November 16, 2001
Digital Effects Bring
'Rings' to Life
Putting contours into JRR Tolkien's Middle-earth hasn't just been the job of the locations in the New Zealand landscape where the three Lord of the Rings films are being made.
It has also been the task of the special effects team at New Zealand's Weta Digital. "New Zealand is not always a substitute for Middle Earth," explains Weta Digital's chief technical officer, Jon Labrie. "Sometimes it's a composite of a number of different areas all kind of painted together."
The main photography for all three of The Lord of the Rings films took a little more than a year, finishing at the end of 2000. But the special effects work for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, ended just last month.
Tens of thousands of prints for the first film are now being made, ready for the 19 December public release of the movie. In the first film of the trilogy, Weta Digital produced 570 special effects shots.
"There were some shots here that were in production for months. They wouldn't have been the most complex from a number of elements in a frame but some of the ones that are really short ones are really short because they are really difficult," Labrie explains.
Creating a scene such as the destruction of Isengard, wizard Saruman's stronghold, used both computer graphics skills at Weta Digital, and the physical effects team at Weta Workshop.
First, a complex miniature of Isengard was built, a detailed matte painting provided the background; and Weta's Massive software populated the scene.
Digital artists added other special effects that are still under wraps. Over four or five weeks, one of Weta's compositors would have pulled together all the elements of that shot. If done well, to the audience, the effects should be seamless.
To handle the film work, the number of digital artists crammed into Weta Digital's Wellington buildings almost doubled in the 12 months to October this year, from 90 to 160 by the time the first film was finished.
Computing power jumped as well: Weta had one rack of 32 processors a year ago. Now, the processors powering the artists' work number 392. Adding in workstations, Weta Digital now has almost 800 processors.
For the second film, Labrie expects the company to use about 1,200 processors. Work on the visual effects for the next film has already started, and is an even more complex job, Labrie says.
In The Two Towers, the characters, Treebeard (a walking, talking tree) and Gollum appear.
"Gollum is close to camera, is delivering lines and has to be totally believable CG (computer graphics) creature," Labrie says. But Labrie feels the team at Weta are ready for the additional challenges.
"We are less daunted about the fact that it's more work because we do have the experience of the first film underneath our belt and we're over a lot of the teething pains organisationally," he says.