by Joe Fordham
Copyright (c) 2004 by Cinefex.

Hobbits, elves and black-tied gentry erupted with joy Sunday night at the Hollywood American Legion Hall as Steven Spielberg presented filmmaker Peter Jackson the best picture Oscar for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, capping an evening in which the final Tolkien chapter won in all eleven of its nominated categories. The assembly had gathered in the art deco Highland Avenue venue to celebrate the 76th annual Academy Awards, viewing the ceremony on a massive Jumbotron and cheering on the New Line Cinema epic, which in addition to best picture, took home Oscar gold for best direction, adapted screenplay, art direction, costume design, film editing, sound mixing, musical score, song, makeup and visual effects, tying it with previous Oscar record-holders Ben-Hur and Titanic.

Bringing to conclusion what, for some, was a seven-year odyssey, the awards recipients made their appearance at The One Party — a festive occasion organized by the fan website — speculating amid the hoopla about their work on the still-in-progress Return of the King: Extended Edition DVD release. “The cut is never locked!” stated film editor Jamie Selkirk, one of the evening’s winners and a veteran collaborator with Peter Jackson. “When you’re working with Peter, he never really locks the cut until the last minute. We actually ended up doing about four days’ editing on it recently, and he said: ‘Okay, that’ll do for now. I’m going to do this junket overseas, then the BAFTAs and the Oscars; then we’ll come back and have a look at what visual effects are finished. So we’ll cut when we get back; and, with any luck, it might be a lock!'”

Reportedly, the extended edition will contain anywhere between 40 to 60 minutes of new footage, added to the theatrical release’s 201-minute running time, and will include more than 200 new visual effects shots. “When we were working on the film,” said visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel, “there were pieces that we almost completed that Peter then pulled out. I think the most infamous one was probably the Christopher Lee scene — and I think it’s a good guess that will be back in.”

After three years in New Zealand, Rygiel is planning to return to his Los Angeles home in April, after completing his work on the concluding chapter’s final version. Visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri will continue to supervise visual effects for Weta Digital on Peter Jackson’s upcoming King Kong. Tolkien trilogy animation director Randy Cook is ceding passage on Jackson’s voyage to Skull Island, pursuing directing ambitions of his own, allowing Paul Griffin to take up the reins as Weta Digital’s animation supervisor. Jackson’s colossal gorilla star has meanwhile been taking shape under the auspices of Weta Workshop co-founder Richard Taylor. “Creature design is pretty well advanced and a lot of the production design is coming right along,” noted visual effects director of photography Alex Funke. “It’s going to be a remarkable film; an amazing visual treat.”

Shooting plans for Kong have so far included discussions with Weta’s miniature and digital departments, and with director of photography Andrew Lesnie, who is also returning to the Jackson fold. “As soon as I get back to New Zealand,” said Funke, “we’re getting into a very intensive session of testing on some of the stylistic issues, working with Andrew Lesnie on which type of film stock we should use and exploring exposure issues in conjunction with the guys at Weta Digital. We’re going to get a complete system worked out in advance, so we’ll know exactly how the material will scan, or exactly how to place exposures.”

Funke mused on recent rumors that Jackson plans to film Kong in black-and-white — “That’s news to me, but I wouldn’t put it past Peter!” — and hinted at plans for creating the lush vegetation of Kong’s Skull Island habitat, building on Weta’s experience creating the miniature Fangorn Forest in The Lord of the Rings. “Richard Taylor is busy building many, many trees, and we’ve been doing some tests on the motion of the leaves. One of things that didn’t quite work for Peter in The Lord of the Rings was the static look of the miniature trees. In Kong, we’re going to be darned sure that we’ve got moving leaves on our miniature trees!”

With two year’s work remaining until Jackson’s giant ape bursts onto theater screens in December 2005, the quest for greater realism remains a benchmark for all concerned. “I think Kong is going to be harder than The Return of the King,” observed Joe Letteri, “because Peter’s not going to hold back. On The Lord of the Rings, we got more and more into the realism of shots — and that required incredible amounts of detail. That was hopefully apparent in The Return of the King, and it was certainly visible in the other work that we’ve seen recently. We can do so many things more or less routinely that were once really hard to do that a lot of directors and producers are opting to take shots into the effects realm, rather than saying, ‘Oh, gee, we have to do it that way.’ It’s changed the way we work. Visual effects are now more mainstream.”

Reprinted with permission from Cinefex Weekly Update, an e-newsletter on motion picture visual effects. Interested parties may subscribe, free of charge, by accessing the following link: