After just finishing the second installment of Lord of the Rings and on the eve of that film LOTR:The Two Towers being released December 18, Fxguide caught up with Jim Rygiel, Visual effects supervisor and Randy Cook, to discuss Weta, the LOTR trilogy, the 5 disc DVD and some of the technology behind this amazing achievement

In March Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Randy Cook brought Ray Harryhausen to Weta abd what started as a 2 hour lecture to the entire Weta department turned into a 5 hour discussion.

“He did everything on his films” comments Cook, “it was so great growing up seeing his films (Jason and the Argonauts, Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans etc) and his work just looked so good his rear process was so much better than the Optical Matting that Universal was doing with films like Shrinking Man. There is a direct lineage between Harryhausen and LOTR” Ray was the only one doing Mythology films, “but for Ray there was only giant Lizards and Gorillas.” hH adds “he took the tradition of O”Brian and moved it forward, and Peter (Jackson) gets that romance and magic into our sequences”.

Lord of the Rings : The Two Towers is the sequel to the Golden Globe-nominated and AFI Award-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which grossed $350 million worldwide in its first two weeks of release, The Two Towers follows the continuing quest of Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and the Fellowship that has joined together to destroy the One Ring and stand against the evil of the dark lord Sauron.

Visual effects for the trilogy are headed at Weta by Jim Rygiel. Rygiel’s previous work includes Digital Productions where he worked on The Last Starfighter, a film notable for its pioneering use of digital imaging in place of models. From 1987 to 1989, Rygiel supervised numerous projects while at visual effects companies Pacific Data Images (PDI) and Metrolight. In 1989 Rygiel was asked to form and head a computer animation department at Boss Film Studios. This department of one grew to over 75 animators and 100 support staff within a few short years. Rygiel credits include Starship Troopers, Species, Outbreak, Air Force One, The Scout, The Last Action Hero, Cliffhanger, Batman Returns, Alien III, The Parent Trap, Star Trek: Insurrection, Anna and the King, and 102 Dalmatians.

In 2002, Rygiel received the American Film Institute’s first AFI Digital Effects Artist of the Year award, the Academy Award and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for Best Visual Effects, for his work on The Lord of the Rings.

When asked how this compare with other films Rygiel has worked on, he quickly points out that it is no comparison, “I learned a whole lot from working on this film, really it was $300 million Gorilla film making ! The way Peter works, he films so much and he knows we can fix so much and it shows what you can do using effects, you can now make a lot of the creative decisions a lot later”.

Weta saw in March this year a 4 1/2 hours at rough cut of Two Towers, which is effectively the extended DVD cut points out Rygiel . Weta ended with 900 shots for film 2 , it started with 1300. “But as each scene was cut, the last thing Peter would say to me is always don’t worry about — it will be in the DVD” jokes Rygiel. The problem is that LOTRs films must deal with is that they always has to get the Theatrical cut down to 3 hours maximum.

Much of the visual effects involved complex on set limitations and invention, it was complex to avoid the incredibly detailed planning required for scenes like the motion control forced perspective from restricting the creativity of the actors and the directors ability to direct the cast . But with a lot of new tools Weta found that they could be flexible, “it does require detailed planning but you don’t want to do a particular FX always using the same approach, with LOTR we would mix blue screen, forced perspective, guys on apple boxes, we play the shell game and keep the audience guessing. Take the cave troll, we used a huge range of techniques, in addition to just straight 3D”, comments Rygiel.

Randy Cook is very aware of the artists that laid the groundwork for the magic of LOTR, “I was an animator in ’75/’76 at Disney under Eric Larson, and that where I learnt the principles of animation and drama. Randy aims to make sure that the new generation of digital artists are aware of the giants upon whose shoulders he feels Weta stands. But he does not just look back, “Every generation has to kill its parents and reinvent the state of the art. In computer graphics we don’t quite see it yet, but we do see blissful ignorance of just how good the past was and I want to keep a bridge to the best of the past”.

That bridge allows for some of the most complex animation seen on screen in film history. Using both innovative artificial intelligence software such as Massive, Weta’s crowd animation software, or just normal key frame animation, the animation department under Cook has produces an incredible amount of computer animation for the Lord of the Rings saga.

“Massive is a very clever idea and inspiration, it takes movement recorded in some fashion, motion capture or keyframe and creates a library of choices for any given character, so a character can get to a point and do any one of a dozen things, and move forward to the next decision and again go with any of a dozen different reactions and so on” Cook points to this concept of decision points as owing much to games concepts, but down at a whole new level.

Cook recounts one key simulation that had all of Weta laughing “in one simulation the crowd had to attack the enemy — the enemy that they could see ahead of them, but when the simulation was run, some warriors were facing exactly 180 degrees to the other army, and in a very funny twist of fast ran off screen, – they saw the best way to the enemy was to run completely around the world their computer simulated world and attack from the far side, of course, it just looked like they were cowards!”

The Massive software has been developed by a separate company, started by Peter Jackson. There was some good scenes in the first film, but Two Towers has many more Massive shots, and “3 has outrageous amounts of Massive” jokes Rygiel, “On film 1 the original plan was never to have a massive warrior taller than 1/5 screen height, in Film 2 there are medium close up shots, – there are shots of extreme foreground and we see off to 10,000 warriors following, all Massive characters”. Massive allows Weta to build warriors on the fly, or 10,000 of them and it knows how to dress them and how to have them act, “In effect you give them a call sheet, tell the warriors when to turn up, wear the green costume, walk toward this point doing this if you see anyone swinging this”.

Rygiel comments that Massive works with the Weta renderer GRUNT, “you could not have used renderman on this”. Grunt apparently stands for General Renderer of Unlimited Number of Things.

At the other end of the spectrum from 70,000 warriors is Gollum, seen briefly in LOTR I. Peter Jackson has said that WETA has developed vast amounts of code to create Gollum, “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.” Cook comments ” the amount of R&D in Gollum is similar to the man years invested in Massive ” but of course he is all hand animated, with individually hand sculpted mussels ” I think people are going to find him unique and accept him as part of the ensemble cast”.

“In the next film you will see more of everything”, says Ry. Gollum is a major character in film 2 full head shots, Gollum is someone who has degenerated by the influence of the ring. So he needs to be human like,.. with every character my goal is the audience will think ” come to NZ and see Gollum actually walking down the street”.

The Design Process was complex, it started as a more alien like character and we found it had to become more human, it still looks Tolken but more human ” so when you look at Gollum you see a pathetic little demon who you fall in love with him and hate him. Getting that humanity into him so when your looking into his eyes you see tears well up in his eyes, we looked at every little pour and detail.

WETA Digital forged entirely digital characters such as Gollum, Treebeard, Balrog, and the eye of Sauron, for LOTR. They also did digital actor replacement, often using motion capture. Motion capture samples the real actors movements, but even this posed problems for the animation team, Cook points out that even with the largest motion capture stage in the world, for the Bridge crossing in LOTR I, the stage was still not big enough and each actor needed to be sampled in sections and then blended back together. “there were scale issues, chalk drawing of footprints and trying to figure it out so the guy captured tomorrow will not run into the guy you capture 7th ” he jokes. He is also at pains to point out that all they get is motion data, the animators still need to provide all the cloth simulations and light the scenes.

Weta currently has a 100 to 150 people, at its top on LOTRs II, Weta was 300 people. It was a huge job, involving relocating people from all over the world. Many people moved to live in NZ, which Rygiel says ” was only possible because of a great production staff. We cut back after October to 150 and it will scale back up again in March, at the moment there is a huge holding bin, effectively people standing by”. On film 1 it was more difficult he adds, “we had this web site for resumes ” we got one a month before the first film, by film 2 we got 20 a day”. Rygiel adds that effectively the window is open now for LOTR III, so people should send in their tapes and CVs and go into the queue.

Images used � 2002 New Line Productions, Inc. � The Saul Zaentz Company d/b/a Tolkien Enterprises under license to New Line Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.