WHAKAPAPA NATIONAL PARK--I've been standing in a heavy morning rain for 30 minutes, holding a long spear topped by a Gondorian flag.
I'm waiting my turn to march in front of the cameras and onto a muddy battlefield.
It's cold, my legs are cramping, this eight-foot spear is getting heavy--and I'm having a ball.
How'd I get myself into this situation, which probably makes me the envy of Tolkien fans worldwide and likely has non-LOTR types reaching for my straitjacket? Glad you asked.
Let's back up several hours to the 5 a.m. wake-up call, standard daily start time for the LOTR cast and crew. After a quick cup of coffee--the first of many today--our driver picks us up at 5:20.
We start the winding drive from the tiny ski-resort village of Ohakune to the set, nestled in a volcanic platter in Whakapapa National Park. We drive past the Chateau, a massive, white-stoned hotel straight out of The Shining, now housing LOTR's cast and production offices.
We're met by Richard Taylor, head of WETA Workshops--the Wellington-based magic factory for LOTR. With his baseball cap and John Lennon glasses, Taylor looks like the kind of kid who'd collect Star Trek figures and turn his mother's frying pan into a satellite dish.
He has been Jackson's special-effects wizard and creature maker for 14 years. He created the rabid homicidal puppets from Meet the Feebles and the fantasy clay Borovnians from Heavenly Creatures.
Now, Taylor and WETA have the massive task of creating all LOTR prosthetics, makeup, armor, weaponry, injury effects, miniatures and modeling.
It's rare for one department to have so much responsibility for the visual design of a film. But as Taylor explains, "It's so we can create a singular Tolkien-esque brushstroke over the work, to realize the complete world."
With more than 2,000 weapons, 1,000 suits of armor, chain-mail suits made by individually linking metal rings or by old ladies knitting steel wool, 1,000 prosthetic suits and more than 1,600 sets of Hobbit feet, Taylor's crew has been busy little campers.
We follow Taylor into the tent called Orcland. It's like the Gap, only with fewer halter tops. The extras--many chosen from the New Zealand Army Reserve due to their imposing physiques--line up sleepily for their fittings. They put on black Lycra body suits, then wrinkly, khaki Orc-skin suits.
Next comes their first layer of mud, applied by a makeup artist known as Mud Guy. Then it's on with the first layer--ragged Hessian tunics, loose-weave string vests and cloth legging ties.
When that stage is finished, the warriors-to-be--who are still wearing comfy clogs--line up again for their armor fittings.
Orc battle wear is a cross between beetle exoskeleton and roofing tiles. It's chunky and ugly, especially compared with the Armani-like elf armor lining the other racks.
The actors are covered with stunt padding to cushion bruises, then fitted piece by piece. They try moving around to check for comfort.
Now it's time for masks. WETA made more than 200 Orc faces, ranging from generically molded ones for extras in battle scenes to "close-up" masks that are individually molded from actors' faces.
It seems no two are alike. Each is made from lightweight latex foam silicone or gelatin, then hand-painted. Hair from specially bred yaks is added strand by strand.
Taylor gives his artists a free palette for designing Orcs, and they cover every skin color, type and face shape. Taylor and his team test-wear each mask before they're given to actors.
Mud Guy applies the final layers of mud and blood to the Orcs. They can't go overboard on red human blood, he explains, because that might endanger the film's plans for a PG-13. But because Orc blood is black and tarlike--and therefore "unrealistic"--WETA staff members can happily throw it around.
Taylor takes us to the WETA trailers, where makeup artists have been working on the the stunt actor who plays the Orc commander since 5 a.m. Prosthetic skin is attached with a nonallergenic glue. (It will be removed later with a lemon-juice solution.)
Brilliant orange and blue contacts are inserted and make him look like he's got the hangover from Hell. Three and a half hours later, the Orc boss is ready for action.
Taylor shows me a photo of a baby Orc "made" last week. "They're born in these pods, and they're blind, with this viscous goo all over them," he says excitedly. "Then they're whipped and beaten into adulthood. It's so cool!" Hmmm. I imagine getting an ax as a coming-of-age present.
We head back onto the set, where we're surrounded by Orc and Gondorian warriors. Taylor explains that designs for each warrior group are taken directly from Tolkien's descriptions. "We photocopy the passages from the book and place them all around our workshops when we work," he says.
Taylor's team also takes creative inspiration from history. Orcs, he explains, are like Roman soldiers "who lived under an ethic of fear of their leaders, so we've made them very statuesque looking."
Also on hand are Elves. With turbanlike helmets and art nouveau, acid-etched scarves tied around their waists, they resemble Muslim warriors. "We gave them the motif and coloring of fully bloomed flowers," Taylor says. By contrast, Elves in the Helm's Deep scenes are wrapped in autumnal colors, knowing their time in Middle Earth is soon over.
Taylor grabs a passing Gondorian warrior to point out more details. The soldier's breastplate, helmets, weapons and banners feature the Gondorian crest of the White Tree and six stars.
But in later ages, the Gondorians lose their king and become nomadic. Taylor snaps a new belt buckle and breastplate onto the soldier. Presto! The crest has changed--the stars are still there, but the leaves on the tree have wilted and fallen. Our soldier is now a ready-to-wear Gondorian from two time periods.
With so much detail, most of which may not be noticed by an audience, why does Taylor persevere? "We owe it to Tolkien and his readers to create this world with as much accuracy and detail as we can," he says. "I'm a great believer that a culture is defined by its details. Features of a culture grow and evolve through time and become archetypal."
We break for lunch, then ride the chair lift back up the mountain to watch the culmination of WETA's work: an Orc army ensemble at the end of film three.
In the scene, 100 masked and armored Orcs charge down a mountain pass, brandishing weapons and torches. The Orc captain screams, "Move, you worms!" in a northern English accent, as they amble like giant insects down the path.
Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) join the procession, disguised in Orc armor. Jackson sits under his canvas-covered director's hut, calling the actors' marks: "Look around! Orcs coming! Hide!" Jackson keeps a constant eye on the monitors showing the action from other units.
Wood pulls off his Orc helmet between takes. His neck is covered in fake blood to show how the evil influence of the Ring literally eats into him.
He tells me that yesterday, he and Sean were dangling off a cliff in safety harnesses for a scene of Frodo and Sam scaling the peaks of Mount Doom. "Sam calls encouragement to Frodo, telling him to remember the Shire--and strawberries and sunshine," Wood says. "After the shoot, all we wanted were strawberries!"
Between takes, Astin hulks over to see his wife and three-year-old daughter, who are visiting the set. Astin's daughter happily clambers onto her dad's knee, placing Barbie stickers on his Orc armor, while Jeremy the makeup boy snaps a Polaroid of the two. It's a touching--if slightly offbeat--Kodak moment.
Unexpectedly, I get a chance for my 15 minutes of fame. There aren't enough extras to carry the eight-foot spears with Elf and Gondorian flags into a battle scene. Barrie Osborne, producer and occasional second-unit director, bellows at me, "Hey, reporter guy! Can you hold a spear?"
Can I? Hell, I'm ready for my close-up, Mr Osborne!
After nearly an hour of waiting in the cold and rain with my spear, we're ready to film. Holding the spear upright so the flags blow in the wind, we walk to the front.
To give the impression of lots of spears, we move off camera, march to the back and past the camera again, until the assistant director yells, "Cut."
Sound simple? Try lowering an eight-foot spear without poking out someone's eye, all the while trying to avoid getting harpooned yourself. And don't walk too far to the back--there's a sheer cliff face dropping hundreds of feet just behind us.
We do a couple of takes, then we're wrapped up against the cold and given hot drinks. Osborne congratulates me on my performance, and I prepare to leave.
As we drive off set, I see a techie carrying severed prosthetic limbs under his arm. War is hell, especially on the guys who have to clean up afterward.
by John Forde