Lolly’s Report from the Australian Effects and Animations Festival held in Melbourne back in May, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image at Federation Square. This happened back in May, but I don’t think we got such a detailed and funny report as this at the time.

Lolly writes:

Firstly Bay introduced himself and gave a brief run down on his role at Weta, which in TTT was building hero facial systems. He discussed what would be discussed and shown, and we were treated to a 50 minute tape of behind the scenes.

He started by showing some background info footage from FOTR, and if you’ve got the extended version it wasn’t anything new. Apparently, Legolas was the most used digital double. In the scene with the warg attack, where Legolas does his wonderful mounting of Arod, there is actually more Orlando Bloom than I thought. Orlando is in the shot right up to when the horse comes alongside him. He was filmed jumping up once the horse reached him, then the fun started trying to work out how to get him up on Arod. We were shown some of the different ways tried to get the digital Legolas on the horse, one in particular was jumping up in front of Gimli, which looked really corny. Another scene was Aragorn going over the cliff with the warg. There was some blue-screen shot with Viggo Mortensen hanging on the side of something that looked like a bucking bronco machine covered in blue cloth! Problem with this is that although Viggo was bouncing around, his feet were too, not dragging as they would if one was caught in the harness of a warg (I personally avoid that myself). The way around this was similar to Legolas on top of the Cave Troll in FOTR, actor from the waist up, digital legs.

While on the topic of the wargs, Bay explained that they developed a specific hair system for the wargs, and used reference footage of dogs to create a realistic (ish) gait for the critters. To test that the programming was right, and being animators after all, there were a couple of interesting scenes with wargs. Firstly, we saw a warg fetching a stick, like any good little doggie does. Another was labelled a “ham” warg, the one that falls on Gimli, very corny death scene by the warg! And finally the warg who comes at the camera with mouth open is then shown coughing and gagging and up comes the camera, but no sign of the camera operator! Gollum also gets special treatment, but more on that later.

There was a little bit on Treebeard (I don’t have too many notes so I am assuming it was only “little). Its probably well-known by now that he was a 14 foot puppet, but because his face wasn’t so flexible they had to digitally create a number of his expressions, and naturally his speech.

Now, Gollum!! As we know, a lot of Gollum was acted out by Andy Serkis, who was then rotoscoped out of scenes to put the more emaciated Gollum in his place. Gollum has some 925 facial morph targets. The facial expressions were based on Eckman’s Facial Action Units, a guy who put together a database of different facial expressions, mainly to determine through facial expressions alone when a person is lying. There were 30 people working on rotoscoping and paint for Gollum. Bay did say that Andy’s performance was very good, but some of the actions they wanted Gollum to do was not possible, for example when Gollum jumps on Sam and bites him on the shoulder. You’ll notice that Gollum’s feet are at Sean Astin’s chest, not something a real person could do, well not have Sean still standing anyway. Still there were some scenes that were motion capture of Andy, it was generally a mix of key frame and motion capture. Now, the fun bit. We saw Gollum with spiky purple hair, Kermit made an appearance while the Hobbits were battling with Gollum and the rope, plus when Gollum rears back (“every orc in Mordor will hear this racket”) he has a red electric guitar in front. May not sound quite so funny in text, but we certainly had a good laugh. Kermit also makes another appearance at Osgiliath, sitting in a window as Frodo, Sam and Gollum are pushed along. One of the marvels, and probably life-savers for Directors and Producers, of modern-day technology is that when you get an extra all dressed in Gondorian armour who clearly doesn’t have a clue what they’re meant to be doing, you don’t need to go to the expense of shooting the scene again, you just get them rotoscoped out of the scene! This extra was in the middle of the shot where the line of Gondorian soldiers jog past, took three months to fix but I’m sure it was less expensive than trying to re-build the set, get the actors back etc. etc.

We should know by now the wonders of Massive, Weta’s fantastic software. For TTT it was further developed where each agent (i.e. Soldier, orc etc) can see and hear, has its own brain and makes a decision what to do. It recognises the difference between orc and Elf armour and knows that its supposed to fight this other agent. Makes you wonder what’s in store for us with Return of the King!!!

Thanks to Lolly for that detailed report!