Special effects of The Lord of the Rings film series

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The Lord of the Rings film series used many groundbreaking practical and digital visual effects that were unheard of in the film industry. Ranging from prosthetics and props to creatures almost entirely made through computer graphics, the process to making this movie series was an extremely large undertaking, but forged a breakthrough in the world of cinematic visual effects. Weta Workshop was the major stylistic force behind the films, working on concepts, sets and digital effects years before the first scenes were even shot. The series was also briefly aided by Digital Domain in the first movie. Props, sets, prosthetics and locations were given the utmost concentration and detail to achieve as realistic of a look as possible.[1] More than 48,000 items were created for this trilogy alone, including completely specialized weapons, intricate miniature sets, and extremely lifelike prosthetic body parts. Two hundred and sixty visual effects artists started out on the trilogy, and the number more than doubled by the series' end. Led by acclaimed veterans and talented amateurs alike, the crews within each division would work overnight to produce special effects within short spaces of time to accommodate director Peter Jackson's active imagination.

Props and Costumes[edit]

Weta Workshop produced hundreds of thousands of costumes and props for each of the characters in the movies. For each main character, several sets of each outfit were made in various states of disrepair, to give the impression that the clothes were wearing thin as the characters continued on their journeys. Over one thousand suits of armor were made for all the actors, stunt doubles, and extras, in all the different cultural styles of the Middle Earth races. Sword smith Peter Lyon was hired full time to make Middle Earth styled weaponry, both for show and stunts.[2] Props besides weaponry were all made from scratch, from delicate projects like wigs and prosthetics such as hobbit feet and elf ears, to more durable props like the One Ring and Gandalf's staff.[3] The makeup and prosthetic department was headed by Peter Swords King, and the costuming department was headed by designer Ngila Dickson.   


Production was complicated by the use of scale doubles and forced perspective (on a level never seen before in the film industry). Elijah Wood is 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m) tall in real life, but the character of Frodo Baggins is 3 ft 6 in (1.07 m) in height. Large and small scale doubles were used in certain scenes, while entire duplicates of certain sets (including Bag End in Hobbiton) were built at two different scales, so that the characters would appear to be the appropriate size. At one point in the film, Frodo runs along a corridor in Bag End, followed by Gandalf (played by Ian McKellen). Wood and McKellen were filmed in separate versions of the same corridor, built at two different scales; then these two separate shots are combined to create a shot of both actors appearing to be in the same corridor.

Forced perspective was also employed, so that it would look as though the short Hobbits were interacting with taller Men and Elves. Surprising the makers of the film, the simple use of kneeling down was used to great effect. Some actors also wore oversized costumes to make average sized actors look small, and there were numerous scale doubles, who were disguised with costumes, and an avoidance of close-ups and numerous back shots, and even latex faces for the Hobbit doubles.

Size Doubles[edit]

In the Middle Earth storyverse, Hobbits are 3 ft 6 in (107 cm) tall, Dwarves are taller at about 4 ft 6 in (137 cm), and Men and Elves are average human height, about 5 to 6 ft (150 to 180 cm). However, the films used two scale sets instead of three by casting taller than average actors to play Dwarves, then combining Dwarves and Hobbits into one size scale. For example, John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli, is taller than Elijah Wood, who played Frodo. Thus in the ending shot of the Council of Elrond scene when all nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring are standing together, Rhys-Davies and the four Hobbit actors were filmed first. The human-sized characters (Gandalf, Aragorn, Boromir, Legolas) were filmed in a second take, and the two shots were composited at different scale to make one image, making the initial Dwarf/Hobbit character shot seem smaller.[4] An unintended advantage of not creating a third scale for Dwarves is that in a scene in which only Dwarves and Hobbits interact, no scale doubles are needed.

An early composite of actor Ian McKellen in the miniature of Isengard for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King


Weta coined the term "bigature" for the 72 large miniatures produced for the film, in reference to their extreme size.[5] Out of around 6 of the shooting crews, there was one specifically devoted to filming on the miniatures, working continuously for years until the end of the Return of the King.[6] Such miniatures include the 1:4 scale for Helm's Deep, which alongside Khazad-dûm and Osgiliath, was one of the first built.[7] Most sets were constructed to allow compositing with the models and matte paintings. Built in sections to make them easier to travel with, as the miniatures were not built in the studio where they would be later shot. Each of these "bigatures" were required to have an extreme amount of detail, as the cameras were filming within inches of the masterpieces in hopes of using cinematography to make the sets look as realistic as possible.[6] Notable examples include the Argonath, Minas Tirith, the tower and caverns of Isengard, Barad-dûr, the trees of Lothlórien and Fangorn Forest and the Black Gate. Alex Funke led the motion control camera rigs, and John Baster and Mary Maclahlan led the building of the miniatures. The miniatures unit worked more than any other special effects crew, laboring for over 1000 days.  

Animation and Computer Graphic Effects[edit]

Creatures such as Trolls, the Watcher, the Balrog, the Ents, the fell beasts, the Wargs, the mûmakil, and Shelob were created entirely within a computer. Creatures would spend months of creation and variation as sketches before approved designs were sculpted into five-foot maquettes and scanned into a computer. Animators would then rig skeletons and muscles before animation and final detailed colouring scanned from painted maquettes. Treebeard had a digital face composited upon the original animatronic, which was scanned for the digital model of his longshots.[8]

Along with the creatures, Weta also created highly realistic digital doubles for many miniature longshots, as well as numerous stunts, most notably Legolas. These doubles were scanned from having actors perform movements in a motion-capture suit, and with additional details created using ZBrush. There are even morphs between the doubles and actors at times.[9] Horses also performed with mo-cap points on them, although deaths are keyframe animation.[8]

Weta began animating Gollum in late 1998, using a generic human muscle system, to convince New Line Cinema they could achieve it.[10] Andy Serkis played Gollum by providing his voice and movements on set, as well as performing within the motion capture suit. His scenes were filmed twice, with and without him. Originally Gollum was set to solely be a CG character, but Jackson was so impressed by Andy Serkis' audition tape that they used him on set as well. A team led by Randy Cook performed the animation using both motion capture data and manual recreation of Serkis' facial reference.[11] Gollum's CG model was also redesigned during 2001, now using a subdivision surface model instead of the NURBS model for Fellowship (a similar rebuild was also done for the digital doubles of the lead actors), when Serkis was cast as Sméagol, Gollum's form before he is cursed by the One Ring, so as to give the impression that Andy Serkis as Sméagol transforms into the CG Gollum. The original model can still be glimpsed briefly in the first film. Over Christmas 2001, the crew proceeded to reanimate all the previous shots accordingly within two months. Another problem was that the crew realized that the cast performed better in the versions of the film with Serkis. In the end, the CG Gollum was often animated on top of these scenes and Serkis would be painted out. Due to Gollum's not being human, shots such as him crawling down a sheer cliff were shot with no live reference. Serkis also did motion-capture for the character which would drive the body of the model, whilst animators did all fingers and facial animation. Gino Acevedo supervised realistic skin tones, which for the first time used subsurface scattering shader, taking four hours per frame to render. Render time refers to the amount of time it took the computer to process the image into a usable format; it does not include the amount of time it took the texture artists to "draw" the frame.[11] The hair dynamics of CG Gollum in The Two Towers were generated using Maya Cloth. Because of its technical limitations, Weta subsequently moved to the Syflex system for The Return of the King.

Because they were turned to wraith-like versions of their former terrible selves, tall, slim actors wearing prosthetics and costumes were used to portray the Witch Kings of Angmar or "Ringwraiths". Filmed on a studio set, the setting and appearances of the Ringwraiths were later edited to look chaotic and terrible.[12] Though 2D effects were used to create the characters and atmosphere, 3D effects were utilized to create the final scenes we see in the film. Weathertop, the ancient ruin site in which the hobbits first encounter the Ringwraiths face to face, was filmed using computer graphic effects but the action scenes were filmed in a studio. Later on, the scenes were merged using digital effects.

Besides Weathertop, many of the other scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were shot in this way, first by filming the scenery or set miniatures, then the actors on a studio set, and merging the two together. An example of this is in the Mines of Moria, when the Fellowship was fighting the Cave-troll in Balin's Tomb, and again when the Fellowship is on the Khazad-Dum stairs and bridge. Gandalf has his own particular scene with computer graphics as he grapples with the Balrog as they fall to their deaths.

Christoper Hery (ILM), Ken McGaugh and Joe Letteri (both Weta and previously ILM) received a 2003 Academy Award, Scientific or Technical for implementing the BSSRDF technique used for Gollum's skin in a production environment. Henrik Wann Jensen (Stanford University), Stephen Robert Marschner (Cornell University and previously Stanford University), and Pat Hanrahan (Stanford University) (but not the fourth coauthor Marc Levoy), who developed BSSRDF, won another the same year.


Weta developed MASSIVE, a first of its kind crowd simulation computer program used to create automatic battle sequences rather than individually animate every soldier.[13] Stephen Regelous developed the system in 1996, originally to create the battle scenes for "The Lord of the Rings".[14] The system creates a large number of choices for each software agent to pick when inside a digital arena. Catherine Thiel provided the movements of each type of soldier, like the unique fighting styles (designed by Tony Wolf) or fleeing.[15] To add to this, digital environments would also be created for the simulations. Massive also features Grunt, a memory-conservative special purpose renderer, which was used for scenes containing as many as 200,000 agents and several million polygons. The Pelennor Fields scene also contains "multi-body agents" in the form of a 5 × 5 grid of Orcs.

Whilst Jackson insisted on generally using miniatures, sometimes shots would get too difficult for that, primarily with the digital characters. Sometimes natural elements like cloud, dust, fire (which was used as the electronic data for the Wraithworld scenes and the Balrog) would be composited,[14] and natural environments were composited to create the Pelennor Fields.[13] To give a "painterly" look to the films, cinematographer Peter Doyle worked on every scene within the computer to strengthen colours and add extra mood and tone to the proceedings. Gold was tinted to Hobbiton, whilst cooler colours were strengthened into Lothlórien, Moria and Helm's Deep.[14] Such a technique took 2–3 weeks to do, and allowed some freedom with the digital source for some extra editing.[16]

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King required the help of the company Next Limit Technologies and their software RealFlow to simulate the lava in Mount Doom.

A technical overview of the special effect is given by Matt Aitken et al. (2004).[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Falconer, Daniel (2017). Middle Earth From Script to Screen. New York, NY: Harper Design. pp. 163, 419. ISBN 9780062486141.
  2. ^ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 2nd ed., (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), p. 309.
  3. ^ Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2004.
  4. ^ Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2004.
  5. ^ Wake, Jenny (2005). The Making of King Kong. Simon and Schuster Ltd. p. 72. ISBN 1-4165-0257-2.
  6. ^ a b Falconer, Daniel (2017). Middle Earth From Script to Screen. New York, NY: Harper Design. pp. 163, 419. ISBN 9780062486141.
  7. ^ Big-atures (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2003.
  8. ^ a b Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2003.
  9. ^ Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2002.
  10. ^ Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2004.
  11. ^ a b The Taming of Sméagol (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2003.
  12. ^ Falconer, Daniel (2017). Middle Earth From Script to Screen. New York, NY: Harper Design. pp. 163, 419. ISBN 9780062486141.
  13. ^ a b Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2004.
  14. ^ a b c Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2002.
  15. ^ Weta Digital (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2003.
  16. ^ Editorial: Refining the Story (DVD)|format= requires |url= (help). New Line Cinema. 2003.
  17. ^ M. Aitken, G. Butler, D. Lemmon, E. Saindon, D. Peters, G. Williams, "The Lord of the Rings: the Visual Effects that Brought Middle Earth to the Screen", ACM SIGGRAPH 2004 Course Notes, No. 11 (2004).