Here’s my report on the seminar given by Paul Kirwan during the Science Week held in Canberra back in August. It was so popular that the 6pm session was booked out so quickly that another session for 3pm that afternoon was also scheduled. This too was booked out very fast, not surprising given the popularity of the Lord of the Rings plus the fact Paul is a Canberra Boy! We attended the 6pm session. It was a fascinating seminar, I was madly scribbling notes in the dark to report back.
After thanking both Weta Digital and New Line for the permission to both come back to Canberra for the Science Festival as well as show images from Fellowship of the Ring, Paul gave us a brief outline of how he came into the field of digital animation. He is originally studied Computer Science at the Australian National University (ANU), then went on to be a data base administrator. Having found that rather dry, he then did a course in computer graphics and animation. After that he then completed a Masters in computer animation. He worked in James Cameron’s effects studio, on a number of projects including films such as Dante’s Peak and Titanic. Some 18 months ago he moved to Wellington to work at Weta on the Lord of the Rings.
Paul is a 2D compositor, he has a very good eye for detail which is something he said you either have or don’t, you can’t teach, but such ability is crucial for the work he does. Technically, there has been nothing like LOTR before, although Star Wars came close but the feel is different. He stated that it is crucial for the special effects work properly, he believes that he’s done a good job if you can’t tell that it is actually a computer generated image. This has been difficult with LOTR, particularly as we know that demons and trolls don’t exist, but they had to make them look believable.
We were treated to three scenes on which Paul had worked on, and were taken from the early pre-visualisation (very blocky, basic graphics) to blue screen shots of the actors/body doubles, right through to the finished shot.
The first was the bridge at Khazad-dum. Although the entire scene is around 3 and a half minutes, it was 6 months work with 35-40 effects shots. Paul pointed out that 99% of the arrows shot in FOTR were all computer generated, due to the danger of shooting real arrows! We were shown the process from the goblins/orcs who were shooting at the Fellowship after Gandalf and Legolas had jumped across the breach in the bridge. It was interesting to hear that when filming the extras against blue screen, where one falls into the chasm after getting shot, the guy bounced back which you could see in the shot. They were able to mask this through both background as well as having the creature fall.
The next sequence was the Watcher at the Moria entrance. A huge amount of time was spent on this sequence, as it was one of the three major monsters (the others being the Cave Troll and the Balrog). Originally the scene was 3 minutes, but was cut down to 1, and there was more blood and guts, but this too was cut in order to meet the PG13 rating. Paul showed how the Watcher was developed, skeleton, slimy wet skin and all, and the detail behind Frodo being grabbed by the leg and pulled up and out of shot. As we saw Elijah Wood being dragged up and out of shot by a cable attached to his leg by a leather cuff, Paul explained that as the actors also had a passion for the project, they did things well beyond the call of duty, the passion of Peter Jackson was contagious!!
The final scene was that of the Cave Troll (Troll Boy as he was referred to!). Paul explained how much thought and detail went into the troll, which is why he looks heaps better than the Harry Potter version (my bias creeping in there!). Once the basic troll had been developed, the animators then put him through some physical activity to make sure he moved right. We were treated to Troll Boy watching a fly then swatting it with his club, juggling a number of coloured balls and finally doing some serious sniffing, which included a whiff of his own armpit! We even saw a “shell” of the Troll’s torso being “dropped” and watching cave troll fat wobble, all in the name of realism. As well as detail on the Troll, we were shown how they morphed a CGI Aragorn with a Aragorn garbed stuntman to get the realism behind Aragorn being flung aside by the Troll. We also saw motion capture images of Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen, for their computer generated doubles. Paul explained the difficulty in doing hair (strange to see Aragorn with a head half Gandalf hair and half Legolas hair) and cloth, however this is getting easier with developments in both software and hardware.
The seminar went a full two hours, too short of course. Paul explained that in FOTR there were about 485 shots, 25 minutes of film, that were computer generated. He’s currently working on The Two Towers, they have 9 weeks to go. Paul believes that TTT will be better than FOTR, with some 800 computer generated shots, and Return of the King even better, with approximately 1,200 shots. He was treated to a huge round of applause by an audience of both LOTR fans and computer geeks.