After a recent Beverly Hills screening of "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences walked out of the three-hour epic buzzing about "him."
Not actor Viggo Mortensen, who plays the hunky, sword-wielding Aragorn. Not Elijah Wood, cast as the diminutive, ring-bearing hero Frodo. Instead, the chatter focused on Gollum, the wheezing, lisping wretch who plays Frodo's foil.
What a stunning performance. An Oscar contender. He's just great!
Technically, Gollum is not a "he," but an "it" — an agglomeration of 1s and 0s that required six years of research, scores of computer programmers and countless cycles of processing power to make the animated amphibious creature as believable as human actors.
The key, though, was a human actor — a classically trained Shakespearean stage player named Andy Serkis whose face never appears on-screen, but nonetheless infuses Gollum with enough sadness and pain to make him perhaps the most believable computer-generated character in a movie.
Animated film characters have mingled on-screen with live actors since Gene Kelly danced with Jerry the Mouse in 1945's "Anchors Aweigh." And animators long have been able to squeeze a response out of audiences — whether it's the tearful death of Bambi's mother or the fearful rampage of the Tyrannosaurus rex in "Jurassic Park."
Yet despite the advances made by powerful computers in animation, most characters have never felt like anything but special effects novelties to humans adept at distinguishing life from lifelike.
Gollum's debut in "The Two Towers" marks the strongest marriage to date of technology and art in moviemaking. Already, Hollywood is talking about Academy Award nominations both for the team that gave Gollum life and the actor who gave him a soul.
"What's the difference between John Hurt wearing a latex mask in 'The Elephant Man' and Andy Serkis wearing a pixel mask of Gollum now?" asked Russell Schwartz, president of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema, which releases the movie Wednesday. "There's no difference. They're both human."
Making Gollum believable was the biggest technical and artistic challenge for Peter Jackson, who directed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. In the J.R.R. Tolkien series on which the movies are based, Gollum is a central figure, a Hobbit disfigured and driven mad by the power of the One Ring.
"Peter's biggest fear, even back in the earliest days, was that audiences would not think of Gollum as a 'he,' " said Lulu Zezza, a former production supervisor on the "Lord of the Rings" series.
"Peter thought the success of these movies hinged on Gollum being real, being believable," she said. "If he missed on Gollum, if he didn't create the hugely dimensional character that he is in the books, the movies would fail."
The burden fell to Serkis, known for his leading roles in "King Lear" and "Macbeth" at London's Royal Court Theater. When he met with Jackson and co-producer and writer Fran Walsh in London in the late 1990s, the actor thought he was trying out for a voice-over job.
"My thought was, 'Why can't my agent get me up for a decent part?'" Serkis said.
The job was quickly clarified. Serkis flew to New Zealand and, for nearly 18 months, joined the rest of the cast in principal photography. That alone was unusual.
When animated characters appear in movies, they are generally added after the fact by technicians and artists. A crew member may read lines or go through the motions to give actors a point of reference. But for director Jackson, there was never a question of using someone other than the person cast in the role of Gollum.
That decision added time and money to the project, but Jackson's reasoning was that stunt people and crew members don't have the same ability as actors to speak with their bodies and convey emotion through something as simple as a stare. Serkis' performances during the original shoot became the foundation of what audiences see on screen.
Each scene that included Gollum was shot at least twice during principal photography, when most of the film is shot. The first time was with Serkis in front of the camera with his fellow actors so they could create an emotional energy and give key data to the lighting and animation teams.
On the second round, Serkis stepped off-camera and the scene was reshot, giving the effects crew a "clean" pass of the scene and space to put in the digital creature.
Putting a human face on 'It'
Hollywood is buzzing about the special effects team that animated Gollum in 'The Lord of the Rings' and the actor who gave him a soul.
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