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IMAGINING MIDDLE-EARTH:
THE DESIGN OF "THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING"

"The greatest feeling of success has been to watch all these bits and pieces of polystyrene and metal and wood become a world so real you believe these characters live there. We've painted Tolkien's palette as much as possible across the film." — Richard Taylor

Los Angeles, 2001 — Until now, Tolkien's Middle-earth has existed only in the imaginations of readers and in the wondrously detailed yet limited illustrations for the novels. But in The Fellowship of the Ring, the hobbit holes of Hobbiton, the sylvan glades of the elf refuge Rivendell, the smoky innards of the Prancing Pony Inn, and the networks of underground caverns in the Mines of Moria come physically, palpably to life.

Peter Jackson had one underlying precept for the visual design for the Lord of the Rings trilogy: a transporting brand of realism. But how do you realistically create a complete fantasy? Jackson knew that the answer would lie in an incredible amount of detail. So he immediately engaged the services of WETA Limited, New Zealand's premier physical effects house, under the direction of supervisor Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger — and gave them a mission: to create Middle-earth's physical reality, from the interiors of hobbit holes to the heights of Mount Doom, as if they believed with all their hearts and senses in its existence.

Taylor approached the project like a general going to war. He immediately employed a crew of over 120 technicians divided into six crucial departments:

Creatures
Special Effects
Makeup and Prosthetics
Armor and Weapons
Miniatures
Model Effects


WETA Digital, a separate arm, also took on the challenge of creating the groundbreaking computer-generated creatures and effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (see Breaking Digital Ground: Special Effects).

But before WETA could get to work, the filmmakers needed to turn Tolkien's vividly drawn descriptions into three-dimensional visions. They turned to the two men who knew Tolkien's universe best: conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, who illustrated the HarperCollins editions of The Lord of the Rings. Freed from that format, Lee and Howe sketched madly, producing seminal images of the cultures, creatures, buildings, and landscapes that make Hobbiton, Rivendell, Mordor, and more feel so alive.

Inspired by their own intimate love of Tolkien's work, Lee and Howe produced hundreds of lifelike sketches which later were metamorphosed into storyboards, then scale models of Middle-earth's many landscapes and regions, and sometimes into full-scale sets under the aegis of production designer Grant Major. In addition to full-sized sets, the production widely used miniature sets — models so detailed and artistically rendered that the slightly larger ones became known as "bigatures."

"As a conceptual artist, it is quite a minefield treading through Tolkien's world, but you somehow have to trust your own judgment and your own vision. Tolkien's descriptions are so beautiful and poetic, yet he has left plenty of room for us to make our own little explorations," said Alan Lee.

Lee was especially excited by Peter Jackson's mandate. "When he said he wanted to be as true to the spirit of the books as he could and try to create very, very real landscapes and as believable a world as possible, I knew I was the right person for the job," he said.

Says production designer Grant Major of Lee and Howe: "Their contribution to the project was absolutely fundamental. They gave us the look and feel of Middle-earth, and they brought the most intimate knowledge of Tolkien lore to their work."

Lee had always tried to make his illustrations believable, but now he and Howe had a new challenge: producing illustrations so rich they could be turned into miniatures, models, and sets. He recalls the magic of seeing Hobbiton evolve from Tolkien's charming descriptions to detailed sketches to lifelike sets. "We had drawn so many sketches and had so many conversations and then there was the whole construction process," he recalls. "But finally it became this absolutely real place where grass grew over the roofs and the chimneys were spouting smoke, and it was like a dream to see it come to life."

Lee also watched, as his sketches became miniature sets that seemed to take on a life of their own. The miniature production unit was guided by director of photography Alex Funke, who won an Oscar for his effects on Total Recall. Funke and his team filmed an unprecedented 64 miniature sets, some of the most complex ever rendered. Among those seen in The Fellowship of the Ring are the "forest kingdom" of Lothlorien, made up of treehouses connected by walkways and lit with fairy lights, and the land of the dwarves, known as Khazud-Dum.

Many of the sets, big and small, were carved out of polystyrene, a material that can look like wood that has aged for thousands of years, as in the Prancing Pony Pub or the stone sculptures at the gates of Minas Tirith. WETA made some remarkable innovations, using a polyurethane spraying machine developed for spraying rubber coatings on North Sea oil rigs.

"We were able to do in a week what might have taken months to build in a traditional manner," explains Richard Taylor. "With this machine, we could sculpt anything. We were making a hundred helmets in a day with this machine. It helped us to build many worlds."

Production designer Grant Major oversaw the creation of such life-sized exterior sets as the intricate and delicate Elvish kingdom of Rivendell, the grassy knolls of Hobbiton, and the underground interior realms of the mines of Moria. He, too, made realism and exquisite detail a priority — but with a fantastical twist, including hobbitesque earthiness and Escher-like mazes throughout.

The sets for Rivendell, for example, were created to reflect the Elvish culture — which is highly artistic and intimately connected to the forest and nature. It appears as a place of deep serenity, with arching walkways spanning babbling streams and quiet wooden gazebos. "We used a leaf motif throughout the sets, and used a lot of hand-carved statues, pillars, and door frames. Even the colors are right out of the forest," Major notes. "We even added Art Nouveau–style influences that reflect their elegant nature." Major also wanted to lend Rivendell "a sense of mystery," so he designed and built a series of 40-foot-tall towers that shimmer in the background of Rivendell, suggesting more than meets the eye.

Many of Major's sets were built at Peter Jackson's Three Foot Six Wellington Studios. This, for example, is where he created the Mines of Moria, where the Fellowship journeys in The Fellowship of the Ring. Gray granite walls were sprayed constantly by WETA technicians to appear as glistening, dripping, jewel-encrusted caves, a whole network of which spans beneath the dwarf land, Khazad-Dum.

One thing Major always had to consider in the design of his sets was durability. "You had thousands of people trampling through these sets, and sometimes people were chucking axes into the floor, so they had to be built to withstand a lot! Our sets had to withstand 60 pounds per square foot." Major worked hand-in-hand with WETA Digital to make sure the sets would accommodate computer-generated images to be added in later.

Major even found himself becoming a fledgling gardener. To create Hobbiton, he had a large greens department team plant 5,000 cubic meters of vegetable and flower gardens a year before filming began. "We started the year before filming because we wanted the look of it to age naturally in the weather," explains Major. "We were always trying to make every set as real in time and place as could be imagined."

Everyone who entered Hobbiton was transported. Observes Ian McKellen, who plays the hobbit-helping wizard Gandalf: "Hobbiton really wasn't a set at all. It was an actual open-air village with growing crops and flowers actually sprouting in gardens, birds singing, insects . . . Nothing was plastic or fake. It was just totally thrilling to enter another world like that."

* * *

WETA GETS TO WORK:
OF MASKS, MEN AND VAST DESIGNS

"The contribution of Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger and their WETA Workshop has been essential in putting this film together. They truly understood my desire to make every inch of this production feel real. Right down to the pitted, greasy, dirty armor, WETA has gone the extra distance to get the details right." — Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson made another stunningly ambitious decision early on in the development of The Lord of the Rings: The production would make every single item in Middle-earth from scratch. It made logical sense, since nothing from Middle-earth actually exists. But Jackson's visions begot a logistical undertaking beyond what anyone had ever attempted before.

To get an idea of the sheer scope of creating Middle-earth, consider the following numbers:
• more than 900 suits of handmade armor:
• more than 2,000 rubber and safety weapons
• more than 20,000 individual household and everyday items handmade by artisans
• more than 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears, individually sized and shaped

WETA's team oversaw it all in an effort not unlike mobilizing an army. Richard Taylor, head of WETA, became the general spurring his troops on to greater and greater creative achievement. "I would say that we have been fanatical about this project," says Taylor. "We wanted to stay fanatically loyal to the written-word of Tolkien. The people I hired are people who have an intense love of Tolkien, who bring a totally fresh, written word approach to design. The whole design for every little element of the entire trilogy has been figured out to the nth degree. The bottom line was this: Everything had to feel real."

In addition to the usual motion picture crew, WETA brought on board blacksmiths, leather workers, sculptors, and experts in medieval armor. A special foam latexing oven was running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to churn out hobbit ears and feet and Uruk-hai arms and legs, among other prosthetics.

"The level of reality in WETA's creations was such that you could pick up a sword that looked completely real and find out it was made of rubber. Their stuff looks that good," says Peter Jackson.

In addition to weapons and props, WETA brought to life some of Middle-earth's most imaginative creatures, including the orcs, of whom no two are alike. WETA artisans created gray, wrinkled prosthetic skin suits — resembling elephant hide — and black armor resembling an insect's exoskeleton to produce the orcs' frightening, insect-meets-medieval-knight appearance.

Each of the 200 orc heads made for the film was unique — an individually shaped mask made of latex foam silicone and implanted with yak hair woven strand by strand for different hair styles. WETA also forged blue-tinged prosthetic feet, with long, curving claws, to stick out from the orcs' knee-high boots. The look was completed with layers of Middle-earth mud.

"I wanted the orcs to look like Roman soldiers," says Richard Taylor, "who live under an ethic of fear of their leaders."

Need some orc blood? WETA came to the rescue, producing a tarlike residue that could ooze from the battle wounds. On set in the large battle scenes, there were full-time crew members whose job was to bloody up the troops.

The physical effects team of Steve Ingram, Richard Cordobes, and Blair Foord also joined in the fun to mess with the natural environment, creating rain, snow, fire, and wind storms with spray pipes and giant fans, as well as an enormous volume of mist, steam, fog, and smoke through the use of special liquids. The team also created fake rivers and streams running through fake forests on soundstages.

Throughout, the WETA team had one bible they used as a constant source of reference: Tolkien's original novels. "We would photocopy appropriate passages from the books and place them all around the workshops as the artists worked," explains Richard Taylor. "We were never without Tolkien's spirit on the set."

The scale of every character, from 3'6" hobbits to the huge cave troll, also had to be taken into consideration by WETA and the costume department. As Richard Taylor of WETA notes: "We had to create almost everything at least twice in different scales. The mathematics alone was a staggering challenge. But it was the only way to stay true to what Tolkien created in his imagination: a world of many different sizes."

* * *

MIDDLE-EARTH DOWN UNDER:
THE NEW ZEALAND LOCATIONS

"New Zealand is Middle-earth. It has every geological formation and geographical landscape you can imagine . . . and some you couldn't." — Elijah Wood

To truly create Middle-earth for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the filmmakers had to find a location that could represent the earth as it might have appeared 7,000 years ago. In the South Pacific, across the International Date Line, they found their idyll in New Zealand, where a primal, untamed, and unruly landscape still exists almost untouched by any blight of modern technology. "New Zealand has the essence of the old European countryside," says Peter Jackson. "Yet it also has a very hard-to-capture fantastical quality that makes it perfect for The Lord of the Rings, as well as very experienced crew members."

In New Zealand, as in Middle-earth, mountains loom overhead and green rolling hills spread underfoot. Peter Jackson and his team scoured the country's two islands for their most beautiful, hidden areas. The sheer diversity of landscapes allowed for the recreation of such locales for the trilogy as Hobbiton, Bree, Rivendell, Moria, Rohan, Mordor, and Gondor, all seen in The Fellowship of the Ring. New Zealand's volcanic activity came in handy for fiery Mount Doom, where Sauron forged the Ring, seen briefly in The Fellowship of the Ring. From the remarkable mountain ranges of Queenstown to the deserts of Tongariro, each unique location became home for a cast and crew of hundreds.

"Middle-earth has a familiar feel to us, but as an audience you don't know exactly where it is. That is the beauty of New Zealand, with fields that resemble England, mountains that could double as the Swiss Alps, or beautiful pristine lakes that you get in Italy. All this eclectic mix of locations in a small country where it is easy for a film crew to get from point A to point B," said Rick Porras, associate producer.

When Jackson and company came upon the rolling hills of Matamata on the North Island, they knew they had found their Hobbiton. The size of the small, sloped grassy hills seemed to perfectly match the 3'6" hobbits and their homestead. For the actors it was as if the fantasy had come to life. "With real moss, real grass, real trees, and, thanks to the incredible design team, real-looking homesteads, the idyllic rural life of the hobbits became real. New Zealand made it a truly magical place. It meant I didn't have to use my imagination, because Hobbiton was there for Gandalf to feel at home in," notes Ian McKellen. Adds John Rhys-Davies, who plays the dwarf Gimli: "New Zealand is such a primitive land it can take you back to a primitive time in history. It's so breathtakingly beautiful that you believe that even in the twilight of doom there might still be humor, honor, courage, and compassion."

Many of the locations were under the protection of the New Zealand Department of Conservation, but the filmmakers treated the land with the respect it deserved. The indigenous New Zealand people, or Maori, came to bless the production's soundstages before principal photography began.

Of course, not everything you see in The Fellowship of the Ring is pure, natural New Zealand. Sometimes the stunning scenery is digitally enhanced with seamless sophistication. "With digital wizardry, we were able to add craggy little mountains, put buildings where they never have been. New Zealand is an impressive landscape; but with a little extra help from the computer, we turned it into a magical Middle-earth," says Peter Jackson.

"We had a crew comprised mostly of New Zealanders, or Kiwis. There are a lot of innovative concepts and technologies on the crew's behalf that have made shooting a project of this mammoth scope possible," says producer Barrie M. Osborne.


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