Creating a Digital Thespian
“Lord of the Rings”: The Visual Effects That Brought Middle Earth to the Screen Course

One of the holy grails of CG visual effects and character animation has always been finding a way to make your characters realistic and believable in both actions and appearance. Many effects departments work months and years on a very detailed character, only to have it end up looking Gumby-like and rubbery. The point is to have these characters blend seamlessly with live actors without disrupting the simulated reality of the narrative experience for the audience. When they can say, “Hey that looks so fake!” I don’t think you’re really doing your film any justice for all the time consumed on that character. Films like the later Matrix fights like Burly Brawl, certain points in Spiderman, and the Hulk, just left me feeling a little cheated. Maybe I’m excepting too much from the effects, but when I first saw Gollum in Lord of the Rings: Two Towers it totally changed my mind. I felt Gollum was one of the first CG characters to really feel like a genuine part of the film, in my mind the first really well done digital actor. Of course a lot of this has to do with the voice performance given by Andy Serkis, but as this course showed the effects department from Weta Digital and Peter Jackson worked extra hard in making the characters believable.

As the panel admitted they had a great resource to work from in Tolkien intensely detailed description of the characters for which they were based on. The team began designing Gollum back in 1998, as a good deal of the success of the trilogy hinged on whether they would be capable of simulating the believability of the character. At first they design Gollum’s movement in itself, and planned on just compositing it to Serkis’s voice acting, but as the project progress with Serkis on the set the actor really fully became the part with great physical presence in addition to his voice acting, where as it was original thought that he would just at in a stand-in sort of role. Once they decided to really design Gollum to Serkis the character really took on a new level.

Another element of the design the team took on was to build Gollum using a strong anatomical approach in hopes of more closely mimicking human motion. This involved building a realistic skeletal structure overlapped by muscles and a final skin layer which helped in making a more realistic creasing. They also worked with the art department physical modelers in trying to use their hand made techniques to their CG methods in trying to find a more realistic look.

Since the trilogy involved various looks at Gollum over the course of the series, it gave the team a chance to go back on their work to improve the character and the pipeline process to make different elements look better and more efficient. The result was a great realistic feeling character which we can really believe as an another actor with the reality of the film.



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Last updated 8/13/04.

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