In some ways, it can be reduced to numbers: 350 studio and location sets; 15,000 pieces of clothing; 10,000 facial appliances; 1,800 suits of body prosthetics, and 1,800 Hobbit feet; at least 1,500 digital-effects shots; a personnel roster numbering into the thousands; a budget of somewhere between $200 million and $300 million spread over three films.

Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is big, all right, especially when you consider that it's being produced in New Zealand, a country of about three-and-a-half million people. But this is much more than just the event movie of the week. For legions of fans of the J. R. R. Tolkien books, for movie audiences who have been getting tantalizing preview glimpses of the trilogy's first part since May, and for anyone else looking for an escapist fantasy about a world fighting to overcome dark forces, this is the movie of the year. When New Line Cinema releases The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring December 19, what people will ideally see is the product of many hands, and one vision.

Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in the Mines of Moria

That vision is Jackson's, though it's a bit more complicated that that: what the New Zealander writer-director has attempted to do is channel Tolkien's original vision, using illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe as visual guides. In the personal imprint department, Jackson is no shrinking violet, as viewers of such previous films as Meet the Feebles, Braindead, and Heavenly Creatures can attest. But no one seems to doubt that the filmmaker's simultaneously whimsical, earthy, and grotesque style is a match for Tolkien's portrait of Middle-earth, with its Hobbits and Elves, Dwarves and wizards, Orcs and Ringwraiths, and men.

The layout of the three films follows the model of Tolkien's trilogy, as first published in 1955. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Hobbit protagonist Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) learns that the ring inherited from his uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) holds the key to the resurgence of Middle-earth's previously vanquished dark power. With three trusted companions, including Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin), Frodo sets off from his home in the Shire village of Hobbiton. On their way to the Elven cities of Rivendell and Lothlórien, the Hobbits are faced with many tribulations, including the attacks of the dread Ringwraiths, or black riders. They form a fellowship against evil with the old wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the men Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Boromir (Sean Bean), the Dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), and the Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom). In The Two Towers, which will be released in December 2002, and The Return of the King, which will appear a year later, the heroes will travel to the lands of Gondor and Mordor, and fight the forces of Sauron, the dark ruler, in his attempt to regain control of the Ring.

If you're not a Lord of the Rings fanatic, this is only a taste of the confusion of mythic names and places that follows. It's a confusion not unfamiliar to many of the film production team's major participants. But everyone agrees about one thing: Jackson was in charge, and he held the key to successfully transferring Tolkien's world to the screen. “The number-one thing in Peter's mind,” says costume designer Ngila Dickson, “was that he wanted it to be as real a version of Tolkien as we could possibly manage. He didn't want fantasy, as such. He wanted people to believe in this world; he wanted to be able to smell it.” Production designer Grant Major says, “Obviously, if you're filming Hobbits and Dwarves, people need to suspend disbelief. But I've worked with Peter several times before, and every time, he's keen that people have got to believe that they're there.”

Dickson adds, “When we were dazed and confused just by the sheer complexity of it all, the one thing you knew was, Peter knew. So we took a deep breath, and dived back in again.”

ORIGINS OF THE RING

“Peter started discussing the possibility of making a Tolkien project in mid-1997,” recalls Richard Taylor, president of Weta, the company housing the film's massive special-effects infrastructure. “At the time, he actually let us believe that he was making The Hobbit, because that's far more of a manageable size. But on a certain day, he revealed to us all that we were embarking on a journey of epic proportions: to make Lord of the Rings and bring Middle-earth to the screen. As you can imagine, it was both a great day and one filled with trepidation.”

Nothing this size had ever been attempted in the Wellington production center, of course. Since the mid-80s, Taylor and his partner Tania Rodger had been doing effects for smaller films, including early Jackson projects, and for New Zealand-based TV shows like Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess. “But for Heavenly Creatures,” Taylor says, “the production company had leased one Silicon Graphics computer to do the digital effects; we didn't want this computer to leave the country, because we realized that filmmaking was going to move heavily towards digital effects.” Taylor and Rodger pooled their resources with Jackson and production partner Jamie Selkirk, bought the computer, and formed a company called Weta, an organization now divided into the separate entities of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. (A weta, by the way, is a huge native New Zealand insect.)

The partnership's first film was The Frighteners, Jackson's initial, only partially successful foray into Hollywood-funded production. But The Lord of the Rings needed to call on far vaster resources, including a state-of-the-art studio facility. To that end, Jackson obtained and converted an old paint factory five minutes down the road from Weta into a complex of soundstages and production workshops called Three-Foot-Six — the height of a Hobbit.

Jackson offered Taylor's workshop its choice of responsibilities on what was going to be two films under the Miramax banner, and eventually a trilogy funded by New Line. “As is the case with bringing any written work to the screen,” says Taylor, “that piece of literature is the vision of a single person, and you run the risk of dissipating that vision over a huge number of craftspeople. We wanted to underpin our work with an integrated design aesthetic in as much of the film as we could touch on. To that end, we elected to look after the armor, weapons, miniatures, creatures, and special makeup effects.” It was an enormous undertaking, which required extensive ramping up on Weta Workshop's part; in the end, the company produced 48,000 separate items for the three films.

THE LOOK OF MIDDLE-EARTH

But first came the look of Middle-earth. Alan Lee and John Howe, both renowned illustrators of many Tolkien volumes, were hired early on to give conceptual form to the films. “The world already has a strong preconceived idea of what Middle-earth looks like,” says Taylor. “This comes from both the highly descriptive nature of Tolkien's writing, and the phenomenal amount of illustrative work that has preceded us. Peter very wisely pursued Alan and John. Because they worked out of our facility for those first couple of years, there was very much a cross-pollination of ideas.”

Eventually, Lee and Howe moved over to the Three-Foot-Six facility to work in the film's art department, which Major formed in 1998. “As it turned out, what John and Alan had to offer was quite significant,” says the designer, who therefore found himself in a rather awkward position. “It was strange — I've never worked with a concept artist before; on the movies I'd done previously, I'd done all the concept work myself. But the project was so gigantic, I couldn't have hoped to do all the conceptualizing on it myself, anyway. John's work lasted a year, and Alan stayed on pretty much all through the project. His responsibilities grew beyond set design, and into costumes and creatures. He had an incredibly thorough knowledge of Tolkien.”

Orcs on the loose

In large part, the art department based its designs on “medieval and Romanesque technology and architectural style,” Major says. Hobbiton, a pastoral setting of fields and Hobbit holes, has a medieval feeling mixed in with references from 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century English folklore. Rivendell and the other Elven settings take on more of a Renaissance style, with touches of Art Nouveau. “Elves are described as being close to nature, so we were looking for those sorts of lines and motifs.” Dwarven settings like the Mines of Moria, a huge complex of underground caverns, featured elements of jeweled Art Deco, but also “plainer, more straight-lined designs,” Major says.

Because Jackson wanted to use the varied landscape of New Zealand's two main islands for shooting, identifying the proper locations was an important part of the art department's job. “We saw pretty quickly that Hobbiton needed a very, very long run-up time to it,” says Major. “It's a rural kind of landscaped set. Our search was around the upper North Island, in a place called Hamilton, which has a lot of imported, deciduous trees — oaks and other northern European types. We found a piece of sheep farm with the right sort of scripted features.”

More than a year before the October 1999 start of shooting (springtime for New Zealanders), the landscaping crew, with some help from the New Zealand Army, formed roads, recontoured fields, and planted hedgerows, trees, gardens, and grass. “We needed that whole growth period of one year,” says Major. Hillocks were constructed and Hobbit holes were excavated, where facades of settings like Frodo's Bag End house and the Green Dragon Pub were eventually installed; studio interiors at Three-Foot-Six matched the exteriors.

The location for the tall Elven structures of Rivendell was nearer to Wellington, in a patch of native forest. “The architecture was buildings without walls, so the inside and outside sort of flowed together,” says Major of the Elven style. “We designed into it digital extensions, so there were quite a lot of matte shots extending Rivendell, and setting it in a big valley.” The Elves' capital city of Lothlórien, where the trees grow to skyscraper size and the fellowship meet the queenly Elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), was more studio-based. The designer says, “We built the base of the trees, and when they go into the canopy, that's largely miniatures.” The Mines of Moria represent probably the largest complex of studio sets — 19 in all. This setting is entered through the Moria Gate, which was a backlot set, and exited through Dimrill Dale, which was shot on location in Tasman National Park, on the South Island.

Major says the three films were conceptualized as one. “The designs of Minas Tirith,” he says, referring to a set that will be most prominent in the next two films, “were being formalized around the same time as the designs of Rivendell. The amount of development work was probably about 50% film one, where we were developing the looks for the first time, and 25% films two and three.”

Major's art department had swelled to 400 people by the end of the shoot, in February 2001. “We had nine different workshops specializing in different areas,” he says, including a paint and plaster shop, plus shops for models, furniture construction, props, foam finishing, even horses and stabling. “I must say, I'm very proud of the fact that the art department was able to crew itself, with a few exceptions, from within New Zealand.”

In Weta Workshop's case, especially, this was made possible by creative staffing. “Since we don't have a history of this sort of film in New Zealand,” says Taylor, “there aren't the technicians already in place in the film industry. So we had to find people with like-minded skills, and bring them into the facility. For instance, we made over 500 suits of hand-sewn leather armor. Where do you find technicians who know how to make leather armor? We went to the saddlery and tack industry. Then we found people from the print industry who do embossing, and they came onboard to emboss the leatherwork.” He muses that Hollywood must have started out something like this. In the end, out of 148 craftspeople at the workshop, and 48 additional workers operating over the film's five units, Taylor estimates that “only about 25% had ever worked on any form of media or film-related project before.”

DRESSING THE FELLOWSHIP

Ngila Dickson, who worked with Jackson on Heavenly Creatures, but is best known for her Hercules and Xena costumes, joined the Lord of the Rings production in April 1999. In addition to Jackson and Alan Lee, she says her most important collaborator was Taylor. “Richard and I had been talking since May of the previous year,” says Dickson. “He had been developing lots of background on the armor and so forth.”

The Elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) kisses Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood)

In establishing the look of such a complex cast of characters for instant recognition, Taylor says the crucial thing was to come up with “an iconographic design.” He explains, “It was imperative that every race of Middle-earth had its own icon, and that even in silhouette you could read someone as a specific character, so you don't lose the audience. If you've got a fellowship of nine characters — Hobbits, a Dwarf, an Elf, a wizard, and humans — and you imagine a wide shot of them clambering up the side of a mountain, lit by the setting sun, you want to quickly identify the lineup. Sam carries a big backpack with clattering tin pots and frying pans; Frodo is the most slender of the Hobbits and keeps himself tightly wrapped in his cloak; Gimli the Dwarf is stout and stocky, a real nuggety little chap.”

Though Taylor's crew worked from thousands of drawings, Dickson found “it was much, much faster, and better for Peter, to flat-out build the costumes, and give him three options.” It was an enormous amount of work for the designer's 50-person crew, who only had three months of prep time before shooting. But, she says, “Peter's not a director who signs off on something on a piece of paper, and that is that. You had to give him what he wanted. Because of the number of items that had to be passed by him daily, in order to keep things moving, we found it so much better to give him something real.”

For Dickson, the Hobbits came first. The designer viewed the Hobbits as denizens of a “cute, 19th-century sort of English world. We worked from the idea of their naivete and quirkiness. Their sleeves are short, their trousers are short, their pockets are slightly higher. We just kept doing things that slightly disturbed the balance, that made the costumes slightly off. I also wanted them to feel very country and very earthy. The only two I really singled out were Bilbo and Frodo, by giving them richer colors: blue-greens and grays and maroons.”

As the story moves into the Elven world, Dickson began “to travel back through time, really: suddenly we're in something that feels vaguely Celtic, going back to bigger and older civilizations. The Elves are in the lightest colors of the film, and in beautiful brocades,” says the costume designer. “They're very ethereal, yet still quite earthy.” Blanchett's Galadriel, the Elven visionary, is “very, very ancient, although as you can imagine, she doesn't look it.” Basing this character closely on Lee's illustrations, “We felt that simplicity was going to be everything: to have an incredibly calm, very simple costume. Of course, there is really intense detail in the design of it, from the crown to the Ring to the embroidery. Still, the overall impact is just simple.” And like all Elves, Galadriel glows — one of the trilogy's many digital grace notes.

Approaching the Dwarves, Dickson kept in mind that “they are wealthy creatures — they're miners, and they're into jewels and complex metalwork. They're in rich blues and maroons. We used an awful lot of leather, here, there, and everywhere. And lots of chain mail, which I'm sure Richard Taylor will tell you about.” Indeed he does: “Over three and a half years we hand-assembled 12 million rings of authentic-looking chain mail.”

Natural fabrics — silks, cottons, wools, linens, and leather — made up the costume crew's materials. “There wasn't a single fabric used on the film that didn't go through the wash before it was made,” says Dickson. “We beat them to death. And we used more mud on these films than you can imagine.” The terrifying Ringwraiths were the chief recipients of the mud. These ghostly figures on horseback are primarily composed of layers of black rags, although actors were underneath all the fabric: 50 meters' worth per costume, says Dickson. “And then these poor guys had to ride.”

Costumes for the human Ranger character of Aragorn were also heavily distressed: “He looks like he's been wearing his clothes for at least a century,” says the designer. His counterpart, and love interest, is the Elven princess Arwen (Liv Tyler), who first appears dressed in more human garb. “When you first see her, she's quite real, except for the fact that she's the most beautiful woman, and she has these extraordinary ears,” says Dickson. The ears are just one example of the prosthetic makeup appliances produced by Weta. Seven of the nine leads, excluding the humans, are in some form of prosthetics, Taylor says. Scary creatures such as the vicious Orcs are most heavily prosthetic, but even a Hobbit like Frodo has ear and nose appliances, and of course those trademark Hobbit feet — long and furry, and perennially bare.

Though Frodo wears the same costume through most of the three films, Dickson says there were about 40 versions of this one frock: “We had 10 stages of breakdown for the costume,” she explains, “and you had four of each, to cover body doubles, stunt doubles, and little actors.” This is a reference to Dickson's piece of the film's character size puzzle. Hobbits are the smallest denizens of Middle-Earth, but Elijah Wood is about 5'-6", so “you have the Mini-Me version of him, a little actor who's 4'-2", and you have to replicate the costume at that size.” Part of the in-camera trickery of showing Hobbits next to 5' Dwarves, 6' humans, and even taller Elves is to create a cinematic patchwork using the smaller doubles. “On the other side of that,” adds Dickson, “when Elijah the actor is interacting with, say, Aragorn, you have to have a giant version of Aragorn to make the size differences believable.” In some cases, stilt-walking performers were used.

Jim Rygiel, the film's visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital, says, “The size thing was for me the easiest part of show. They did this great mix of effects to get the Hobbits scaled down.” Forced perspective techniques were a major help. For example, says Rygiel, “There's a scene where Frodo is pouring a cup of tea for Gandalf, who's supposed to be twice his size. They set the camera up at one end of the table, with Ian McKellen sitting 3' away from the camera, and Elijah Wood 12' away from the camera, so he looks smaller already. Then what you do is scale props, so Elijah is picking up a huge pot of tea. That's all first unit, and we don't even have to think about it.”

MELDING THE PHYSICAL AND DIGITAL

Traditional bluescreen photography and motion-control camerawork also contributed to the illusion, and digital blending or face replacements sometimes went into the mix. But according to Taylor, the key to the success of the effects was in the balance of techniques. “That comes down to how well Peter Jackson can craft a film,” he says. “He's very much a believer that you never have one shot on the back of another using the same technique. He will mix physical effects, miniature shots, live-action actors, prosthetic characters, and every array of digital effects, including the most beautiful digital matte paintings, digitally enhanced miniatures, and complete digital environments. What will result is a much more harmonious, believable Middle-earth.” Says Rygiel, “From shot to shot, you're going from digital guys to live-action guys, and you never quite know what you're looking at. So you don't really look for it anymore; you just get into the story.”

The designation of department to effect was decided at “6am production meetings from the very outset,” says Taylor. Major says, “We went through the storyboards as batches of them would be completed, and discussed possibilities. We were trying to achieve as much as we could in-camera. What was achievable through model work was identified. After that, what the digital guys could and couldn't do was identified.” It was at these meetings that the decision was made to create creatures such as Gollum, a cave troll, and the Balrog, a smoky winged monster with what Rygiel calls “a Mohawk of fire,” entirely in the digital realm. But such all-CG creations were the exception.

Taylor is particularly happy that Jackson “believes that miniatures can bring a gritty realism to a movie.” Starting in late 97, the Weta miniatures crew started building scaled-down versions of Rivendell, Moria, the stairs of Khazad-dûm, the stone sculptures of Minas Tirith, and on and on, for a final total of 68. Some were “colossal,” and nicknamed “bigature” by Taylor. The larger ones were constructed in modular form, and eventually rolled down the road from Weta to a separate soundstage facility. “At the height of it, we had four miniature units shooting,” he says.

The miniatures came in many scales, “primarily driven by what was the biggest size we could build that would fit inside a shooting stage. Alan and John would draw these massive environments and put tiny little figures in them, which would cause us to scale smaller and smaller.” Consequently, though there were a number of miniatures in the reasonable ¼- to 1/12-scale range, there were also a great deal at 1/36- and 1/72-scale. “We even built one at 1/166-scale,” says Taylor. That would be the Dark Tower of Barad-Dûr, the frightful Mordor setting that will appear later in the trilogy, and which is meant to be 3,000' tall, but had to fit into a 27'-tall stage. “You can appreciate the minutiae of detail needed,” says the effects supervisor. “We used a huge amount of lithographic acid etching to produce it.”

In order to efficiently assemble so many miniatures, Taylor's crew took advantage of a polyurethane-spraying technology devised for waterproofing North Sea oil rigs. “We researched one of these machines, and eventually bought a urethane spraying plant,” he says. “Basically what it is, you're pushing the components of urethane through the nozzle of a gun at incredibly high temperature and pressure. They catalyze in the mixing, but through formula changes, you can spray anything from as soft as soapsuds to as hard as wood to as flexible as leather.” The machine was also used to create 2,000 weapons, 1,000 suits of armor, and “100 helmets a day” for The Lord of the Rings.

As the release of The Fellowship of the Ring nears, only Weta Digital is still working at full capacity, with 200 artists from around the world still toiling away on post for the next two films. Rygiel, an American digital wizard who founded the now-defunct Boss Film Studios, came to the project late: February 2001. Another supervisor had left the show, and Rygiel was leery. “But they showed me the test reel for all this stuff, and even that was beyond anything I've ever seen in terms of computer animation,” he says. “I just couldn't say no.”

In quite a step up from its original single computer, the digital facility now has 20 terabytes of disk space, and includes a sophisticated motion-capture stage that can accommodate 60' runs, 16 dual-processor SGI 1200 servers running the Linux operating system, 200 CPUs using off-the-shelf software like Maya and Pixar Renderman as a springboard for custom programs, and a Silicon Graphics RenderWall that renders 700 frames at a time.

How does one follow up such a project, especially in a small, remote place like New Zealand? While Rygiel will be busy for the next two years, production department work is more or less finished. “I immediately came off Lord of the Rings and did a small telefilm,” says Dickson. “It's extraordinary when you work at that pitch; it's a very, very hard thing to come down from.” Major has also moved on to a much smaller production. “It's almost the antithesis of Lord of the Rings, but you put your all into every project. I must say, I can conceptualize this whole thing on my own, and there's something to be said for that.”

“It's been very, very quiet, and a scary time in some ways,” says Taylor of the period following production. “We've had to downsize a lot. But to keep our core group of people around, we've taken on a small piece of the merchandising for Lord of the Rings. We've set up a merchandising company called Sideshow Weta Collectibles. To this date, we've produced more than 100 pieces.” These are pricey items: “high-end sculptures for the true fans of Middle-earth.” If all goes well, there may soon be more of those fans than he expects.

All photos courtesy New Line Cinema