BREAKING DIGITAL GROUND: THE VISUAL EFFECTS
"My same philosophy applied to digital
effects as to the overall design. I wanted the monsters to feel
real right down to the dirt under the fingernails of a Cave Troll
or the bloodshot, bulging eyes of Gollum."
- Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson and his team not only created a physical Middle-earth, they also designed an entirely digital universe for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This staggeringly intensive, behind-the-scenes work was carried out by Wellington, New Zealand based WETA Digital. This innovative effects company assembled a crack team of computer artists, key frame animators, modelers, digital paint artists, motion editors, compositors and software engineers, among others, to devote years of their lives to creating never-before-seen effects.
WETA Digital also invested in a historical first in live-action filmmaking: a massive database that has stored every single frame shot in the making of The Lord of the Rings in a digital library that can instantly access, analyze and cross-reference any single item appearing in the film. This means that every single element in the trilogy can be subject to digital manipulation, from landscapes to mood lighting to Hobbits and horses.
WETA Digital spent countless hours, with their team comprised of more than 200 people at the height of digital production, enhancing the New Zealand landscape to create environments that mirror images of Middle-earth forged into imaginations by Tolkien's prose. They sought to make the colors, images and locations of Middle-earth feel tangibly real, as if they have existed since the beginning of time. A WETA Digital team was on set at all times during the lengthy shoot, cataloging and chronicling all the physical aspects of production to make the digital transition smoother. With more than 5 units shooting on particular day all throughout the country of New Zealand, the team had to be meticulous down to the last frame. Whether it be the Fellowship dangling for life from the stairway of Khazad-dum, Gandalf being damned by Saruman to Orthanc Tower, or a massive battle with the menacing Uruk-Hai, the scope and detail of the digital world of The Fellowship of the Ring proved a key component in creating the adventure and excitement of the epic tale.
But the real creative power of WETA Digital is most apparent in some of the most evil and threatening of characters appearing in The Fellowship of the Ring. Creatures forged entirely through digital magic including the Balrog, the Cave Troll and the Watcher, among many others. One of the most exciting creatures introduced in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Gollum, who was born a Hobbit-like creature named Smeagol but transformed into something far more frightening through his own encounter with the One Ring. Audiences can look forward to seeing Gollum in his entirety with the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, though he appears briefly in The Fellowship of the Ring.
"I think that Gollum may be one of
the most sophisticated digital creations seen yet," notes
WETA's Richard Taylor. "Throw out all your old ideas about
what CG looks like because Gollum defies them."
Gollum was brought into existence through a combination of state-of-the-art computer animation and sophisticated motion-capture technology utilizing "fluid dynamics." Peter Jackson wanted to avoid a "computer-generated look," so instead the painstaking design lends to Gollum realistic joint movement based on actual organic muscle and bone, all seen rippling under his translucent, but flesh-like skin. The computer artists studied anatomy books to create a believable view inside Gollum's skin.
"WETA developed vast amounts of code to create Gollum," notes Peter Jackson. "They developed new modeling codes, new skin codes, new muscle codes. He is amazingly life-like and we were able to give him a range of expressions from the evil of Gollum to the sympathy of Smeagol."
The filmmakers also brought in renowned character actor Andy Serkis to give Gollum a range of voices - from melancholy to menacing. According to Barrie M. Osborne, "It is imperative that Gollum is a real character. He is brought to screen as an animated character, but we need him to have an emotional range, a character torn between the power of the One Ring. Andy Serkis has that range as an actor to do an amazing job, both in his vocal range, in his ability to pantomime Gollum on set, and also on the motion capture stage - so when animated he will become the most realistic animated creature ever on screen." Digital technicians worked closely with Serkis to capture his own uniquely created movement for the bony, lonely creature.
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