Weta Digital is, along with Industrial Light and Magic, one of the few effects houses that has become a household name – and that has much to do with J.R.R. Tolkien. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is not just the best-reviewed fantasy series of all time, but a special-effects game-changer: Trees walked, Balrogs brawled, and Gollum came to startling life through an innovative marriage of digital technology and Andy Serkis’ award-worthy performance.
Here, Jackson and Mortal Engines director Christian Rivers, who worked on the series’ visual effects, recall Serkis’ audition and their decision to move away from a planned fully-animated take on Gollum and toward motion-capture. And it was just the beginning. The motion-capture technology that Weta developed for Lord of the Rings would evolve with its use in King Kong, the Planet of the Apes movies, and The Hobbit trilogy, all with Serkis, its inspiration, at their center.
What follows is a history of Weta Digital, drawn from an extended sit-down interview with Peter Jackson and Mortal Engines director Christian Rivers.
Peter Jackson: “With The Lord of the Rings, the big advance in CGI was probably Gollum. We [initially] thought that Gollum was just gonna be a voice artist [for an animated character], we hadn’t put our brains into this whole motion-capture thing at all. So Andy came in [to the audition], and I didn’t know who he was, I’d never heard of him in my life before. [So] in the audition, like an actor sits in a chair, [and] I’m here and you’ve got a camera and you read the lines and… but Andy just jumped on the furniture. He leapt on the chairs, he went on the floor, he was coughing up – he said he’d based his audition on his cat, coughing up fur balls. I mean he was leaping over the backs of the chairs and the tables, and stuff went flying, and he was doing all the physicality. I was kind of a bit of taken aback, right? This guy’s pretty over the top. But what Andy was doing, in his own clever way, was he was saying, without saying it: ‘Guys, I can give you a performance, not just the voice. I can actually be Gollum.'”
Jackson: “Now the first Lord of the Rings film, Fellowship of the Ring, which has Gollum in about two shots, he’s just a little glimpse, and it’s completely different to the Gollum that’s in the next film, The Two Towers. [That first] version of Gollum was pretty gnarly, pretty crude. It was as good as we could do at that time, and we had to have something in the movie, but we put a very deep shadow, and you know that was on purpose because he didn’t look very good. But, nonetheless, we ran out of time, and that was what we had to have in the movie. We still had another year to get him really good for the Two Towers, where he was half the film, so the Two Towers Gollum was a complete overhaul of the one from the first film. It finally got to the place that we wanted to go.”
Jackson: “[With Andy] we slowly went through this period of discovery, realizing that actually, if Andy acts Gollum and we motion-capture him, it’s pretty good. And then, if we could figure out a way to capture his face, that’s pretty good too. So when Andy moves his face around and says things, Gollum does the same thing, and we then found you get a much better result if the face of the creature is close in structure to the actor’s face. So we redesigned Gollum to look a little bit like Andy Serkis, a sort of Gollum-ized version of Andy Serkis. And actually [they] did it the same way when he did the Apes films. They made Caesar sort of Andy Serkis-like as well.”
Christian Rivers: “I remember the moment where I just realized OK we’ve nailed it. What I did is I took a photo of Andy as Smeagol, and I then got the proportions of what our current Gollum puppet was at Weta and I did a pencil sketch – and I’ve got it somewhere – but I did a pencil sketch [to see] if Andy had become this emaciated figure and his eyes had got slightly bigger, what would that look like? When the digital [team] went through the hoops and they remodeled the face, there was a shot: it’s when Frodo and Sam catch the rabbits, and they’re talking about cooking the meat and Gollum spits – you know, goes “argh pffft” – it was one shot and we saw it and it was like OK, we’ve nailed … OK, we’re done. We we’ve nailed it.”
Jackson: “We would shoot the three [actors] in the location, or in the studio, and Elijah [Wood] and Sean [Astin] were acting the scene, and we shoot a bunch of takes, and their performance would be in the film. Andy was also performing, and yet none of what he did, we could use, not one thing, because we couldn’t motion-capture him – but he was there, you know, performing it because, obviously, Elijah and Sean needed someone, the character of Gollum had to be very real for them. But poor old Andy – the shoot would be over, Elijah and Sean would go home to the States, and then Andy would have to re-do everything all over again by himself in the motion-capture stage, in a properly set-up stage where the motion-cameras would record. So he had to repeat everything he’d done before, looking at screens with playback, and this time around his movements [were] being recorded. And this might be eight months, nine months after he’d done it the first time round. By the time we did Gollum on The Hobbit, we could motion-capture on the set, so when Gollum and Martin Freeman are doing this scene together, Andy’s being motion-captured are all the same time, so he didn’t have to do anything afterwards. He was all being captured live on set.”
Jackson: “[For The Planet of the Apes] the big thing that they then moved on from being able to motion-capture on the set, was to motion-capture 20 actors at the same time, all in motion-capture suits on the set. You’ve got all these motion capture-cameras and you’ve got people, performers in suits with all these dots and so all the cameras, they’re recording 20 different people and they’ve got to figure out these dots, and that that dot belongs to this person and that dot belongs to that person, you know. We’ve had 40, 50 people on the stage at times now being motion-captured at the same time.
Jackson: “I was really happy with the way that the fight with the cave troll came out with The Fellowship of the Ring. That was interesting because that was actually hand-held, that was us doing the CGI creature but doing it with hand-held cameras, which I didn’t think that had really been done before. I was really happy with the way it ended up. Technically the troll doesn’t look as good as stuff we can do now, but it certainly sticks in my mind and something I was pretty proud of at the time, yeah.”