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The Two Towers: Built on Weta's Precious Mettle

Building on their earlier achievements, the creature and visual effects teams of Weta, Ltd. are bringing to life The Lord of the Rings trilogy with work that is blowing the industry away and garnering awards at every turn. Greg Singer reports.

In The Two Towers' world of gloom, the Weta animation team shines. All images © 2002 New Line Productions. All rights reserved.

In The Two Towers' world of gloom, the Weta animation team shines. All images © 2002 New Line Productions. All rights reserved.

Weta, Ltd. of New Zealand has been pulling every trick out of its bag in bringing to the screen the mythopoetic struggle of good versus evil in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Given the 900-plus shots composited for The Two Towers, the second film of the epic, one would get the impression that the folks of Weta haven't been getting much sleep during these last few years. However, the eleventh-hour accomplishment of animators and artisans has not gone unappreciated. Last year, Weta took home Oscar honors for achievements in cinematography, makeup, and visual effects. For this year's film, among other accolades, the character of Gollum/Smeagol has already won an award from the Broadcast Film Critics Association for "Best Digital Acting Performance; and BAFTA, the British equivalent of the U.S. Academy Awards, recognized The Two Towers as the publics choice for Film of the Year.

Nonetheless, for those four or five readers who may not have delved into the original Tolkien books, we should know by the end of the year how it all turns out. There are many battles yet to be waged in Middle Earth.

The Nazgul's steeds (or fell beasts) help in the tireless hunt for the Ring.

The Nazgul's steeds (or fell beasts) help in the tireless hunt for the Ring.

Evil That Does Not Sleep

About 30 to 40 animators had worked on The Two Towers, more than double from the first film. Many of the animators worked on the wargs (the vicious, furred creatures that the Orcs rode into battle) and the fell beasts (the serpentine, bat-like creatures that the Ringwraiths rode in hunting for the Ring throughout the countryside). More than half of the animators worked on Gollum, the former hobbit-like being whose mad devotion to the precious Ring is much of the driving force of the film.

All of the creatures for the story including the Troll, Balrog, mumakils and oliphaunts, and the charmingly ancient Treebeard began as design maquettes, before being rendered as digital models. The models were then fitted with a skeleton, a muscle rig was built around the skeleton to drive the flesh, and then the characters were given texturing and lighting for the final scene.

Eric Saindon, CG creature supervisor for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Eric Saindon, CG creature supervisor for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Eric Saindon served as a creature supervisor for The Two Towers, mostly working to set up the muscle, skinning and hair on Gollum. Saindon comments, Our muscle and skinning system [at Weta], the way the muscles flex and keep their volume, the way the skin actually moves on top of the surface, is a little unique compared to most of the other systems I have seen. The muscle code for the creatures was written entirely in-house as a plug-in for Maya.

Saindon recalls how Gollum, who appeared in The Fellowship of the Ring as little more than skin on bone, had to be redesigned for The Two Towers: It was a bit of a daunting task to make Gollum look real. In the first film, we faked it quite a bit to get through the two or three shots we had. You hardly had to see him. But we really couldnt do that in the second film.

Originally from Maine, USA, Saindon studied architecture in Washington state, before later moving down to California to work on environments and spaceships for the feature film Star Trek: Insurrection. Moving from his role as technical director into animation set-up, he eventually found himself working on the fantastical creatures of The Lord of the Rings.

Among his other duties, Saindon also helped to establish the pipeline for bringing motion-capture data from the actors movements onto the digital puppets. Nuance, created by Giant Studios, is the modification software that Weta used for The Two Towers in editing their motion-capture data. With this foundation, animators would then change, edit or in some cases completely redo a characters performance.

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A concept painting for Helm's Deep (top), and the composited scene (bottom) using Nothing Real's Shake and Weta's proprietary Massive software.

We didnt use mocap data on all the shots, Saindon explains, and for those that we did, typically, we didnt use straight mocap data. Prior to skinning and texturing, he says, Our motion edit group took the data, cleaned it up, got rid of the pops and slips and other artifacts of the process That information was put on an IK puppet, and then the animators changed the performance to work better in the environment of the sceneor sometimes they would delete entire chunks of the data and re-animate it from scratch.

Massive Undertaking

In creating such huge battle sequences as the attack on Helms Deep, Peter Jackson coached a half-time stadium crowd to help in achieving the sounds for the armies of darkness, while Wetas proprietary behavioral software, dubbed Massive, pioneered the digital side of things. The Massive technology was also employed in creating scenes with oliphaunts and mumakils the gargantuan, elephantine creatures on whose backs the invading hordes were ferried to war.

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With towers on the backs of the oliphaunts, Saindon says, All the soldiers are positioned there using Massive. We tell it how many guys we want on top, and the rough positioning, and Massive fills it up. The technical director sets what motions the guys have to choose from. Theyll have particular motions that they have the option to do. Some guys might be shooting bows and arrows, some might just be walking around. We dont have to decide what each character is going to do, but we can give them a library of motions, and when Massive runs, they go through it themselves and figure it out.

The oliphaunts will be in a considerable number of shots for the final film, and so the Weta team will have to give the characters more of their attention. Saindon continues, For [The Two Towers], we tried to do a Massive simulation of the guys on top, and found that the slightest little step from the oliphaunt would set the tower in motion in such a way that everyone would just instantly fall off. So, whereas before the oliphaunts werent in enough shots to make it that difficult yet, thats something we need to work on for the third film quite a bit to make such a huge creature walk in such a way that guys could actually ride on top of it, and not go flying.

One imagines, when simulating scenes using Massive, several takes can be made until the kind of behavior results that works best for the shot. For the large battle sequences, Saindon says, we would run simulations overnight, and come in the mornings to see what the characters had done. Sometimes, we would find they did something completely out of the ordinary, or that we wouldnt expect at all. During the early sims, once the battle started, like 30-40% of the guys would all run away. They just didnt want to fight. So, we had to make them much braver, so theyd be willing to stay and fight.

The third film entails enormous battle scenes, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It would be comical, perhaps, to keep some of the simulations as outtakes for the DVD release of the film. Saindon says, Im sure we will come up with some very interesting sims.

Out of the Past, Into the Future

The ents, the ancient race of walking, talking trees, were among the other big characters in the film. Entirely keyframed, the ents brought an interesting choppy aesthetic to the otherwise fluid-looking 3D work.

Saindon says, We created a full-size animatronic puppet of Treebeards upper torso that the actors sat on, and it was very stop-motionesque. Peter [Jackson] liked the way it moved, but it just didnt feel real. The eyes didnt have the depth that Peter wanted in them.

Drawing inspiration from such stop-motion masters as Ray Harryhausen, animation director Randall Cook also liked the rigid movement of the animatronic puppet. He decided to keep the look and feel for the digital character, and Jackson completely agreed. Saindon says, Even his skin and facial features, the way his bark slid on the surface, was very chunky.

Bay Raitt, who worked on the facial system for the hero creatures of the films, recalls, [Creature technical director] Sven Jensen built controls for Treebeard such that you could control how jerky the bark on his face would move around. Even if you were moving his cheeks in a relaxed fashion, you could adjust how jerky the little pieces of bark would clunk around on his face. The idea was that he was supposed to be a really old tree, and to have him moving with a little difficulty. Steven Hornby was the lead animator on Treebeard, and he sort of nailed that abrupt movement.

In distinguishing between keyframing and performance-based animation, Raitt observes: When you do motion-capture, it looks realistic and it's dramatically relevant, but sometimes it lacks dramatic energy. When you do [straight] animation, it usually has a lot of dramatic energy and it's dramatically relevant, but it lacks realism. I think really solid animation, or really solid motion-capture, is when you get all three: when it's relevant to the scene, it has dramatic energy, and it looks realistic.

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