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Digital Character Gollum Propels `Rings' To Head Of Class

Richard Taylor, one of the special-effects masterminds behind "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," has a fistful of Oscars and the admiration of any computer user who has painted a pixel. He also has a heck of an encore in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," opening Wednesday.

Taylor, a shy man with thin lips and round glasses, has pushed ahead digital effects at a near-magical rate that even his Middle-earth sorcerers would admire.

Ever watch a special-effects movie and shake your head at the cheesy creatures that appear as fake as an Upper East Side matron's jaw line? They interact with the human actors as if both parties were occupying different movies.

In the second "Rings" installment, Taylor and his cohorts had to give life to a character named Gollum who looks like he could be Yoda's thalidomide baby. He has bug eyes and a skeletal body, and he slinks about with the self-loathing of a junkie, hissing to himself in two different personalities. This gangly weirdo could be the new standard by which special-effects houses measure themselves - at least for the time being.

Taylor, 37, might not have been born to dazzle audiences, but the idea came to him early. He met his future business partner, Tania Rodger, when he was 13.

"We were sitting together on a farm in New Zealand trying to decide what we were going to do with our lives," Taylor said during a recent interview. "We knew we wanted to spend it together professionally, and we decided we'd set up a workshop. I didn't even know the film industry existed. I thought TV was shot in people's houses. I didn't see my first video until 21. I saw five movies by age 20 - but I wanted to set up a workshop where I could make cool things."

Armed with a vague notion to create, Taylor moved to Wellington at 17 and met Peter Jackson, a scruffy filmmaker and special-effects buff who was working on a small science-fiction film called "Bad Taste." "The world opened up," Taylor said.

Taylor's Weta Workshop Ltd. has designed the effects for all of Jackson's films, including "The Frighteners" and "Heavenly Creatures." But Taylor has become a giant in his industry by working the wonder in the $360 million "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The first in the series, "The Fellowship of the Ring," grossed $860 million worldwide.

Although Taylor won Academy Awards in 2002 for best visual effects and best makeup, he still rushed to keep up with the latest innovations for "The Two Towers."

"There's been a massive upscaling built on the superiority of complexes around the world," he said. "Could Gollum have happened if Jar-Jar Binks hadn't happened? It's a cumulative, progressive effect."

What separates Taylor and crew in the latest surge forward is a Thespian-first approach to a digital character. Because Gollum shares so much screen time with the human actors who play Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), the filmmakers figured Gollum had to be their dramatic equal. So Jackson and Taylor agreed that they would hire an actor to build Gollum from the ground up.

Andy Serkis embodied Gollum in every way. Serkis performed in every scene as Gollum, from rehearsal to film. Taylor not only copied Serkis' movements and speech but also simulated Serkis' facial muscles. When it came time to create Serkis' alter ego, Taylor painted Serkis out of the scenes and inserted the computer rendering. Taylor said he wanted Gollum to be based in reality, not perform superhuman feats, as computer-generated creatures often do.

"Andy's role in creating Gollum is certainly as valid as an actor like John Hurt in `The Elephant Man,'" Jackson said.

Gollum seems so real that viewers might wonder what size trailer he had compared with Wood's. "We're not making an effects movie," Taylor said "We're making a movie with effects in it."

Taylor can still wow viewers the old-fashioned way with miniature sets. And he gets the most satisfaction out of such lower-budget enterprises, painstaking as they are.

Taylor said he gets the job done at a much lower cost overall than a huge outfit like Industrial Light and Magic.

And Taylor and the producers seem to have the knack for discovering the most unlikely sources of inspiration. A butcher in Christchurch, New Zealand, developed a hand-held scanner to process carcasses, and the effects team used it to track the movements of Serkis when he played Gollum.

Taylor assumes he still can't land a prime table at Hollywood's hottest restaurants, but he hopes his Oscar victories will let his countrymen know that there are possibilities beyond their remote island. Taylor figures it is no accident that New Zealand is now at the forefront of expanding Hollywood's imagination.

"I do believe, because of our rural isolation, you go out and make your own fun," he said. "You dream your own world."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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