Monday, February 25, 2002

There and Back Again: A Filmmaker's Journey

By Susan Thea Posnock

After frequently working overseas, visual effects veteran Jim Rygiel was determined to stick close to home in Los Angeles. No more traveling, he declared. But shortly after he made this decision, he got quite the interesting job offer: To spend three years in New Zealand as visual effects supervisor on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So, what was he to do? Blow-off the chance to work on the unprecedented three-film production based on the beloved novel, or skip town for Middle-earth? Despite his stay at home declaration, this was a career opportunity that Rygiel, who has worked as both digital effects and visual effects supervisor on numerous films, was unwilling to let pass him by without learning more. So he headed off to Wellington, New Zealand, intending to spend a week. When he got there, he viewed the work that had already been done by WETA Digital on the film.

"They had all the tools in place, they needed to know how to pick them up and start using them," he recalled.

As it turned out, a week turned into a month. Rygiel decided to take the project and moved his family to New Zealand.

Now nominated for his first Academy Award, one can only assume he doesn't regret the choice to take the journey and work on the film. The Fellowship of the Ring is one of three films up for the Best Visual Effects Oscar, going against A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Pearl Harbor. Rygiel has already been named the Digital Effects Artist of the Year by the AFI, and Fellowship recently picked up the BAFTA for visual effects.

Speaking to a full house of film enthusiasts on Thursday night in New York City, Rygiel described the wide-ranging challenges of the trilogy.

"This film is the cornucopia of effects films. From the traditional of Darby O'Gill-like effects for the hobbits, to the cutting edge of digital technology," he explained. That got a laugh from some in the audience, who perhaps pictured the more archaic effects of that 1959 Sean Connery Leprechaun vehicle.

As part of the program, presented by the American Museum of the Moving Image as part of the Pinewood Dialogue series, Rygiel showed a short reel with visual effects highlights from the film. He also presented around 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, pausing frequently to answer questions from the eager crowd.

The presentation highlighted the various visual effects techniques used in the film. For instance, a lot of the hobbit effects were achieved using forced perspective to make the actors playing hobbits look small next to the other performers. But rather than just using this method for static shots, Rygiel said director Peter Jackson "wanted to keep the camera moving."

So in the sequence where Elijah Wood's Frodo and Ian McKellen's Gandalf are riding side-by-side in a wagon, the behind the scenes footage shoes the actors on a moving rig, with McKellen actually several feet in front of Wood, so that when the camera moves, he appears much larger in the forced perspective shot.

On the opposite end, advanced software developed by WETA called Massive was used to create the extensive Last Alliance battle sequence shown in the movie's prologue. This artificial intelligence program incorporated more than 200 motion capture cycles --things like running and swinging a sword in different ways. Randomization code was used to give digital warriors variance. Footage shared by Rygiel showed the progression of the technology, from earlier tests where digital characters displayed unrealistic Terminator-like resilience during a battle, refusing to fall down, to the point where different characters could fight (and fall) in unique, realistic looking ways. Other techniques included the utilization of motion-capture technology to enhance computer-generated creatures like the Cave Troll, the Balrog and Gollum.

Rygiel also discussed some tricks the New Zealand tourist commission would probably prefer he kept secret. If you're planning on taking a vacation there, don't expect the mountain peaks to look quite as high as they did in the film, as scenery was digitally enhanced. For instance, one helicopter shot shows the Fellowship passing by some ruins, with white mountain peaks in the distance. Rygiel described how the ruins and the peaks were both added digitally.

Rygiel spoke frequently about working with Jackson, who he compared to Huck Finn in his ability to inspire work. If there was intense pressure and little time, like when Jackson needed 100 shots for the Cave Troll sequence in two months time to screen at Cannes, Rygiel said the director would say something like, "I think you can probably give it a try." He said Jackson has a "subtle" way of getting what he wants from his crew.

Rygiel added that Lord of the Rings was "was like a major motion picture shot guerrilla filmmaking style." He described how Jackson could literally be directing seven units all over New Zealand at once using monitors hooked up via satellite. One constant was the work ethic of cast and crew, solidified by the yearlong shoot. "This film is special in that across the board everybody put their heart into it," he said. No actors demanding chilled Perrier on the set, he said. "(Everyone was) together so long it went beyond collecting your paycheck and going home."

*This article originally appeared on OscarWatch.