By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Amazon Studios.
Influenced by the societal and environmental impact of the industrial revolution, his experiences as a soldier during World War I, the rise of fascism in Germany which led to World War II, a fascination with languages, and the desire to expand upon English folklore, J.R.R. Tolkien conceived of a vast world known as Middle-earth inhabited by elves, dwarves, orcs, sorcerers, dragons and humans. The stories were originally told to his children and subsequently transcribed, leading to the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In order to create a vast cultural landscape to draw upon, the Professor of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) at the University of Oxford developed a rich history which appeared in various appendices of his works, as well as serving as the basis for The Silmarillion. It is this backstory, particularly the period referred to as the Second Age, that the Prime Video series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, created by Patrick McKay and John D. Payne, focuses on.
The streaming endeavor is a massive investment for Amazon Studios, which purchased The Lord of the Rings television rights for $250 million and committed to produce five seasons at a total cost of $1 billion. Principal photography takes place in New Zealand, which was also the backdrop for the big-screen adaptations helmed by filmmaker Peter Jackson, with the first season consisting of eight episodes.
Conceptualizing Middle-earth was a balancing act for Production Designer Ramsey Avery (Waitress). “Based on the art that has existed for 50 to 60 years or more recent media representations, there is an expectation of what Middle-earth wants to be. We wanted to make sure that we had a world that was recognizable as well as felt real and lived in. It wasn’t high fantasy. It was a place where people actually had to eat and find food and had to make a living for themselves one way or another – that means various things to different cultures. It was also important that anybody turning on the TV somewhere in the middle of an episode would understand where they were. Then, the overall thing [to convey] was that this is the Second Age, not the Third Age. The Third Age is the decline of it all. The Second Age is the glory of many cultures. Khazad-dûm is building to be the best its going to be. The elves have built a beautiful kingdom in Lindon. Humans have built the strongest empire that they are ever going to build.”
Distinguishing between the different cultures meant developing a design-and-shape language for each of them. “Towers are about elves getting to a place where they can get closer to the stars as they are the children of the stars,” Avery states. “The towers should be open so that they can experience the nature that they want to be part of. Elves don’t sleep but meditate, and had to be able to have a place to do that.” Dwarves have a reverence for stone. “It wasn’t so much about forcing their will onto the stone but finding the beauty within it and manipulating that beauty into their environment,” Avery says. “I tried to find a way to make Khazad-dûm feel much more integrated into the flow of the mountain so that the mountain felt more important than the architecture.” The city of Venice inspired Númenor. “Tolkien describes humans as being the most creative of all the races,” Avery adds, “and that is partly because they die, which drives them to be creative within a short period of time. There is this real sense of volumetric creativity, an infusion of ornaments, shapes, scale, squares, spheres and blocks upon blocks. We get this frenzy of building going on. There is blue and water everywhere. You try to find those interesting things that can create a basis for why something exists, which in turn allows us to make other decisions down the line.”
It was important to make sure that the designs started in the art department could be carried forward by visual effects. “The worst thing in the world is to do something twice,” Avery notes. “One of the things that we did early on with this project was to make sure to figure out how to talk to each other.” A great example of how the two departments worked together was the design, creation and execution of Númenor. “A lot of that initial work was done by our Los Angeles artists working in SketchUp and Rhino 3D and sending that to the set designers in New Zealand, who would develop the models that were sent to the visual effects art department. The models were placed into Unreal Engine to figure out how to do set extensions and location integration. Meanwhile, I was working with [Art Director] Julien Gauthier at ILM to develop the overall model. With that interface we could adjust the practical sets if we needed to figure out if we had to build a wall or didn’t need to build as much as we thought we would, and then take that information and put it into the broader scope of the ILM model. This meant that the digital extensions actually tied with our sets.”
ILM and Wētā FX were the main vendors, while others contributing to the 6,000 visual effects shots included: Rodeo FX, Method Studios, Rising Sun Pictures, DNEG and Outpost VFX. “We tracked 9,500 shots with ShotGrid being the primary tool to track both visual effects shots and milestones, while Moxion was used for sharing and reviewing media,” Co-Producer Ron Ames (Shutter Island) explains. “We actually built a virtual cloud-based infrastructure with all of our vendors [utilizing Amazon Web Services]. Everything was S3 buckets and everybody participated. It was awesome.” A system was devised for sharing assets among vendors. “We wanted to create a sense among all of these different companies that we were one company, and that meant using USD and standard shader models,” Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Jason Smith (Bumblebee) states. “It’s been that thing we’ve all wanted, and have had, to a degree, with things like Alembic out there. But on this show, we were able to get to a point where Wētā FX could hand off a digital double that Method Studios could then use in their shot.”
Nothing was created from scratch digitally. “We are building a world that takes place inside of a mountain, so Jason went to the Lost World Cave in the dark with flashlights and did photogrammetry,” Ames reveals. “We rappelled out of helicopters because we couldn’t land onto an icy snowfield.
There was no part of this that didn’t have a particular reality.” The mantra applied to creatures. “We didn’t just want to start putting animal parts together like Mr. Potato Head and call it a new thing,” Smith remarks. “The basis was real animals that are still living and others that no longer live on our planet and then folding them together. Carlos Huante, Lead Designer for Alien vs. Predator, created something that feels like a real animal. It’s not a cartoon roar-at-the-camera type of bad guy, but it’s a natural threat to the Harfoots [predecessors to Hobbits].” A two-day battle royale took place on the motion capture stage at Wētā FX. “Jason and the team went through hundreds of iterations to come up with the creature’s stance, fur, body weight, how it moved, how it fought, and how it was ultimately killed was worked through,” Ames states. “We worked with Ncam to make sure that the camera was not just waving around.”
Scale was a major issue as the characters and creatures covered a wide range of physical heights and proportions. “We used every single trick in the book, from forced perspective to motion control, but also had some excellent scale doubles both on the small and tall side that we could use to get a lot of these shots in-camera,” Smith explains. “We had a scale team that had its own dedicated QTAKE operator. We were able to tell the rest of the crew to stand by for 10 minutes while this highly trained person composites what we just shot before we move on and tear down the lights to make sure that it’s working.” Props and environmental elements assisted in conveying scale. “We would talk about these scale anchors,” Smith says. “In some early scenes we see some human characters walking through some plants that go up just above their knee. Then, as we see our first Harfoot character in that same location, those same plants are going up about shoulder height.”
“There is this real sense of volumetric creativity, an infusion of ornaments, shapes, scale, squares, spheres and blocks upon blocks. We get this frenzy of building going on. There is blue and water everywhere. You try to find those interesting things that can create a basis for why something exists, which in turn allows us to make other decisions down the line.”
—Ramsey Avery, Production Designer
There was no shortage of practical effects provided by Special Effects Supervisor Dean Clarke (Whale Rider), which ranged from a magic potion to a waterfall. Clarke describes, “The potion was quite a tricky little number that came down to dissimilar fluids that don’t mix in a bowl, with a feedline underneath, and keeping it at the right time, as well as a flower that had to turn precisely with a self-centering servo. The petals of the flower had to remain at the right position at the end and turn, go backwards and forwards to find the true direction of what it needed to. It was quite an elaborate rig and was something that many people were shocked to see how amazing it was practically.” A number of pumps and filters were required for the river and waterfall. “It’s about being able to treat and move and clean up the water,” Clarke explains. “The river was a part of a particular New Zealand scenery that we recreated on the backlot. We were probably moving 2,000 liters [of water] a minute cascading down the waterfall and then into the river. We had separate pumps in the river, so you could either have the waterfall on with mist or no mist or no waterfall, or the river flowing itself. We had a 20,000- liter holding tank underground to recirculate the water at the end of the river.”
A massive build was the loader ship. “It was 46 tons and 105 feet long,” Clarke recalls. “There were a lot of additions to that rig because of the size of it. We were only initially told that it was going to be 25 tons. We had a fair bit of additional engineering calculations and steelwork to add to it. Then, even the feat of getting the boat when it was built to the set. We had to have a 250-ton crane come and move it around to the studio in the middle of night to get to the outdoor area where it was shot. There was a lot of testing, R&D, pre-testing on it, and then concept stuff that we worked through. A lot of that was heavy involvement with Ron and Jason to figure out what we could actually deliver practically for them. Because the boat was so long, the cantilever for it was a tricky thing to deal with and get the motion of the boat so that it was lifelike.” No water tank was utilized. “That was shot dry for wet,” he adds. “The ship was outside against the greenscreen.
“We did end up doing a reasonable amount of pyrotechnics when the lava bombs went off,” remarks Clarke. “Meteor impacts was what Ron and Jason came up with for us. You use the softest explosive stuff that you can and the right amount of coal powder on the top to replicate the fireball so that they can be in close proximity to the cast involved in the shot.” One unique task was a wall of candle flames. “It was about six and a half meters high and five meters wide with 192 individual flames. You could dial up every flame individually and turn them on and off automatically, with its own fire extinguisher system above because it was in the studio.” Wax and snow resin were combined to create the illusion of a frozen waterfall. “The stunt team had the cast on ropes with icepicks,” Clarke says, “and we had to break away bits for them to hit.”
For Clarke, the most exciting aspect was the sheer size of the project. “Patrick McKay and J. D. Payne said, ‘Every leaf has its own story.’ It was amazing to be a part of something of such a grand scale for a television series.”