This morning I went with my two big sisters to a lecture at the Hamilton Museum (in New Zealand), on ‘Chemistry and The Lord of the Rings’. Needless to say, we didn’t come for the chemistry! We arrived nice and early, and the speaker got there about 30 minutes later. But we had good seats! The place was packed and I was happy to see that there are indeed geeks out there, large as life!
The guy speaking was called Norman Cates (Kates? I didn’t see his name written down), and he said he’s been a LOTR fan for 20 years. Richard Taylor got him his first job in movies as a special effects guy and he’s spent three years on LOTR, half each on prosthetics, makeup etc. and on digital effects. He was really nice and was wearing a Weta T-shirt with a picture on an orc on the back.
Norman showed us a clip he’d made himself of short clips from all the sci-fi films that had influenced him, set to music. I caught glimpses of Star Wars (of course!), Alien, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyessey, Thunderbirds, Men In Black (I think!), and several other clips I didn’t recognise.
There was a table up the front with a red cloth covering some bulky stuff (the announcer joked that there was a hobbit underneath!), but he talked a bit about the various glues and polymers and resins and so forth that were used in the film industry. And how lead-based makeup used to make people go insane, and many other interesting but non-geeky facts. He showed us how to make some green slime, which was fun, and he said that he’d used a similar kind of thing to make the lava needed for LOTR. He had to mix up one and a half tons of orange slime! Apparently he used some kind of a big machine normally involved with sucking sewage out of drains or some such foul notion, but I didn’t quite pick up on all that. He did say it got very very slippery around all the slime! Seeing as there wasn’t THAT much lava in FOTR, it seems we have some good goop to look forward to later on Mount Doom…
Norman also mentioned a type of glue, Pros Ande, which is often used in films. It’s so strong you can stick a false ear or whatever on someone and it will stay for six weeks! Medical people use it sometimes to give people temporary false ears if they’ve lost them in accidents. (The ears, I mean!)
A pretty exciting thing happened at one point, when he said that his one claim to fame was that he’d made all the elven ears and wizard noses in LOTR! In fact we all burst into applause then and he looked really embarrassed! He also animated the orcs and so forth in the big shot of Orthanc, which was great because I mentioned I liked that shot and he was able to go, “Oh, I did that!”
He was talking about latex and gelatine and stuff, and mentioned that once Legolas was out in the rain for half a day and his ears started dripping! Then he pulled out a box of actual eartips, some anonymous hobbity ones and an eartip of Arwen’s! The hobbity ones were big and clunky compared to Arwens tiny delicate pointy eartip, it was weird. And then Norman showed us a three-toed foot glove which he’d made and you could put on your hand (for what reason, I know not!), and a plaster cast of someone’s head and a nose-cast (but not of the wizard’s noses, he said). And then the crowning glory were two hobbit feet! Which looked REALLY realistic, and it was quite obscene seeing him talking away flapping a foot idly on the end of his wrist! Anyway he asked for questions in the end, so I’ll put down some of them.
Someone asked, were the actors happy to have to have so much makeup on?
Norman laughed and said that John Rhys-Davies, in particular, hadn’t known how much makeup there would be beforehand. And he developed an allergic reaction which made Norman really worried that it was his gelatine causing it. But it turned out to be Rhys-Davies’ skin so he was blameless!. He said people were mostly okay with all the makeup, though. Personally Norman liked Rhys’Davies’ face and thought that in a way it was a shame to cover it all up with prosthetics, but that was PJ’s decision.
Which led someone else to ask, how do the actors protray emotion under layers of prosthetic makeup?
Norman said that part of the art was finding the right thickness of makeup, so they could still get some kind of an expression out there, but that sometimes you just had to overact.
Then someone wanted to know how many times you could use the prosthetic feet?
This was interesting because I’d always heard only once, but Norman said you could get two or three uses out of them if you were careful–the first time for closeup shots, and then getting further and further away. After all, as he pointed out, at a certain distance they could be wearing blocks of wood on their feet and it wouldn’t matter!
Someone then asked how much the hobbit feet cost, and he wasn’t quite sure but he said he went through about 155kg of gelatine. And brandishing a hobbit foot he said “One of these is worth about $200, and that’s not counting the labour!” At which point I abandoned any sneaky plans for going up to him afterwards and saying gushily, “Oh, MAY I keep one of those quaint feet for a souvenir, Norman dear, you must have hundreds of them…”
There were a couple of other questions–did the actors have individual ear molds (yes, they did), and how did you put the ears on (‘very carefully’, he said!). And he showed us some chain mail which was made of plastic. They’d got a plastic piece of tubing and sliced it into ring, and some poor guys had to sit and join them all together (not him, he said gleefully!), and then metal was electrodeposited on. It sounded really authentic when he shook it (at least, from my rather limited knowledge of chain mail!), and looked great. Anyway I was bursting to ask a question, but another lecture was about to begin so the table of ears and casts and goop and feet was deposited outside along with Norman and the more eager of us fans!
I got to touch the feet! They were surprisingly thick at the bottom, more than a centimetre thick, and they felt rubbery and to tell the truth, rather gruesome. And inside one of them was written a number and ‘Pippin’s’. I got to touch one of Pippin’s prosthetic feet!! I haven’t had such a thrill since I held a genuine spinosaur tooth, and this was miles better of course!
And I touched and looked at Liv Tyler’s pointy eartip. And a lot of anonymous hobbit ears. And there was a silicon mould labelled ‘Smeagol’s fingers’ which did look like there had been finger holes in one side, but they were covered by plugs of silicon so I couldn’t make head or tail of it.
And the chain mail turned out to feel great too, and close up I could see they painted it reddish like rust and even greenish in places to make it look really genuine. It was amazing. I even touched the goop for the heck of it, and it was definitely… squishy!
So we stood there for ages along with a few other diehards, talking to tis guy Norman. I hadn’t had a chance to ask any questions during the lecture, but now I asked if I could ask him something about ROTK, if that was allowed? He said “yes, but I may not be able to answer it” at which I made the appropriate of-course noises. And I asked if Frodo’s finger would be digitally removed or what? (Okay, not the most illuminating question but it’s been bugging me!) He said he’d actually had to make a stump, a finger-stump. And that he imagined it would be mainly done just by the camera angle and Elijah’s finger tucked back, but that they probably would have to digitally do a bit in places.
Encouraged by this, I asked him a whole lot of other questions. Had he met PJ? No, he hadn’t, he said regretfully. Had he met any of the stars? He said not really, but he’d spent a while with Orlando. They’d been trying to get his eartips right! He said most right-handed people tend to sleep on their right side, so their left ears stick out a little more, and vice versa for left-handed people. So when you try to put pointy ears on, everyone goes, “No, you’ve made one of my ears stick out may more than the other one!” And they had to sort that out. Did he go to the Oscars? No, he said, but they had a party while the Oscars were broadcast live on a big screen. Norman said he was involved with both the visual effects AND the makeup, so getting both Oscars was preety exciting! He joked he was still waiting for a portion of the Oscar, maybe a nose to commemrate his hard work on Gandalf’s and Saruman’s respective proboscises? I wanted to say something like ‘I wish you’d got Best Picture!’ but decided it would be just too, too tactless even for me! How did they get the hair in the feet? A weird process using yak hair and a barbed needle. He siad it took ages.
How many times had he seen LOTR? Only three! He said it was weird watching it because it didn’t look like a film, it looked like just a montage of shots–“Hey, I did that one!” and “Ooh, we could have done that shot a bit better” and so forth. So he found it hard to tell if it were actually a good movie. (I assured him it was!). Then this other geek who was hanging around starting saying he thought some bits were a bit choppy, like the Hobbiton scenes, at which I fumed silently while Norman said politely that in the extended edition, there would doubtless be more continuity. And someone asked if the moth Gandalf caught was computer-done or what, and he said yes, it was digital. I said without thinking that it was cute and he laughed. Honestly, we must have all looked like right idiots standing there starstruck and trying to ask questions at the speed of light! But he was incredibly ncie about it. He kept saying how it was such a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make LOTR, and how exciting it was for him.
He said Weta has been making the figurines, and also Muppets figurines! They’re all flat out, and working frantically to keep on schedule for TTT.
I said jokingly that I knew a lot of people who were worried the release date would be pushed into the future, and he laughed and said ruefully that more time would be nice, but not like he had any serious thought it was happen. A comfort!
Let’s see, what other gems of wisdom? I wanted to know what they used for the fake blood, like in Aragorn’s mouth during his duel with Lurtz. He dear guy actually gave me a recipe! One cup of golden syrup, two teaspoons of red food colouring, one teaspoon of yellow food colouring. Good to know! He did say that Lurtz’s blood would have been a different recipe, though, black stuff of some kind. I asked if TTT would have a prologue and he said he didn’t know.
Oh, and it was hilarious! He said there was a rumour that a guy from New Line had come to see TTT and watched it with his sunglasses on, and then complained the film was ‘too dark’! Anyway he eventually had to go, and we regretfully said goodbye–I said “Namarië” but I don’t think he heard me, which is just as well! He was really nice and what showed the most was his respect for Richard Taylor, and his dedication to LOTR. It was amzingly refreshing. So we left grinning like idiots and made our way into town for a very late lunch!