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"In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit." These words, first doodled by Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien on a student’s exam paper in the 1930s would lead to one of the greatest epics of 20th century literature. Tolkien devoted much of his life to creating a rich history for Middle-earth — recounted in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales. His attention to detail would go so far as to create his own languages and then actually write in those languages. Indeed, it is Tolkien’s attention to detail that makes The Lord of the Rings one of the most challenging projects for any filmmaker.
by Scott Lehane

“When Peter Jackson first said to me, ‘I’m thinking about making Lord of the Rings,’ one of the things I remember thinking is, ‘Lord of the Rings — how could you even consider it? I mean it’s just extraordinary to even attempt it,’” said Jon Labrie, chief technology officer at Wellington, New Zealand-based Weta Ltd., which has been working on the trilogy for over four years, first backed by Miramax, and then New Line Cinema. The budget is rumored to be close to $200 million.
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Indeed, it takes some audacity for any director to tackle a live-action rendition of a 1,200-page epic trilogy set in a vivid and fantastic world populated by elves, dwarfs, hobbits, trolls, orcs, wizards, ents, wraiths, balrogs, and above all, Gollum. To do it justice would require dozens of main characters, (90 speaking parts in the first film alone), and lead characters that are entirely CG creations. In addition, the story calls for a vast variety of landscapes, and battle scenes with hundreds of thousands of creatures on the field.

Hobbits from left: Sam (Sean Astin), Frodo (Elijah Wood), Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan).To make it all happen, Weta, a somewhat obscure, production, postproduction and visual effects house, which has previously created such films as Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, would have to build a state-of-the-art facility from the ground up to rival anything in Hollywood and import hundreds of digital artists from all over the world. And as if the project wasn’t difficult enough, the company decided to do all three films in the trilogy — The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King — simultaneously. Altogether, the three films called for over 1,000 effects shots to be produced concurrently.

The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, was scheduled to be delivered to New Line Cinema, Oct. 1 for a Dec. 19 release date. The Two Towers is scheduled for a December 2002 release, and the finale, The Return of the King will come out in December 2003.

By the end of the third film, a renderfarm of 192 SGI 1200 and 1100 series dual processor Linux servers will have chugged away 24 hours per day, seven days a week processing frames for several years.

Indeed, according to Labrie, “SGI was an early supporter of the project. They were one of the few who, three or four years ago, actually understood what Lord of the Rings might be, and what it might represent in the market and for us in New Zealand. We found them to be invaluable. It’s reflected in the amount of machines that are installed in the building.”

To accomplish the visual effects, Weta has put together an impressive array of computer firepower that includes 150 SGI Octane workstations, as well as 80 SGI dual processor 330 and 230 series Linux workstations. Two SGI Origin 2000s serve as the primary file servers for the facility, and Weta has also installed a TP9400 RAID storage array.

“There’s 12 terabytes of [online] storage and essentially more than 20 TB of distributed storage if you add the disks on the workstations. In addition, we have a StorageTek Tape Robot. We’ve got about 40 TB of information already offline on tape with a hierarchical storage management system,” said Labrie.

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