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52 Godly Men : Men of Today Teaching the Men of Tomorrow » Uncategorized » Lord of the Rings: CGI vs. Special Effects

Lord of the Rings: CGI vs. Special Effects

The following is a required paper that I wrote for a college class on the subject of entertainment. I chose to write on the topic of movies, and the sub-topic of the world of special effects.

David Thompson
ENGL 110
Dr. Summerlin

Did The Lord of the Rings Turn Into “Lord of the Screen” Because of CGI or Real Effects?

The Lord of the Rings was a movie full of potential. It was based on the number two best-selling book of all time (Henderson), so the plot was already complete and exquisitely complex. The actors were good although no awards were won by any of the characters (Goodman). However, one of the main reasons this trilogy rose head and shoulders above any other was because of its amazing special effects. While some movie critics feel that special effects and computer-generated images (or CGI for short) detract from a movie, the producers of The Lord of the Rings trilogy were able to create a jaw-dropping, yet realistic world largely without computer-generated images, and the computerized effects they did use only added to and complemented the characters and plot of the movies.

All three movies won an Academy Award for “Best Visual Effects” (Goodman) and are widely lauded for their ingenuity and realistic appearances. As one article put it, “It was the special effects for which The Lord of the Rings was most highly praised, as the effects used had never been implemented at such a scale before in cinema” (“Remembering”). According to Brian Sibley, the mastermind behind these effects was a company based in New Zealand called Weta Digital, which was in charge of “the design and fabrication of the miniatures, armor, weapons, creature models…as well as all prosthetics and special makeup effects” (23).

Weta had previously worked with Peter Jackson on the movie Braindead, so they were already well acquainted. When they were first approached with the idea, they knew they were undertaking a huge task; it wasn’t until they were finished, though, that they realized just how big a task it was! The numbers of props required for the films are mind-boggling; all told, Weta had to create and manufacture over 48,000 pieces of armor (99), 75,000 miniature soldiers for choreographing the battle sequences (58), 1,800 pairs of fake Hobbit feet (Romano), 1,600 pairs of fake Hobbit ears (Sibley 128), and 10,800 costumes for the extras alone (87)!  Those costumes, even though they sometimes went unnoticed by casual viewers, were an integral part of the movie. What would the elves be like without their ethereal, flowy robes? What would the average moviegoers’ impression of the Hobbits have been if, instead of their vaguely British-countryside look, they wore leather jerkins and kilts? According to one source, the team at Weta took painstaking amounts of time to build the wardrobes of the central characters carefully, trying to capture the look that Peter Jackson wanted, to put in their own personal touch, and to keep it consistent with what J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind originally, without letting the costume itself detract any from the character or the movie (Sibley 90).

One of the biggest challenges when creating costumes for a big movie is to take brand-new outfits and somehow make them look as if they have been worn for years (or centuries, in Gandalf’s case). In the words of costume designer Ngila Dickson, “I have to make costumes as real as possible—however small the scene—because a costume is the actor’s ‘pass’ to a character” (qtd. in Sibley 87). She did just that, creating wear and tear marks, faded spots, and putting stains on everything! The character of Arwen, an elf, was originally supposed to be a warrior princess. However, because the costumes didn’t work out and were too bulky and cumbersome, she began wearing more red and dark blue frocks and eventually evolved into the ladylike princess we see in the movies today (94).

Another huge undertaking for Weta was creating the props for the numerous  battle sequences, which are very important to the movie. They called in a professional blacksmith to help with the weapons department, and by the end of the movies, 2,000 weapons had been cranked out (Sibley 99)! They did not just make them as props to be used and then discarded, though. They took pride in making their work the right way; consequently, out of all those weapons, only one sword ever broke during use (Sibley 103). When making a movie, especially one like The Lord of the Rings where the main characters have recognizable weapons, the effects crew makes a “hero” weapon, the real, metal, deadly one, and then a backup weapon made out of rubber or a similar material, which is lighter, more portable, and less dangerous than the hero weapon. By contrast, Viggo Mortensen, the actor who played Aragorn, refused to wear, swing or touch any weapon other than his hero sword, Anduril (Sibley 101).

Just by looking at the innumerable number of props and the hours spent by makeup artists and costume designers, it’s easy to tell that The Lord of the Rings was made with the focus on real-world visual effects. However, with about 1500 effect shots taken in the movies, even Weta needed some help. That’s where a software called “Multiple Animation Simulation System In Virtual Environment,” or “Massive” for short, came in to play. Massive was created by Stephen Regalous exclusively for The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but since it came out, it has been used in many different movies, including Harry Potter: The Order of the Phoenix, World War Z, Wolverine, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and The Dark Knight (“Gallery”).

According to Kirsten Thompson, Massive creates large groups of what are called “agents,” CGI anamatronic figures that are capable of seeing their surroundings, of feeling the terrain and the agents around them, and of hearing the sounds of their kind (for instance, all Dwarf agents have a unique sound, and when an Uruk-hai agent hears it, it knows to attack the Dwarf). The agents have a database of 250 movements and can perform up to twenty-four movements per second. That information may not seem too impressive, so here’s what it does in a nutshell: it creates a gigantic army of CGI, artificial intelligences that attack and interact with each other in a completely random manner, basically eliminating the need for extras! The battle with Sauron at the beginning of the first movie was exclusively Massive agents fighting each other, with the exception of the main characters. The battle of Pelennor Fields, at the end of the third movie, had 220,000 enemy Orcs and Uruk-hai attacking the White City, all generated by Massive (292-299).

Some critics dislike the fact that filmmakers are trending toward using more visual effects and computer-generated images, believing that the technology keeps movies from being as heartwarming, character-driven, and thought-provoking as before. For instance, the following critique was written about a specific scene in the film Pearl Harbor:

People who know how these movies are made told me that the film-makers could not have held those [action] shots any longer, because audiences would have noticed that they were digital fakes. That point (if true) should tell you that something is seriously wrong. If you cannot sustain shots at the dramatic crux of your movie, why make violent spectacle at all? (Denby 36)

This is a valid point; many films have been commercially successful, blockbusters even, but have substituted computer graphics and choppy action sequences for intelligent dialogue and painstakingly detailed sets. Many movies also would have been blockbusters had it not been for the poor use of CGI throughout the film. One source put it this way:

As technology has become more and more adept at literally translating someone’s imagination into a finished product, so, it seems, has the focus of filmmaking become using that technology: Pushing it to create new things, replace reality as closely as possible and take out all of the confusion, disarray and accidents of the real world. But in doing so, actually imagining things seems to have become diminished. (McMillan)

This quote says it perfectly; the fact that computer-generated or enhanced images are used in a film doesn’t make it an intelligent, timeless movie. One only has to look to the Star Wars prequels to see an example of amazing CGI effects sucking the heart and soul out of a movie! The Transformers movies, as well, are a textbook case of a good series slowly being ruined by more and more advanced computer graphics. The first movie was well done, and it contained a good plot and lovable characters. But the more battle sequences and grinding gears the directors put in throughout the next two movies, the less intelligence and characterization they seemed to include. All that was left was a cacophony of mind-numbing spectacle.

However, The Lord of the Rings is not one of those movies. It does include CGI and digitally altered scenes, but Edward Epstein believes that Peter Jackson was more than able to avoid and overcome the boundary that is automatically raised when CGI is used in a movie (Epstein). For example, they could have digitally created the movie’s many cities from scratch, which would have been relatively easy to do. According to an article on Creativebloq, there are many famous movies where entire sets, scenes, and sequences were fully CGI, including scenes in Pearl Harbor (the USS Arizona exploding and sinking), The Avengers (Iron Man jumping off his tower, only to have the suit follow), and Gladiator (the gladiator fights to the death in a CGI arena in front of animated fans) (“25 Greatest”). However, for The Lord of the Rings, the setmakers decided to do things old-school.

Amazingly enough, during all of the designing and conceptualizing of the sets, nobody ever questioned how they would create the tower of Orthanc or how they were going to make the fantastic believable in real life (Sibley 55). As John Howe—one of the concept artists for the movie—put it, “Having conceded the possibility of absurdly tall towers that are a physical manifestation of the owner’s persona, or the existence of Balrogs…you must then apply a realism to this parallel reality” (qtd. in Sibley 55). With that mentality, the designers were able to ignore conventional wisdom and cast off all restraint in their creating of the sets. One source stated that throughout the movies, they built a total of 64 miniature sets, and all of them were incredibly detailed. For the Rivendell scenes, which were some of the most beautiful in the movies, they had hand-carved statues set up in various places around the set in order to really bring to life the natural, aesthetically pleasing beauty and architecture of the elves (Goodman). For the Kazad-dum scenes, they used glitter and paint to make the stone walls sparkle and shimmer, just as if they were covered with gold and mithril (Goodman). It is hard to believe that the cold, beautiful wonder of the Mines of Moria can essentially be recreated with spray paint, a rock wall, and glitter!

In these movies, the sets weren’t the only things to be shrunk down to a smaller size. Having main characters like the Hobbits, who are inherently twice as short as the rest of the races in Middle-Earth, the visual effects team had a lot of pressure put on them as they attempted to make the big merge with the small. Most of the time, the casual viewer doesn’t even realize that the Hobbits are regular actors, but almost every sequence with a Hobbit in it had to be carefully planned out to make sure the size ratio stayed consistent with the rest of the movie. Of course, the effects designers could have just edited the Hobbits into the scene and then Photoshopped them down to 3 feet 6 inches, but what about in the scenes where they are being carried or lifted by the “big folk?” What about when they are riding the same horse as a six-foot wizard?

For the far-off scenes, like where Pippin is riding with Gandalf on Shadowfax or when Sam and Frodo are following Gandalf out of the Shire, a juvenile stunt double was used. Of course, it wasn’t easy to make a preteen kid look like Elijah Wood. They had to create a wig exactly the same shape and color as Wood’s hair, put the child in a matching Hobbit outfit, and then make sure they only showed the double’s back. The question is, what about in the scenes where we do see a Hobbit’s face? It is not possible to use a different actor for that. That is where a technique called “forced perspective” comes into play. According to one source, forced perspective is where the moviemakers place the actors at different distances away from the camera but film it in such a way so that the actors look like they’re standing next to each other. In the film’s opening scene, we see Frodo join Gandalf in a horse-drawn cart. They look like they’re right beside each other, but it’s actually a trick cart. One side is about four feet behind the other, with the wizard’s body covering the split. When filmed from exactly the right angle, the end result looks like Frodo is half the size of Gandalf (Bell).

Peter Jackson and the team at Weta found the perfect balance between creating manually whatever was humanly possible to build in real life (like Hobbit feet, the sets for Helm’s Deep and Lothlórien, and Grond the demonic battering ram) and using digital effects for the fantastic, crazy stuff that could not possibly be built in the physical world (like the Balrog of Morgoth, the gigantic orc armies, and the moving trees of Fangorn). The digital effects were used sparingly enough to retain the realistic surroundings and  entirely believable atmosphere that fans love while still giving a mystical and fantastic aspect to the movies. Because of the perfect balance that Peter Jackson found between the two and the magic he brought to the big screen, The Lord of the Rings trilogy became three of the greatest and most liked movies ever (IMDb).

Works Cited

“25 Greatest CGI Movie Moments.” Creativebloq. Future Publishing Limited, 16 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 Sept. 2013.
Bell, David Christopher. “8 Movie Special Effects You Won’t Believe Aren’t CGI.” Cracked. N.p., 18 April 2011. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
Denby, David. “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” New Republic 4 Oct. 2012: 29-40. Print.
Epstein, Edward Jay. “Will Digital Effects Ruin Hollywood?” Slate. The Slate Group, 12 Dec. 2005. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.
“Gallery.” Massive Software. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
Goodman, Andy. “Complete List of Trilogy Nominations, Wins.” The One Ring. N.p., 3 March 2004. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.
Henderson, Jeffery. “The Best Selling Books of All Time.” Ranker. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.
“Imagining Middle Earth: The Design of The Fellowship of the Ring.” Lord of the Rings. N.p., 2002. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
“IMDb Top 250.” IMDb. Amazon, 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.
McMillan, Graeme. “Does CGI Ruin Movies?” io9. N.p., 12 Aug. 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.
“Remembering J.R.R. Tolkien: In Praise of The Lord of the Rings.” Myvue. Vue, n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.
Romano, Nick. “10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Lord of the Rings Movies.” Screencrush. N.p. n.d. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.
Sibley, Brian. The Lord of the Rings: The Making of the Movie Trilogy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.
Thompson, Kirsten Moana. “Scale, Spectacle, and Movement: Massive Software and Digital Special Effects in The Lord of the Rings.” From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Ed. Ernest Mathijs and Murray Pomerance. New York: Rodopi, 2006. 283-300. Print.

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