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Offscreen Magic, Onscreen Wonder
Transforming the epic story "The Lord of the Rings" into a movie, filmmakers faced a grueling task of doing justice to the fantasy world that was created by author J.R.R. Tolkien.
If you don't already know, "Rings" is the story of a hobbit, Frodo, who battles the Dark Lord, Sauron, to save Middle-earth from the grips of evil. Frodo and his companions form a fellowship to embark on a desperate journey to rid the earth of the source of Sauron's greatest strength, a powerful ring.
Pre-production on the film, which was shot in New Zealand, began as long as four years before a camera was turned on. This was done to make everything - costumes, character sizes, locations - very Tolkien-like.
Watching the film, you may be baffled by all of the high-tech visual details. Director Peter Jackson, known as a perfectionist, strove to make the fantasy a delight to the many Tolkien fans.
After getting the green light to make the movie, Jackson called in "Lord of the Rings" experts Alan Lee and John Howe to help create the look of Middle-earth. The two have been the main illustrators of Tolkien's work.
Here are some of the visual effects that make his book come to life.
One of the first tasks was creating the look of the hobbit. As Tolkien described them in the book, hobbits are only 3 to 4 feet tall. This was hard for Jackson to manipulate on the screen. He decided from the beginning that he would prefer to find actors of average height, and then find ways to deal with the height issue. For Frodo, played by Elijah Wood, who is almost 6 feet, this became a big challenge.
To create the illusion that the hobbits were "small people," filmmakers used "forced perspective." An example is when Frodo and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are sitting and talking next to each other. In reality, McKellen is much closer to the camera lens, making him appear larger.
Another way to change character size and appearance is the "blue screen technique." With this, actors are filmed in front of a blue screen; then, using a process that treats all blue areas on film as if they are transparent, those shots are combined with already filmed or painted backgrounds. An example is when Frodo looks out across the city of Lothlorien from a tree. The scene was shot in front of a blue screen, and the city was added later.
Another obstacle in the film was creating the hobbit look, which includes their big, hairy feet. Weta Workshop, the main creator of props and costumes, was summoned. The actors endured more than four hours of makeup to be transformed into hobbits, and had to stand, not moving, until their prosthetic feet were attached to their legs.
To become orcs, extras were covered with latex limbs complete with bulging muscles. Knobby warts were added later. The suits, which were kept on for an entire day of filming, were hot and uncomfortable, and usually very smelly by the end of the day.
Weta's digital division brought most of the monsters to life using computers. Two hundred Weta animators worked on a behavioral-simulation system that creates armies on a computer screen and gives each fighter its own program of directions, so that the fight scenes would seem realistic. Extras were also cast for these fight scenes. New Zealand's army originally was cast as extras for large battle scenes, but they had to back out to become peacekeepers in East Timor.
During a few of the fight scenes, some of the main humans, hobbits, dwarfs and elves were digitally re-created. First, the actors were filmed in a motion-capture suit. The camera recorded how the actors moved, and computers transferred those results to the actors' digital counterparts.
Finding the perfect location to film the movie was also a long and grueling task.
Jackson, a New Zealander, traveled around his native country looking for the perfect spots. One of the earliest scenes in the movie, the hobbit Bilbo's house on Bag-End, took the longest time to create. The search crew found a plain swampy area, and Lee and Howe were called in to add some "Ring" flavor to it. The two added little hobbit holes, cabbage patches, washing lines and hedges. With the help of the New Zealand army, diggers and excavators transformed the land into Bag-End. Changes included the planting of flowers and vegetables, draining of the swamp, and building a stone bridge across the lake. After the transformation was complete, the location was left alone for a year so it could revert to a more natural appearance.
Moviegoers evidently appreciated the visual effects of "Lord of the Rings." The movie took in more than $70 million dollars in its first week.