation or limb removal once you have the rider helpless on the ground. Nothing of the weapon is there merely to look “pretty” or “fantasylike”.

One can almost imagine John demonstrating each of these functions to the team at WETA.

John, along with Alan Lee set a whole tone for the world WETA was creating. They showed the designers that everything they created in Tolkien’s universe had to hang together as a logical whole. As Jackson pointed out to his team, they weren’t creating a fantasy world, but an alternate reality with it’s own internal logic and rules.

“[So] the Uruks set the precedent for the whole world,” Ben tells us.

He says that Jackson was heavily involved in the design early on – three to four times a week WETA would have design meetings to hone the direction that he wanted. For the first two years he was approving everything down to buckle designs. However, after filming began, Jackson’s time shrank progessively, leaving the responsibility for ‘small’ stuff more and more upon the shoulders of WETA.

Occasionally they would have to design ‘on the fly’. Mostly this was for armour. Breastplates were an example of this, orginially being too wide across the chest. WETA also that quiver straps would slide at awkward moments. Eventually, they worked around this by adding a harness underneath the outfit.

Someone asks what Shelob will be like. Ben describes her as ‘really creepy’, adding that if a person can’t make a 10-foot tall spider scary, there’s something wrong. So for those of you that have watched the trailer and worried that Shelob looks too small – you have it from the horse’s mouth.

Bruce Hopkins

Bruce Hopkins leaps onto the stage. He’s a bundle of energy and ebulliance. He begins with a striptease. Well … more of a fashion shoot … as he shows off his growing collection of LoTR-themed t-shirts. Most were gifted to him by fans; one he made as a thank you for all the cast and crew who he worked with.

There’s about half a dozen of them including: Rohan Riding Academy, Minas Tirith Public Library, and Isengard Swim Club. He jokes that they’re all available on his website.

“That’s Bruce hyphen Hopkins dot com.” He deepens his voice, and goes into ‘ad-man mode’, repeating it several times to the amusement of everyone. “Available at Bruce hyphen Hopkins dot com” rapidly turns into the catchphrase of the afternoon.

He tells us that he arrived on the Helm’s Deep set quite late in the shoot. In fact, he’d pretty much given up on being involved.

He only anticipated being involved for a few days – maybe eight to 10 days of filming. It took him a little while to fit in – he says there was an incredibly tight bond between everyone, and it wasn’t something he cared to disturb by leaping in and putting his foot in it. Bruce tells us his initial quietness lead to Ian McKellen dubbing him “Gamling the Silent”.

Accidentally injuring one of the lead actors in the Helm’s Deep gatehouse on your third day of filming probably doesn’t help.

Bruce tells us he was involved in a “very random fight” with Bernard Hill defending the Helm’s Deep gatehouse. The number of people and the cramped space made it extremely difficult to choreograph.

Defending the gate with Bernard beside him, Bruce swung his sword as a Uruk-hai came charging through the ruined gate into the melee. There was no time at all for him to react as the sword bounced off the Uruk stunt-guy’s sword, striking Bernard in the side of the head.

It split his ear open. But Bernard was understanding, telling Bruce he saw the sword ricochet off the stuntie’s sword and realised it was not his fault at all.

Bruce’s role grew when Philippa Boyens came up to him one day and said they liked what he was doing – would he like to stay and shoot some more scenes?

He suspects that part of it was because the writers realised they needed someone for Theoden to issue orders to. Not for the sake of it, but so the audience would realise what was going on and where the plot was heading – whether it was to evacuate Edoras or retreat at Helm’s Deep or something else.

So – in a sense – Gamling was one of the very few roles which expanded beyond what Tolkien wrote – something Bruce is naturally quite happy about.

He went back for further pickups for Return of the King recently. It was there he picked up his only set injury – straining his thigh while fighting on horseback.

He tells us he was about to lash out at someone in battle with his foot, but his foot got stuck in the stirrup as he kicked out, jamming his leg badly. He knew he’d done some damage, but it was only when he got off his horse and was barely able to walk that he realised how bad it was.

He was astonished to receive a parting gift this year from Peter and Fran – a book, a clapper board, and a (hero) sword. The message inside the book read: “Thank you for giving us a character we never knew we needed.”

Craig Parker

Craig Parker has the crowd in fits talking about his failed “KISS” boots on the Lothlorien set.

“They needed to shoot over my shoulder at Viggo and Elijah, but I was too short to get the perspective right,” he says. “And since I needed to walk, they couldn’t just stick me on top of a box.”

“After a lot of pondering, I suggested attaching polystyrene blocks to my feet. So we’re all there hacking away at this polystyrene and taping it to my feet with gaffer tape.”

He describes the incongruousness of the situation – kitted out in this fabulous elven outfit with huge polystyrene blocks taped to his feet. “Elf, elf, elf,” he says, motioning at his head, arms and torso. He points at his feet. “KISS.”

Unfortunately, it all went wrong when one of the blocks snapped under him, sending him tumbling. So much for elven grace.

Someone mentions the Toy Biz Haldir action figure to him. “I have an action figure?” The person holds up an Armies of Middle Earth pack (I think that’s what it is) and Craig runs down to the back of the room to have a look. I’m pretty sure I hear the words “wow” and “cool” – memory is slightly hazy now.

Oh, for the want of $400

All the guests return to the stage for a charity raffle to raise funds for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. The first item is an Arwen dress replica. It gets passed in – John threatens to buy it tomorrow if no-one else does. Two signed bottles of wine (one white, one red) attract some heavy bidding while I manage to acquire a copy of the Two Towers theatrical DVD signed by all the guests.

However, eyes really light up when a Sideshow/WETA Gandalf (the Grey) statue is brought out. Ben holds up the base and slowly walks among the tables, showing it to us closeup – Richard Taylor has signed it in gold pen. Glenn jokes that if you don’t like the grey colour, all you need is a can of white spraypaint. The $400 final bid seems an absolute bargain to me, but I’ve already blown my dosh.

Replica elven helmet

After that, there’s an autograph session. I wander about while people are lining up and start chatting to a guy named Darren. He has an elven helmet reminiscent of the Last Alliance scenes tucked under one arm.

I ask him about it, and he tells me he made it out of chopped-strand fibreglass, set with polyester resin. Bog (a powdery filler that you create by combining it with resin) fills out the shape, and was used to help make the headpiece. It has foam inserts to cushion it on the head.

Darren tells me he’s also made a full set of leaf armour. The next project is to create a suit of elven chainmail – a bit like what Elrond wears.

I try the helmet on – the fit is perfect. The extra weight on the head feels a bit odd, but I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard to get used to. You’d just need to learn to compensate for the extra height due to the headpiece. The peripheral vision is quite good – about 140 degrees – the eye sockets allow a very decent view of what’s going on around you. It’s certainly far better than the narrow-field eyesockets of the Uruk-hai.

I spot Ben and ask his opinion. He says he’s impressed. Apparently WETA uses a type of hot resin spray instead of fibreglass – it creates a much lighter product. He adds that fibreglass is unsuited to stuntwork such as seen at Helm’s Deep or Pelennor Fields. Apparently the fibreglass splits and tears when struck, becoming more dangerous than the weapons that the “enemy” is wielding against the stuntie.

Banquet dancing madness

Later at the banquet, 80s retro music fills the room. I am slightly disturbed to find myself singing along to My Sharona. John Noble coaxes a small group of Taiwanese and Japanese out of a corner and onto the dance floor. Bruce dances the nutbush and demonstrates his professional dance skills. I also spot Sarah out on the dance floor among a knot of people. David and Craig lurk up the back chatting.

I miss much of the second day since I’m occupied with interviews, however I manage to catch Craig amusing the audience again at the end of the day.

Early in the morning, I spot another be-costumed fan – this time it’s Arwen travelling costume from the from Two Towers. The crushed velvet cloak is remarkably heavy – and probably quite hot I suspect. Arianne tells me the design is not a perfect replica – deciphering how the hood was constructed has proved quite difficult. She demonstrates, and the hood slips off her head after just a few minutes. Still, it looks great and I can barely believe it was made in just three weeks.

There’s another charity raffle, and the Arwen costume that was unauctioned yesterday reappears. John makes good on the previously day’s threat and claims it. Later that night, I am bemused – but not surprised – when both Bruce and John don the outfit (separately) at the Wrap Party and tango each other to the cheers of everyone. Craig manages to hide in a corner and avoid attention.

A Legolas standee is brought out for auction, and somehow the Arwen costume makes its way from John’s grasp and ends up draped over the standee. The sight of Ben Wootten and (I think) Craig Parker “walking” the Legolas standee around the room, holding the sleeves of the costume will be forever burned into my brain.

Lolly – my very gracious host who puts up with me all weekend – snags Legolas. Another couple of bottles of wine again prove popular and attract a lot of bids, but it’s a backcopy of the LoTR Fanclub magazine with Dominic Monaghan on the cover that causes a frenzy. When bidding reaches $300, I begin to suspect that people are thinking ahead to next year and the visits of Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan to BOBW 21 in March/April. The winner eventually parts with $350 – valuing it at something like $4 a page!

I conclude that the guide dogs have done extremely well out of the weekend.

I don’t think I can understate just how enjoyable this event was. It really was a fantastic weekend with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. The organisers – Adele and Brian Carr – were always approachable and helpful, and the guests responded with wonderful generosity to the enthusiasm of the fans.

Sure you pay a bit more, but in my opinion the experience is simply incredible. If you get the opportunity, do it – you’ll have a blast. And with Dominic Monaghan and David Weatherley, already signed up for the next LoTR BoBW event in March, it’s shaping up as something special already.

I owe a huge debt of thanks to the staff of BoBW for their help, as well as all the guests for being so generous with their time, and putting up with my insistent questions across the course of the weekend. Finally, I’d like to thank TORn’s founders for giving me the opportunity to represent the site.

Posted in Old Special Reports on November 20, 2003 by

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