April 9, 2001
Film Effects with
a Human Face
Actor Andy Serkis has a peach of a role in the film they said could never be made.
As Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, Mr Serkis has spent the last six months in New Zealand, "halfway up volcanoes, in glacial streams and marshes", as well as in a special studio, creating the sort of effects that have finally made JRR Tolkien's epic possible.
Shooting all three parts of the story simultaneously, Kiwi director Mr Jackson and his compatriot special-effects whizz-kids have wrestled the tale of sword, sorcery, fantastic creatures and little Hobbits to near-completion, and part one is due on screen in December (a cartoon version of the early 1980's fizzled after only one book had been animated).
Mr. Serkis will be back down under this summer for three months of post-production work, finishing the special effects which have made it all possible.
But the film doesn't sublimate all acting talent in favour of technical wizardry.
"They were looking for someone who was capable of doing a creature voice but portray him as human as well," says the 36 year old actor about Gollum, the boy who kills for, then becomes utterly corrupted by, one of the fabled, lost rings.
"I think the great thing about Gollum is that he is the point of human contact for what the ring does to you. He's very much a case of 'There but for the grace of God.'" He adds that with the need to give cinema audiences the ability to relate the creature to something recognizable, he has played him as an addict, a 'ring junkie', complete with withdrawal symptoms.
"When you are playing such an extreme character, you have to root it in something the audience can identify with," he said.
Mr Serkis confessed he had not read The Lord of the Rings before being offered the part, although Tolkien's other Middle Earth tale, The Hobbit, was a childhood favorite. To get into Gollum's head, he said he read and re-read certain passages and found it "fantastic stuff". During the course of the film, he must transform from Smeagol, the boy who killed his cousin for possession of the ring, into the reptilian Gollum, with his sobbing, hissing language as he talks to himself and the ring, his alter ego which he calls "his precious".
Much of the special effects use 'motion capture', a technique which required Mr Serkis to wear a special suit covered in reflective dots, tracked by a computer-driven camera. The animation can then be overlaid, so the actor realistically drives the character's movements, even if the final appearance is part computer graphics.
New Zealand is becoming a hot-house of film special effects, not least due to costs being vastly lower than in Hollywood. Mr Serkis said the level of artisan skill and craftsmanship which produced the reams of costumes, armaments and equipment impressed him greatly and the scenery was perfect for portraying Middle Earth.
The film, he said, "was a real marriage between acting and animation, and they've got the real cutting edge technology out there. As Peter Jackson said: 'The film should be made because now we have the technology'," he recalls.
The Lord of the Rings has been sandwiched between other films - Shiner, with Sir Michael Caine, pencilled in for release in 2001, and his latest project, 24-hour Party People, but as an actor trained in repertory, he yearns to get back on stage. However, the long-anticipated 'Rings' is special, for film-goers and film-makers alike.
"I do think it's going to be fantastic," said Mr Serkis, "and I very, very rarely say that about anything I do.