Making Middle-Earth: ‘The Lord of the Rings’
By Catherine Feeny

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies of recent years, “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings” will have to pack quite a punch to live up to the hype surrounding its release. Judging from the reviews of the film that are hitting newsstands across the country, it does. Drew McWeeny of Aint It Cool News, an underground industry site through which New Line has cleverly been marketing “Fellowship,” went so far as to say that its brilliance will alter one’s expectations of modern film. “The Age of Diminished Expectations is over,” he writes. “We may not have even realized we were living in it…But after sitting through ‘Fellowship,’ it’s impossible to keep up the charade.”

Visual Effects Supervisor Jim Rygiel was pleased with the buzz he had heard so far, a week before the U.S. release. Speaking from his office at WETA FX in New Zealand, Rygiel reflected on the reviews he had read: “Nobody’s mentioning the effects,” he said. “That’s a good thing.” And it’s no small feat when you are talking about a film that encompasses more than 500 effects shots.

Rygiel met ‘Lord of the Rings’ executive producer Barrie Osborne while working at Richard Edlund’s Boss Film. Osborne was a freelance producer and Rygiel showed him what was going on in the company’s digital effects department. When “Lord of the Rings” came up, Osborne thought that Rygiel might be the man for the job.

Did Rygiel jump at the opportunity when offered the job? “I insisted that they fly me down here for a week,” he said. He was aware of the scope of the work that would be necessary for the show, and he wasn’t sure that a small, far-flung studio could manage it. “I saw the reel of what they had done — I could see right away that they had progressed far beyond where CG was at the time.” His initial visit stretched to three weeks, and then he returned to the United States to pack.

When Rygiel got to WETA, several years (estimates vary between two and five) of pre-production came to an end. He returned from the United States and the facility was in high gear. An efficient pipeline began to form as real deadlines emerged; Director Peter Jackson originally foresaw 330 shots being done in 6-7 months. Full-length CG pre-visualizations of all three of the films in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy had already been completed. Adding to the core of employees that had been at WETA since Jackson’s “The Frighteners,” the company began to recruit skilled artists from all over the world.

“It was nice because they could look for the cream of the crop,” Rygiel said. “But when you get the cream of the crop, you also get the cream of the crop’s ego,” he laughed. Everyone had a different solution to the problems that the production posed, and Rygiel had to figure out which ones would work. So, his first hurdle was integrating 100 great artists into one powerful team.

Rygiel had never worked on a film like “Lord of the Rings” before. He contrasted it with his most recent gig as supervisor on “102 Dalmatians.” “Normally you sit down and analyze it. You can say, in this show we will have 300 spot removals and 30 digital dogs, 30 bluescreens, etc.,” he said. But on this project the plan was not as easy to map — there were effects of all types in almost every scene. “In one scene, you’ll have 80 shots that are a mix of miniatures, live action, CG and practical, and you have to make it a continuous scene,” Rygiel said. “It’s scary and fun at the same time.”

His introduction to ‘the Fellowship’ came through the screenplay adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s well-loved novel, written by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson. He had never read the book. He read the script before going to New Zealand, and when he first saw what the various departments at WETA were creating, he recognized strong parallels with his own imaginings of Middle-Earth. Alan Lee and John Howe, who illustrated the Harper Collins editions of the novel, were on hand to help Rygiel with reconnaissance of the unfamiliar landcsape. “If I looked at a mountain, which looked like a mountain to me, Alan would explain that it was part of the misty mountains,” Rygiel said. And, needless to say, the supervisor has read “Fellowship of the Rings” a few times, now.

One of Rygiel’s major concerns when production began was the scale issue. Humans were playing hobbits, which are supposed to be 3’6″, alongside humans who were playing humans. How to make the hobbits resemble their diminutive selves? Jackson had a number of tricks in his director’s bag that helped transform human actors into pint-sized inhabitants of the forest.

“What’s nice is, Peter Jackson has a real visual effects background himself. He knows the concepts,” Rygiel said. Jackson shot some scenes using forced perspective. In a scene that has hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) serving tea to human Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Gandalf would sit at one table and Frodo would sit at another that was larger and further away from the camera. The camera would be locked off, and the tables would be aligned so that they appear from one perspective to be a continuous table. The technique is decades old and the final shot does not require digital intervention.

Compositing supervisor John Nugent described a method that the crew used more frequently, called the scale composite. For these shots, Gandalf would be filmed, and then the camera move would be repeated from further away for the hobbit, using motion control. The hobbit was filmed on bluescreen, and composited into Gandalf’s shot. “We had to make sure the lighting was dead-on for those,” Nugent said. “Otherwise, it gives them away.”

As an annex to the scale composite, production built two sets for Frodo’s home, identical in every aspect but size. Depending on which character was featured most in a scene, the primary footage would be shot in either the large house, which made the hobbit look small, or the small house, which made the human look large. “We could do a lot of tricky mixing between one and the other, back and forth. Hopefully the movie-goer won’t realize that they’re seeing two sets,” Nugent said. He also explained that there were body “doubles” of unusual size that simplified over-the-shoulder shots and 3/4 views. Gandalf’s stand-in was seven feet tall, and there were three small people who stood in for the hobbits on some shots.

Nugent used mainly Shake for compositing, while Maya was the 3D weapon of choice. “It didn’t take long for Maya users to create files that we could use quite easily in Shake,” Nugent said. The technical directors who were using Maya for lighting scenarios used Shake to test composite their elements, so they had a preliminary idea of how the elements looked before they went to the compositing department. Tight composites are a must in a film that relies heavily upon well-integrated effects, and the department was busy throughout production and post; the most complex composites in the film contain up to 100 layers.

And scale was not by any means the only problem that Rygiel and his team were busy solving. One of Rygiel’s favorite effects in the film was the Balrog. Described by Tolkien as a “creature of shadow and light,” the Balrog is brought to life by the filmmakers as a cloaked body of fire and smoke. Rygiel initially considered making Balrog entirely CG, but he didn’t like the look of CG fire. Then he tried puppeteering actual fire; “It failed miserably,” he said. One of the original artists at WETA came up with the idea of attaching real fire elements to CG particles. So, if there are 50,000 particles in the creature’s mowhawk of fire, there are 50,000 tiny movies of fire playing in a loop. The technique is called spriting, and because it makes use of real fire footage, the look is more organic than with CG fire. The particles pile up on each other, creating varying densities and allowing for transparency in some spots. The smoke was created in the same way. The fire and the particles and the smoke are all rendered separately, so there may be as many as ten layers in parts of the Balrog. “The first time I saw the test,” Rygiel said, “I was blown away. It was one of those big sighs of relief.”

The Orcs were another computing feat accomplished by the wizards at WETA. Engineers at the studio wrote a proprietary program called Massive to create the black army that advances eerily across the countryside in major battle sequences. The software takes crowd replication a few steps further than it has been taken before; while most like programs operate on collision detection — the body in question stops when it hits something — the CG monsters in ‘Lord of the Rings’ can see. “You can tell them, ‘Whenever you see golden elvish armor, I want you to run towards it. If it’s an elf, I want you to try to kill it’,” Rygiel explained — working with battles composed of pixels for months at a time has a way of desensitizing the artist to words like ‘slash’ and ‘kill.’ “When it got to an elf,” continued Rygiel drily, “it would go into slash cylce, and start hacking into the elf.”

The Orcs had 300 different motion cycles — 20 walk cycles, 20 run cycles, 20 kill cycles, etc. WETA then used another software to further randomize the action by making certain Orcs taller or faster, for instance, and by adjusting the length of the cycle for the individual. These variants increased the number of cycles to 3,000, making it more difficult to spot repetition in a crowd of 10,000 Orcs.

Certain Orcs had a self-destructive streak that made working with them difficult. “You’d see these guys who would run up to a cliff and just run off of it,” Rygiel said. The artist would then have to re-program the soldier, telling it to run around the cliff. However, some Orcs were stubborn. “They were built with internal call sheets, so you could say, ‘Man #5058, don’t come to work. You’re the guy who keeps running off the cliff.”

WETA created a companion renderer for Massive called Grunt that greatly reduced render times for the huge files that the studio was creating. The facility used between 600 and 800 CPUs –Linux boxes and a Renderwall from SGI — and approximately 20 terabytes of diskspace. And after a few weeks of cool down, the machines are gradually heating up again for part two of the trilogy: “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

Because most of the work stayed in-house, there wasn’t much need for file sharing with Hollywood types. “I sent the folks at Animal Logic tests at one point. Other than that it was a self-contained operation,” Nugent said. Rygiel echoed his sentiment, adding that New Line was surprisingly hands-off. “I talked to Bob Shaye at New Line,” said Rygiel. “He said he had faith in Peter Jackson.” That simplified the production, allowing Jackson to respond to the questions that arose daily with relative autonomy and clarity.

When asked about working with Jackson, Rygiel paused. “I always have to think about that,” he said. “He’s great. The best way to describe him is — it’s kind of that knife edge of insanity.” The mark of a great director? Perhaps. Easy to work with? Well… “It’s interesting, because he owns the facility,” Rygiel said. “It’s kind of like the George Lucas/ILM-style down here.” Jackson added 30 shots to the film in the last two months of post. He can’t exactly charge himself for overtime. Whereas a subcontractor would double the price of the shots to cover convenience costs, in this case, the production absorbs the extra cost. WETA hired another 75 artists who worked on a part-time basis for the last months, and the main staff worked 7 days a week.

Rygiel took a vacation in Fiji during the break between film one and two. “I took ‘The Two Towers’ with me. After about 20 pages, I put it down. I didn’t want to work on vacation,” he said. However, the whir of computers at WETA tells him that the time has come; “I’m starting on book two.”