Weta senior animator Jason Schleifer talks about what it was like going Gollum for the landmark Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In order to animate Gollums face, Bay Raitt, Jason Schleifer and Tom Kluyskens designed this unique interface, which allowed for a maximum of control within a minimum of space. Each animator could create various poses of the entire face for easy emotional manipulation, while still maintaining absolute control over each muscle motion. There were more than 800 individual sculpts used in the final facial system. Unless otherwise noted, all images © 2003 New Line Prods. Photos by Pierre Vinet.
What do you do when you have come to the end of a long, intense adventure? When youve packed your bags, said your goodbyes and all is quiet? When you close your eyes and breathe in the first taste of new air? You know what Im talking about the first breath where you dont have that thing hanging over your head. There are no more shots to finish, no renders to check, no emails to answer. Youre done. Fade to black. Roll Credits. The lights come up. What now?
Ive just stepped out of a screening of The Return of the King, the final film in Peter Jacksons trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, taken that breath and I dont quite know how to react. You see, these films were an enormous journey, and I dont mean for the characters you see on-screen. For those of us behind the cameras, whove fought our own battles, seen our own heroes rise and have helped give birth to this phenomenon this enterprise that is LOTR its been an experience that is difficult to know how to absorb.
In The Beginning
Only yesterday, it was March 1999. I was sitting in a hotel room in Las Vegas with John Sheils (Weta Digitals effects supervisor at the time). He was showing me a tape of some of the work that Weta Workshop and Weta Digital had been doing to prepare for the upcoming trilogy. This was before any actors had been picked, before Weta Digital had grown to fill five buildings (including mo-cap) and before many of us even had heard of a little restaurant named Eva Dixons (destined to become the Weta Cafeteria).
How was anyone to know that the little spinning blue creature I saw before me would become an obsession for so many people in a little less than three years?
Gollum was unique in that everyone had their preconceived notions about who he was, what he should look like, how he should act, how he should move but nobody really had the authority to define him other than Peter. We knew that he was going to be the toughest character to create, as he had to live along-side the pivotal actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, so Weta Digital took to him with a passion.
A few months before delivery, Bay Raitt lead his team in remodeling Gollums face (left) to closely resemble Andy Serkis. In addition, Raitt re-worked the edge flow in order to allow for the incredibly complicated skin and muscle motion. Gollums original facial structure (right) was based off a model built by Weta Workshop. You can see how the edge flow doesnt quite follow the muscle structure in an animatable way. Some of the other noticeable differences from the final design are larger eyes, a more pronounced muzzle and more pug-like nose.
Developing the Pipeline
When Joe Letteri came on board as the visual effects supervisor early on during the pre-production for The Two Towers, he really pushed the idea of a pipeline that allowed us to run shots through the facility at an insane pace. His goal was to have the animators be able to publish their daily work (i.e., send out their latest animation to be used by the rest of the facility) at 5:00 pm every day, and then be able to see that work skinned, rendered, textured and composited in dailies the next morning. What that meant was that we had to develop a pipeline that was as automated as possible. So Eric Saindon (creatures supervisor and CG supervisor), Greg Butler (3D sequence lead), Bay Raitt (senior creature technical director), Seth Lippman (3D sequence lead), Dana Peters (senior creature technical director), Bret Hughes (software engineer) and I plus a myriad of others wrote a system that could handle this type of throughput. We had weekly meetings where everyone would get together and discuss everything from directory structures to rendering software to disk quotas. It took a bit of time to get going, but once it started working, the shots would fly through the system.
By the time we completed work on The Two Towers our pipeline was well established. We could have more than 100 shots online at one time, all of which were being worked on and viewed daily.
It was at this time that we were starting to get feedback from the press about Gollum. It was probably one of the most exciting and energizing times to work at Weta Digital. One of the things you strive for when doing visual effects is being invisible. Any effects work that stands out is bad, as the point is NOT to be obvious. If the audience can see the wires, the matte lines, a sliding foot, a misplaced light, a bad render, you havent done your job. This, we all understand and work our best to make the audience believe everything they see on-screen is absolutely real. Why, of course, those 15- foot trolls are real. We hired them pretty cheap. Its amazing. They just wanted library cards and Internet access. They dont need clothes. A couple of fresh loin cloths and theyre set for a year.
Andy Serkis and Gollum
With Gollum, we wanted the audience to believe he was real. We worked intensely to ensure the fact that the audience would suspend disbelief and not think, Wow, what a cool digital character. But, Wow what an amazing actor.
I think a lot of what was making Gollum appeal to the audience is the fact that he was driven from a single emotional base. We had the unique experience of working with this phenomenal talent: Andy Serkis. Andy had initially been hired just to perform Gollums voice, and we (the animators) were going to animate to that performance. It was soon quite apparent that in order for Andy to actually play the voice, he had to embody the character emotionally and physically.
This was a huge boon for the animators and motion editors, as now even though there were more than 20 of us working on Gollum, there was one psychological base to start from. Either we would take the motion capture he performed and tweak it as necessary, adding the facial animation, or we would take the emotional connotation that Andy had projected and animate to that.
It was a completely awe inspiring experience. You could see some remarkable work coming from the animators. Senior animator Mike Stevens was one of the first to really capture Andys emotional state in a shot. Atsushi Sato, another senior animator, was so amazingly fast, he would get a difficult shot and turn it around in a matter of days, and your only comment would be, Gah. Wow. (Animation supervisor) Adam Valdez animated one of my favorite shots in The Two Towers: when Frodo says Smeagols name for the first time and he looks up shocked. My namemy name says Gollum. Stunning. Each animator was pushed and it became obvious how much better all our work was getting. I honestly feel it had to do with the fact that Randy Cook (creature effects supervisor/designer), screenwriter Fran Walsh and Andy were able to clearly communicate Gollums emotional state through Andys physical and auditory performance.
It certainly wasnt just the performance that made Gollum so believable; it was everything about him. The lighting and texturing was so spot-on, people were second-guessing the fact that he might be a silicon mold. The interaction with Sam and Frodo and the environment around them took a talented team of roto/paint artists and compositors months to do. Some of the work was so spectacular; you still couldnt believe it even when you watched it being slowly completed day by day.
Taking Gollum to the Next Level
Not only did we work to enhance Gollums acting between The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but we also worked quite a bit on his appearance. In The Return of the King, Gollums wretchedness and addiction come to the forefront of his personality. His desire to separate the two hobbits and his obsession for the ring become paramount. The stress of the journey and this constant battle between his two selves takes its toll and you can see it etched onto his face. In order to demonstrate this deterioration, we made a number of changes.
First, we made minor modifications to his body to make him appear more emaciated. Then the creatures department re-worked the muscle model to fix some of the issues we found while working on The Two Towers, including his shoulders and hips. Most of the work, however, was focused on Gollums shader and textures.
Throughout the film you can feel everything thats happened to Gollum throughout the journey simply by looking at his face. Weve added cuts and bruises, scrapes, road rash and lots of dirt and sweat. One scene, in particular, that is stunningly executed occurs on the windy stairs when Gollum is telling Frodo that the Fat One (Sam) is going to take the ring from him. Both Gollum and Frodo are face to face, directly in-camera, and theyre dirty, sweaty and exhausted. And its absolutely beautiful.
Gollum and Us
Because of this mutual understanding, the breadth of Gollums character, the subtlety in the acting, the ability for the audience to sympathize with him grew between The Two Towers and The Return of the King. We all learned to work together to create a better Gollum. In my opinion, his look and performance in The Return of the King far surpasses what was accomplished in The Two Towers.
Without a doubt, Gollum does not belong to any one person, department or company. He was conceived in J.R.R Tolkiens mind; characterized and developed by Phillipa Boyens, Walsh and Jackson; designed by the amazing team at Weta Workshop, performed and analyzed by Serkis and brought to life by every single department at Weta Digital in New Zealand.
Its this intense passion and spirit of cooperation that has perforated every experience Ive had here at Weta Digital and in New Zealand. I came out to this beautiful country to work but instead I lived. I made amazing friends, met my wife, bought a house, got two puppies, been on more incredible adventures than I can shake a stick at and now its over. Ive submitted my last shot, cleaned out my desk, said goodbye and Ive watched the final movie in a trilogy that has marked the last four-plus years of my life.
So, whats left? How do you let it go? How do you leave Middle-earth and continue on knowing that this experience is going to be one of the ones in your life youll tell your grandkids about? What happens after the credits roll and the lights come up? How does it end?
Jason Schleifer is currently on holiday after living and working in New Zealand for more than four years on Peter Jacksons The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a senior animator and creature technical director. When not enjoying the generous variety of seasons available daily in Wellington, he spends time with his lovely bride, two dogs and works on his short film Jonh and his Dog.