The ‘Lord of the Rings’ journey continues


By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
December 15, 2002

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — As a handful of extras ride out on magnificent white horses, you forget you are in a former paint factory. Rather, you feel as though you really are in Rivendell–the ethereal home of the elves in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

It is nearing lunchtime on the set of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”–which opens Wednesday–but there still are a few more shots to complete before they will be dismissed. A beam of light radiates above the actors, making them appear even more angelic than they will be on screen. With their flaxen, waist-length hair, these elves are the gorgeous supermodels of the movie. Even the horses know it.

A willowy elf whispers that the selection process for the 26,000 extras was rather distinct and not particularly kind. If you were tall, slender and looked as if you could be related to Cate Blanchett or Orlando Bloom, you were an elf. It didn’t matter if you were blond–meticulously detailed handmade wigs took care of that. But if you were short and squat, and nature hadn’t hit you with the pretty stick, you were relegated to being a hobbit, dwarf or–worse yet–an orc.

Though principal filming for the trilogy began Oct. 11, 1999, and was completed more than a year ago, director Peter Jackson reunited the actors in New Zealand for a month during the summer to re-shoot some pivotal scenes. A native Kiwi, Jackson utilized outdoor locations throughout New Zealand to supplement the action shot at Wellington’s Three Foot Six Studios, a former paint factory he had renovated into a movie studio.

America’s summer was New Zealand’s winter, a fact that didn’t deter Jackson from wearing his standard work uniform of shorts and sneakers. In deference to the cold, he threw on a dark blue parka held together with electrical tape. The fact that he looked like a hobbit hadn’t been lost on him. He good-naturedly referred to himself as one and reportedly has kept one of the hobbit homes as a souvenir from the movie.

Ironically, his two young children–who appear as “cute hobbits”–weren’t as enthralled with the trilogy as he was.
“My son wants a ‘Star Wars’ lightsaber,” Jackson admitted. “I don’t think he’s that impressed that I directed ‘Lord of the Rings.'”

Never mind that George Lucas has said his “Star Wars” films were inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. Jackson’s fantasy has made the story come alive for both the die-hard fans who have re-read all of Tolkien’s books as well as Rings novices looking for a good movie to check out.

“It was such marvelous fun working on this project,” said Jackson. “I’m pleased with the way the trilogy has turned out, but if you make me pick one favorite, I’d have to say it’s the final chapter [‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’]. I was worried at first that we wouldn’t tie everything up in a way that would do the book justice. But we did it. Everyone involved with the movies did such a wonderful job. They put everything into it.”

With that, Jackson returned to the outdoor set where he was re-shooting a battle scene. A group of Rohan soldiers poked at their dead brethren lying on the ground. Though it was already drizzling, Jackson had a rain tower set up to create a more dramatic deluge for the actors. A closer inspection of the dead revealed that not all the horses and men were real, but rather lifelike inanimate doubles that could withstand the cold better than human beings. It took five men to transport each of the fake horses.

Last winter’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” set the stage for “Two Towers.” Though the two films both clock in at about three hours, the latter moves at a brisker pace and arguably is the better of the two. The grandiose set and hopeful storyline lend an epic feel as well.

Still dressed in his Aragorn costume, Viggo Mortensen walked through a makeshift cafeteria populated with a slew of muddied actors.

“From the way we’re reshooting [this] second movie, I think it’s going to be really layered, interesting and complex storywise,” Mortensen said. “It wasn’t difficult to step back into character because it was the same crew and cast. When you do something this big for so long, it stays with you for a while.”

Liv Tyler, who portrays elf princess Arwen, concurred. After filming a scene with Mortensen, she shed her $25,000 couture gown and piled on longjohns underneath a pair of jeans, her father’s green parka, a red hat with ear flaps and a pair of well worn sneakers. Nothing matched, but the actress–who was still in elf makeup–looked radiant.

Nursing a cold, Tyler let out an un-princess-like expletive as she dropped a bottle of honey. Who should come to her rescue but none other than Bernard Hill, the regal actor dressed in character as King Theoden of Rohan.

“You don’t know me,” he said. “I don’t appear until [‘Two Towers’].”

Winking, he added, “But you’ll see a lot of me in the sequel. You’ll get more than you ever wanted of me.”

Off in another part of the cavernous Three Foot Six Studios, John Rhys-Davies patiently spent five hours getting his makeup applied. Once completed, the British-born actor was transformed into Gimli, a warrior dwarf who is part of the fellowship.

Take after take, Rhys-Davies roared for the camera.

“No one can roar like John,” Jackson said. “Each time it’s different.”

In this film, Gollum has a pivotal role. Though he was seen following Frodo and Sam in “The Fellowship,” we learn more about him here–but not whether he may be trusted. At one time, Gollum was a hobbit-like creature named Smeagol. After stealing the Ring, he morphed into the cave-dwelling creature Gollum.

He is completely computer generated, but the voice and motions are courtesy of Andy Serkis, who put in a staggering number of hours for an actor whose real face will never appear in the movie.

“We shot two versions for every scene for Gollum/Smeagol,” Serkis said. “One had me so they [could computer generate] how [the animated] Gollum should move. Peter said he saw my face and thought I looked like a Gollum puppet. That’s why he hired me. I hope he was joking, but you can never tell with Peter.

“I play Gollum as a junkie for the Ring. He is the abuser. Smeagol is like an abused child. Sometimes people aren’t able to make choices, and that’s kind of how I view Smeagol. He’s trying to be good but he can’t completely escape Gollum’s influences.”

For a scene that will appear early in “The Two Towers,” a second unit spent hours shooting a scene that will be meshed with footage of Frodo and Sam dragging Gollum along on a leash. In order to get the movement of the rocks as they walk through it, the film crew went old school. A group of “pebble wranglers” worked with a miniature rock pile about 2 square feet. Strings were attached to various pebbles, which were gently pulled and tugged by the wranglers. Later, Gollum will be seamlessly added to this footage.

Though Jackson wanted use real images as often as possible, it wasn’t feasible for various shots. Creatures such as Gollum couldn’t be depicted by actors. And it wasn’t economical to build all the sets to scale.

So hundreds of workers created everything from gorgeous miniatures to prosthetic noses, ears and feet in WETA Workshop’s 68,000-square-foot building. The hobbits wore out more than 1,800 pairs of feet (which may be worn just once each day) and Gandalf alone went through 150 noses. The gargantuan ships in the film were the size of a sailboat. And one of the Rivendell miniatures was about the size of a large doll house.

“I guess I knew that I had created something I really liked when I saw the films,” Jackson said. “Even I was able to get lost in the fantasy of the story. It was really nice to sit back and enjoy it just like everyone else and forget about how it was all done.”

Comments (7)

  1. Deran says:

    great story and article

  2. Ginger says:

    Sometimes I can’t even believe I know you!

  3. Jenny says:

    so awesome! i love LOTR.

  4. Amy says:

    You are such a great writer, Jae. But you already knew that. 🙂


  6. Josef says:

    Great wrap up, Jae…ego aside, so much to learn from u 😉

  7. Natasha N says:

    LOVE LOTHR! looking forward to THE HOBBIT!!!

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