Peter Jackson Talks About His Crowning Achievement
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Having finished this massive trilogy, do you have any perspective now?
No, Iím still too close. Return was a very hard post-production and a very complicated movie with a lot of effects to complete. It was the hardest of the three in terms of post, as it has nearly 1500 CG shots ó as many as the other two films combined.
Then there were all the complex battle scenes and editing it and getting the right shape and intercutting all the different storylines. Itís also the longest at three hours, 20 minutes.
I think theyíre very different films. The first film had a slightly lighter, more whimsical tone, while the second was darker. The third film is my particular favorite. Itís climactic. Itís got an ending. Itís very emotional. Itís Biblical. Itís wonderfully over-the-top and epic. At the same time, it has these incredibly emotional scenes. Itís a lot about courage, sheer guts and determination. [an error occurred while processing this directive]
Whatís next for you?
After King Kong, I have five or six movies that I would like to do. I donít know which order I will do them in but at some point Iíd like to do another zombie movie because Iím such a big horror fan and nobody seems to be making zombie ones anymore. Itís a genre thatís died out. I figure it would be great to do one again.
How far along are you with King Kong?
Not very far yet. Wetaís been working on the visual effects for the past few months, and weíve done a bit of planning and previsualizing. Weíre going to start seriously getting into pre-production in the early part of the year once we finally wind down on this, and we plan to start shooting in August.
The trilogyís convincing CG imagery was in large part the purview of Weta Digital, the company formed by Jackson and some filmmaking cohorts in 1993 to execute the VFX for Jacksonís Heavenly Creatures. We asked Weta Digital Director Richard Taylor and film producer Barrie Osborne about the challenge.
Was WETA responsible for every effect in the trilogy or did you have to farm some work out?
RT: We did it all, including the design and fabrication of creatures, prosthetics, miniatures and models and all the digital effects. And this film was even more complicated than the first two. To give you some idea, we had 1490 visual-effects shots in the final film, while we were contracted to deliver just 840. It grew because Peterís vision grew, and, happily, New Line allowed us to roll on and keep using the scope of the facility and the enthusiasm and knowledge that all of our crews had learned over the past five or six years to build the third film into the epic it needed to be.
What were the most difficult visual effects sequences you had to design and execute?
RT: Without a doubt some of the highlights were creating Shelob the giant spider, the enormous elephant-like Mumakil, the 70-foot flying Fell Beasts and the huge battle scenes. Many of those battle scenes were totally digital. There wasnít one element in them that wasnít CGI, so the amount of code that had to be specially written was massive, so that we were able to put all the individual agents on screen. For some of the largest battle scenes, such as the wide shots of the Pelennor Fields, we had over 200,000 Orcs and another 6000 Rohan horsemen. And itís all because of Peterís vision. He came to us and said, ďOne day I want battle scenes like nothing anyone has ever seen on screen before, and I want every soldier fighting for himself. You develop it.Ē And at that point it was like science fiction, the idea that you could get a computer to think for itself; whatís more, to be able to get 200,000 agents within the computer to think for themselves. So each soldier is assessing the environment around them, drawing on a repertoire of military moves that was taught to them through motion capture, and determining how theyíll combat the enemy, step over the terrain and deal with any obstacles in front of them through their own intelligence. And thereís 200,000 of them. That was pretty freaky.
Is it true you ran into some major problems at first?
RT: Yes, because once youíve fed all this information into the computers, you cannot determine if theyíll win or lose. In fact, for the first two years of developing all this, the biggest problem we had was that the soldiers all fled the field of battle. We could not make the computers stupid enough to not run away, which is very scary when you think about it. But the single most difficult effect we dealt with continued to be Gollum, as we were trying to attribute human realism to a CGI character.
There have been many attempts at digital characters before, especially in films like Star Wars, so why do you think Gollum captured the audienceís imagination so strongly?
RT: I think itís because for the first time ever, Gollum transcended the audienceís need to assess him and appreciate him as a technical achievement. Heís become an actor who can hold his own in a scene with human actors, as opposed to just being a clever digital effect like, say, Jar Jar Binks. Six years ago when Peter first came to us and said, ďWeíre doing Gollum as a digital effect,Ē the only thing we had to draw on at that point was the success of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs. So to imagine bringing real characterization to a purely CG figure was daunting. Initially, we drew on existing code a lot, but as we went along we had to develop a lot of completely new code.
RT: Joe then had a brainwave ó why not reverse the whole process, and get the traditional artist to learn the computer? So five months before we delivered Gollum, Geno taught the digital artist how to use the airbrush, and in that five months they turned visual effects on its head, and literally used the techniques of airbrushing to put the reality into Gollumís skin. And that was possible because Weta Digital and Weta Workshop are one company. Thereís none of that competition that often goes on between the two divisions in other companies.
What about creating Shelob?
RT: That whole sequence was based on the fact that Peterís really scared of spiders, so we designed it especially for him. Heís not afraid of tarantulas as theyíre big and fuzzy. Heís scared of the shiny, hard-skinned spiders, so we created this huge, shiny spider with segmented articulation. It began as a huge, 3D design maquette, and then we created a scannable maquette about six feet in diameter. That scan gives you the overall volumetric structure and the defining shape. We built up every single muscle and then we added all of its fat and muscle dynamics and built in its boning and face articulation. And finally we applied the skin and translucency. Thatís one of the biggest breakthroughs in creature effects, being able to replicate the light that naturally penetrates skin and which illuminates the inside of a mouth or eye. Thatís been impossible to do digitally before, but we cracked it, and so when Shelob opens her mouth, thereís this natural luminous effect. And all this was done in the last few months of the third filmís production as we went through a major design change.
BO: Originally we actually shot some animatronics, but never used them. So Shelob is totally digital, even the close ups. And on set we used a pad that the actors could kick at, so we could get realistic movement, and that was then rotoscoped out in post. All animation for the digital effects was done on Maya, and then we used Shake for all the compositing work. The rest of the effects, such as textures and lighting, were done using in-house code developed at WETA.
How many people worked on the effects?
RT: We had about 450 digital artists and animators, and another 180 people at the workshop. Itís interesting that itís taken until the start of this new century for technology to catch up with Tolkienís vision. Obviously LOTR could have been made by any film company at any time over the past 50 years, but it would never have replicated Tolkienís writing as closely as weíve been able to do.
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