What’s your role?
I’m visual effects producer for Weta. It’s largely administrative – one of my chief duties is to ensure that the visual effects plan is set up so Peter can get the most out of all his crew on artistic level and not have to worry about the logistics of it. They are very, very visual effects intensive films and so visual effects are a major consideration from the very earliest stages.
How long have you been working on "Rings"?
We began an R&D effort in mid-November in ’97, so we’ve been there almost a year now…We’ve got about 20 people in digital doing computer software development, CGI [computer generated image] modelling and texturing, pre-visualisation, and the motion studies for the animation for creatures and crowds.And in the workshop there are about 45 people doing design, prototyping and manufacture of creatures, armour, weapons, prosthetics and miniatures. So they’re full steam, working closely with some of the top Tolkien artists from around the world who are here helping us with the conceptual design.Location scouting is currently taking place, and Peter and Fran are working on the script. Coasting is yet to begin – I think they intend to be into that by the end of the year. We’ve already been inundated – you say 15,000 extras and, boy, everyone knocks down your door…
How would you describe the stage you’re now at?
At the moment we’re really in a preparatory phase prior to the pre-production – they’re calling it pre-pre-production over at Windnut. We’re seeking out the various technical pipelines through which we can deliver an enormous amount of work in a short period of time.Bad planning has been endemic in visual effects work for quite some time and that compromises the quality of work and burns everyone out. So the new trend is to make a good solid plan and stick to it, in order to avoid getting into bailout mode and having to throw as much money at it as you can to get it done in time. We’re working with US$130 million , which is 43 million US bucks per film for everything, including the effects. So it really begs for smart, up-front planning to be able to pull it off. It’s certainly the biggest challenge of my career.
A year’s preparation is unusual, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is unusual, but it’s also crucial. The only way to nail it is to get as much out of the director’s head as early as you can, so you can get a feeling for where the entire project is going across the board. Then when they slip you a change, a new idea – which is all part of the artistic flow of movie making – you need to be able to shift gears, so we’re setting up an intelligent administrative and technical structure to accommodate that…As part of the planning we’ve got a pre-visualisation unit fleshing out what some of the visual effects sequences are going to look like and editing them together with the dialogue and everything, so you’re actually looking at an early pre-visualised sequence of the movie, where camera angles and timing are taken into consideration.It’s a way of getting everyone quickly onto the same page and to erase the costly lines between pre-production, production, and post-production. You don’t wanna lock your director down completely but you wanna make sure everyone has the chance to understand what the intention are going into a sequence.
That’ll be particularly important given the number of units that’ll be shooting…
There could be a time when five different camera crews are rolling simultaneously, yeah, and to be able to provide each of those camera crews the information about how there piece of the puzzle fits into the overall effects plan – the cost benefits of that are hard to calculate, they’re so great.And the art department, for example – if you have a pre-visualisation of a sequence involving a set that hasn’t been made yet, you might discover there’s huge areas of the set that you don’t even need to build because you’ve already decided that you never actually need to look that way. So it really has a way of benefiting everyone.
And of course CGI shots require a great deal of planning…
Yeah, the camera angles, how many elements are going to go into a particular CGI shot and what are these elements? Are they 2D or 3D elements, are they creatures that have to act and perform, are they effects animation like lava or fire that need to be added to a particular plate, or clouds to give a certain mood? You need to be able to track all of those CGI elements to a pixel accurate level into the shot, so that when they’re composited they fit perfectly and you believe that they’re there. Since it’s a live action film, Peter wants it to seem like Middle Earth is actually a place that still exists after thousands of years and we’re lucky enough to go there and film. On that level the biggest challenge for the computer effects side of it is to be able to create invisible effects, because if you’re looking at the film and you’re thinking, ‘This is a nice effect’, then we’ve failed. You need to be able to just look at the screen and be drawn into the movie.
Using ‘normal’ sized actors for the hobbits will be a technical nightmare, won’t it?
We’re using all different kinds of traditional techniques to pull that off. The idea is for us to be able to switch from technique to technique, back and forth in a seamless way, so people aren’t constantly going, ‘Oh it’s a nice computer composite’; they’re going, ‘How the hell are they doing this?’ Forced perspective, for example. If these hobbits are half the size of humans, then to geet an in-camera trick conceivable all you have to do is move that character half the distance again from the camera and, as long as you’re able to cheat the eye lines, you’ve created the same illusion as you did in the computer. Then there’s using oversized doubles in the form of puppets or rigs in the foreground, and for extreme longshots you could use scale doubles. Peter wants to use normal sized actors, for the hobbits but when they’re far enough away from the camera you can interchange them with doubles. So, for example, a tall person could double for a human character, while a small child, say, stands in for the hobbit.
There’s been talk of using CGI with artificial intelligence for battle scenes…
We’re still going to be shooting extensive foreground battle elements, using hundreds and hundreds of extras, but this is just to send the battles off into the expanse as far as the eye can see, as Tolkien described them – huge, huge armies in gigantic battles taking place on expansive open ground. We’re writing our own code to increase the interactive capability of CGI crowds, because a battle is incredibly interactive – when somebody swings at someone else they’re either going to block it or they’re going to die. The amount of animation that would have to go into that just becomes unwieldy, so this is another way around complex problems.
So how far along the process are you?
[Sighs] Hard to know. [Laughs] It’s really hard to know. We’re slated to begin shooting next June. I think the effects team will be ready to go by then, but we could use – it’s just a mater of how much time you’ve got really…How long is a piece of string?
Were you already a fan of the book?
To tell you the truth, I’ve just finished the first one, and I’m onto the second one. I think I’m one of the only people involved in the production that actually read the scripts first and now is reading the books. And maybe that’s of use, coming at it from a slightly different angle…I’m a very slow reader, that’s my problem – I’m trying to visualise every sentence as I read.
Well, the trilogy is a bit of a doorstop isn’t it…
[Laughs] It’s a ripping good read, though, for sure – some of the first one’s a bit slow but the intellectual property for three great movies is certainly there…