Ring Cycle

Movie Images Courtesy of New Line

I'm standing in the rain watching a large group of soldiers in medieval armor poke at dead horses and slain warriors lying in the mud of a riverbank. There are bright lights, smoke, and machines spraying everything with water despite the steady downpour nature is providing. A hideous orc sits smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper while his bleeding enemy lounges beside him eating a candy bar. I've flown 9,000 miles to witness this, I'm seriously jet-lagged, and it's all starting to become a little unreal. Around me, huddling under umbrellas, is a small multinational hodgepodge of journalists ranging from a petite Japanese woman and her translator to a tall, thin Swede who bears a striking resemblance to Max von Sydow. We've been observing the rehearsals for a scene from The Two Towers, the second movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. This isn't a reshoot, it's been explained to us, but one of the "pickup" scenes-brand-new scenes inspired by the editing of the film or the necessity of filling an obvious gap in the narrative.

Although the whole trilogy was shot simultaneously over a year and a half, each of the three films is being taken through this post-production process before the editing of the next one begins. The first release, the hugely successful The Fellowship of the Ring, appeared last August in a two-DVD set. But a four-disc, boxed special edition, featuring an extended 3 1/2-hour version of the film (see "The Second Cut Is the Deepest," page 88 in the January S&V), was due out November 12. Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) in the elven retreat Rivendell.

After a while, I'm ready to get back in the van, and the extras playing dead in the mud-who aren't allowed to move out of position between rehearsals-don't look too thrilled either. But director Peter Jackson, who's been doing this almost continually for going on four years already, is in his element (see "Ring Master," page 87 in the January S&V). Oblivious to the winter chill, he strolls around in shorts and hiking boots, calmly checking out the image on a video monitor or conferring with an assistant director. Frequently described in conversations with the cast and crew as "a hobbit," Jackson has a short, squat body, solid muscular legs, and a large, round face surrounded by straggly curls and a rough beard. He usually wears big wire-framed glasses and a playful smile. In his shorts and boots he does have a strikingly hobbit-like quality about him. Once Jackson and the crew are finished setting up the equipment and blocking out the shot, there are rehearsals with the extras until they're ready for a take. It doesn't look like much now, just a bunch of drenched guys in costumes and some cast-resin horses, but you know that when it's up on the screen, it's going to be epic.

Author Krebs in front of the miniature of Rivendell.

Everything about The Lord of the Rings seems big. More than 100 million copies of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy have been sold since the first volume appeared in 1954. The Rings movies were shot with the aid of 2,500 crew members (sometimes up to six different film crews were involved), 26,000 extras, and a large cast of talented lead actors. When I visited, three and a half years into the production, Jackson estimated there was still a year and a half to go before they could take a holiday. The remaining work included pickup scenes, new effects, and postproduction for The Two Towers and the third movie, The Return of the King.

The four-disc boxed DVD set of The Fellowship of the Ring ($40) is just as epic. Its extended cut of the film is spread over two discs and includes an extra 30 minutes of music from composer Howard Shore (The Silence of the Lambs, Ed Wood, Panic Room). The quality of the picture transfer and of the Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES soundtracks is as sensational as the original transfer of the theatrical cut on the two-disc set. The new set also includes four feature-length running commentaries-14 hours worth-and two discs of extras, comprising more than 7 hours of documentaries plus plenty more (see "Extras," page 86 in the January S&V). For the hard-core fan-and since there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Lord of the Rings Web sites, there must be a few of you out there-a special $80 Gift Set contains all these treasures and more. Where did this giant-sized film and these mammoth DVD sets begin? On a small island that's half of a small country. Small Middle-earthNew Zealand's population of 3 1/4 million is tiny even for a small country. England, for example, although a slightly smaller land mass, has 16 times as many people. This means that most of New Zealand's amazingly varied and beautiful landscapes are barely touched by industrialization or tourism. Tolkien modeled many of the landscapes of Middle-earth that appear in The Lord of the Rings after pre-industrial England. As one of the few places left that can still look like ancient Britain, New Zealand must have seemed the perfect place to film the trilogy.But it quickly became apparent what a tremendous undertaking it would be. Indeed, for a little-known director to embark on such an immense endeavor in such a small country, without any of Hollywood's machinery, resources, or experienced personnel, and to attempt to create a whole world in such detail that it would live up to the expectations of millions of passionate fans of the books was unquestionable insanity. And yet, as the elven Lady Galadriel declares, "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future."Most of the creature prosthetics, props, armor, weapons, and special makeup were designed and created at the Weta Workshop in Wellington, New Zealand, where the miniatures for the background landscapes, cities, and buildings were also built and shot. Richard Taylor and wife Tania Rodger created the workshop 14 years ago, starting out of the back room of their apartment. In 1994, they joined with Jamie Selkirk and Jackson to form Weta Ltd., an all-inclusive effects facility. In addition to Weta Workshop, it also houses Jackson's digital effects company, Weta Digital, and Camperdown Cinema, the director's full-size movie house. (You'll find tours of both Weta Workshop and Weta Digital on Discs 3 and 4 of the boxed set.) Of the 148 people at Weta working on the movie at its busiest time, only 28 had worked in TV or film before, the other 120 being young artists who had to be trained. Together this fellowship made 48,000 separate props-including 500 suits of leather armor, 2,000 swords, 10,000 facial appliances, and 1,800 body prosthetics. BigaturesJackson would rather shoot a building in the real world-even as a set or a miniature-than use a matte painting or digital effect because he feels that actual photography is far more
convincing. Although computers are used to drop the 58 miniatures created at Weta behind the live action scenes, the audience is still seeing real objects recorded on real film. Richard Taylor seems to be of a like mind. While he oversees all aspects of the workshop's creations, he was most interested in showing us the miniatures, which are often made so large and with so much detail that they can stand up to close scrutiny-hence the term "bigatures."As you'll see in "Bigatures" on Disc 4, the 68,000 feet of studios are packed with them-buildings, ruins, towers, sculptures, and unrecognizable semi-constructions. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as if it was history, so it was essential for everything to have a gritty realism. It was the job of production designer Grant Major and art director Dan Hennah to give each culture of Middle-earth a distinctive look. So the dwarves are very different from the elves in terms of their clothing, weapons, belts, and architecture (see, for instance, "Designing Middle-earth" on Disc 3).All of the designs are based on Tolkien's lengthy descriptions in the books and on the work of Alan Lee and John Howe, who have spent their lives visualizing Tolkien's ideas in book and calendar illustrations. Lee and Howe were used as conceptual artists, doing hundreds of sketches and paintings for the film. Once these were translated into storyboards and the designs had been approved by Major and Jackson, it was then necessary to work out which would be sets, which miniatures, and which computer animation. At the time I visited Weta, they were racing to finish the effects for The Two Towers. Taylor was just viewing footage of one of the setups: "All the little firelights you see with orcs scrambling over and building the tower are CG [computer graphics]," he explains. "This is a good example of a composite shot. The tower and the rock it's on are built by us-beautiful miniatures at 1/77 scale. This bit of tower was shot separately from the rest of it because the reality is that the camera's about half an inch away from it. We often have to split out the various planes of a miniature to keep them all in focus and make them look like they're a big object." The camera team can also make an object look big by using smoke. "Haze increases the farther away mountains or cities are, and this can be created and controlled."Alex Funke taught the folks at Weta everything they know about miniature and special-effects photography. His previous work includes The Abyss, The Lawnmower Man, and Total Recall (for which he won an Oscar). Funke plays us "The Crow Shot" (Chapter 32 on Disc 2), one of the most striking sequences from the first movie: the camera flies across the walls of Isengard, goes through a hole in the earth, swoops down into the mines, navigates all around the underground workings, and comes to rest on the lone figure of Saruman the White, the formerly good wizard who becomes a villain. "It's a whole series of miniatures digitally linked together so that it becomes one gigantic camera move. It's actually done with five sets. And then at the end it's just a tiny section of a full-size set with Christopher Lee on it."As we make our way out of these studios, Funke expresses his admiration for the conceptual artists, particularly Alan Lee. "He can not only do the painting or drawing that's exactly what Peter wants, but he can also do a series of working drawings that you can build the set from. It's such an advantage to have him!" This is consistent with the impression I get throughout the workshop-that these guys really enjoy working together and love their work. They'd need to, though, as my visit comes on their 565th consecutive day of shooting effects.Quiet on the SetNext we're driven to the buildings for Jackson's production company, Three Foot Six, where pickup scenes with the lead actors are being filmed. After having flown over the shoot's locations in helicopters, riding in vans is a bit of a comedown, but the studios are so wonderfully weird that transport is quickly forgotten. Tramping around the vast site, we pass through sets, workshops, and
warehouses filled with costumes and props stacked floor to ceiling-including the dead horses. We go up to the huge space where the costumes are made and meet department head Ngila Dickson, who shared the Academy Award for Best Costume Design with Richard Taylor. With the aid of 40 seamstresses, she created a total of 19,000 outfits for the films (you can see the designs along with photos on Disc 3). Dickson shows us around rack after rack of costumes, from the hobbits' autumnal-colored vests and cutoff pants to the full-length pure white elven outfits, from Saruman's worn, aging robes to the gorgeous, heavily beaded lavender dress worn by Arwen, the elf princess played by Liv Tyler. Each of the lead actors needed ten copies of their costumes, and their body and stunt doubles each had to have ten more copies. Seamstresses also had to make ten of what Dickson calls the "Mini-Me" version of each costume for the small-sized doubles used to convey the different perspectives between men and hobbits. That's 40 copies per design per character.All of the lead actors and most of the extras wear wigs, because they all have short hair in real life. It's a lucky break for hair designer Peter King and his team when an extra has an actual beard because they don't have to put one on. "We've bearded a lot of women on this," King throws in. "It's because we get short of Rohan riders, so we have to have women play the men, and they all have to have beards-the bearded ladies of Rohan."When we go to lunch in the commissary, we find ourselves sitting among Rohan warriors (male), orcs, and elves. The warriors are so fierce that they pay more attention to the dessert table than to their bleeding wounds. The orcs have to drink with straws and eat carefully since they have prosthetics attached to their faces, and the elves are all 6 1/2 feet tall and look like Swedish supermodels. The extras have spent the morning shooting battle scenes for The Two Towers in the muddy New Zealand winter, and they can use the food. The female journalists get all excited when they spot Viggo Mortensen-poet, photographer, and musician as well as actor-who, in character as Aragorn (alias Strider), broods over his meal and doesn't seem to eat much. "We go for Viggo," they inform me. None seem willing to acknowledge that Viggo has a surname.After lunch we take a close look at some of the exterior sets around the studio. What's immediately striking is the amazing intricacy of the craftsmanship-much more than could ever possibly show up on the screen. Every knife, chair, and window was created from scratch and then had to be done over in three sizes. It's like creating centuries worth of artifacts from half the countries of Europe. Act NaturalComing around a corner, we're suddenly brought up short by three elves in long, flowing white robes riding by on magnificent white horses. I feel like I just stumbled into heaven. Later, I'm waiting with another reporter in a refreshments tent to interview Viggo. She definitely goes for Viggo, so the excitement is high. After a time, I see him in his Strider costume striding toward us, but before I break the news to my companion, he's intercepted by an assistant who escorts him back to the set. I'm just settling back in my chair when Liv Tyler wanders in to get a cup of herbal tea. She behaves just like she looks-shy and ephemeral, like a fawn, but in jeans, pink plimsolls, and a furry hat. When told that we're reporters and would like to ask her a few questions, she backs away. After some reassurances, however, she agrees, but she never gets closer than 10 feet from the table. We start by asking her what it's like coming back to the role to do pickup scenes after all this time."The role has never left me. I sat down the other day with Roisin, the Elvish dialect coach, and as I spoke to him I actually remembered Elvish lines that I'd spoken before. I think it's all ingrained in us because we've been doing it for so long." Just then, Théoden, King of Rohan, walks in, wearing a crown. We all hail the king, who appears in the second and third films and is played by English actor Bernard Hill-a commanding figure who was also the captain in Titanic, the Duke of York in Henry VI, and the engine driver in The Wind in the Willows. Here, though, he speaks in his natural, near-impenetrable Manchester (or Mancunian) accent. "We're like little multidrawer closets," he mutters. "Actors' brains are extraordinary. You forget the lines you did in the morning by the afternoon. But when they ask you a year later, you can just pick up the scene and do it."Tyler agrees. "It was much harder during the principal photography, when on any given day you had to jump from a scene in the first film to one in the third. We went insane. A year and a half wasn't that long to shoot all three films, and we were all over the place. We knew that there were certain things they'd want to come back to after some reflection-to make it better and because there are holes we can fill with all this great stuff. They edited each film one at a time, so Peter Jackson didn't even look at the second one until the first film was out. And now he just focuses on the second."She asks me what publication I'm writing for. I manage to get out the name Sound & Vision, and her face lights up. "Oh, you know, I just got a DVD player! I didn't realize until recently that you could watch all this extra stuff. I find it very exciting. Now I'm really getting into DVD. In fact, I haven't seen the extended cut of the film yet because I wanted to wait and watch it at home on DVD. I just thought it would be nicer." (You can see Tyler in some of the documentaries, including "The Fellowship of the Cast" and "The Road Goes Ever On" on Disc 4, and she's also in one of the commentaries.) In the end, Viggo never made it over, but that was okay. At least I can say I got to Liv a little.One Ring to Rule Them AllBefore the release of The Fellowship of the Ring, nobody knew if the gamble of shooting all three movies simultaneously would pay off, since the cost to New Line Cinema ran to $300 million. If the first one didn't do well, would the second and third even get released? And would New Line still be around to release them?Since Fellowship has made over $860 million worldwide, beating out Spider-Man and Star Wars-Episode II: Attack of the Clones, it's a safe bet New Line will survive. And if the other two movies are only as successful as the first one, the $300 million investment could earn over $2 1/2 billion in theater tickets, with video sales adding plenty more to the coffers. Fellowship received 13 Academy Award nominations-a feat surpassed only by Titanic and All About Eve, each of which received 14 nominations. Richard Taylor and his crew won for Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects (as well as being nominated for Best Costumes), and the movie won for Best Cinematography and Best Original Score.One of the last things I witnessed during my visit was a scene being shot in a castle interior set inside a vast studio. John Rhys-Davies, as Gimli, is bellowing lines. As the actor is 6 feet tall and all padded out and layered with facial prosthetics, he's pretty huge and imposing for a dwarf. A barefoot Peter Jackson sits behind a bank of video monitors, quietly conferring with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and other technicians and relaying instructions via assistant directors. He doesn't seem at all concerned with the immensity of the project, and I'd like to think it's because he knows scale is all a fantasy, a minor practical detail, and that it's the performances of the actors, the ideas of Tolkien, and the creativity of the crew that are the real measure of this movie.