There And Back Again: A Geek's Adventure in Middle-Earth! CHAPTER FIVE!!!
Woke up today with no real sense of where I was headed or what I was going to be doing. I had just decided to see where my travels took me.
I began calling around, I knew that I wanted to get into WETA WORKSHOP today, but I wasn’t sure what to do with the morning.. till I remembered that today was supposed to be Sean Astin’s last day as Sam… I also wanted to visit the ART DEPARTMENT and check out as much of Alan Lee’s work as I could possibly process with my brain…. After all, I’m sure we are at least 10 months away from any ART OF book…. Possibly 36 months away… Might as well try to get a preview eh?
I was awaiting my call backs to see what was set up, when the phone rings… It is Sean Astin. Ok, for me… this is about as cool as it gets.
"Did I wake you up?"
Lying, I said, "No, I was just hanging out waiting for a call to see what I’m doing today!" actually, truth be told, I had dozed off. Heheh..
Turns out Sean had been checking out the site the night before and was really impressed… not so much by me, as all of the Talk Backers on the LORD OF THE RINGS stuff, and their discussions about everything from Scouring to Race relations in the Tolkien universe to… well, you guys know what you were talking about.
He invites me down to BlueScreen where he and Elijah are shooting, and I figure… Alright… let’s see what they’re up to.
So I struggle to find the address for the BlueScreen Stage… figuring, that I’d left it in a pair of pants or a shirt pocket or my coat… shit, last time I remember seeing this damn card was right before I was drunk as hell dancing at the Matterhorn swallowing gallons of some poisonous concoction that Gollum ordered for me. I likes me precious I does.
Frodo and Sam blindfolded… led into a place (hey it’s a bluescreen… I can’t tell) where they are questioned by Faramir. This is where they learn that Boromir is dead, and yet the seen does not yet lead into the scene where Frodo shows and makes Faramir understand the evil of the ring, and to let Sam and he continue their trek to Mt Doom.
Now, this is just plain odd to watch… I’ve never seen this intricate of Blue Screen work before. Frodo and Sam are in the center of a Blue Screen stage… Activity is all about them…. Right now there are two monitors…. The one that has what is ACTUALLY shooting, and then the MIX cam… What is actually shooting is a motion control camera rig… makes this really cool whirring sound… sort of like an Electric Razor on low batteries… Well, the camera is tracking all over the place, acting a bit like a steadicam in a way… Really nice camera moves… a long long take. Meanwhile, the dialogue that is being said is piped into the stage… so they kinda have to live loop their scenes, to make sure they keep the timing between themselves and Faramir, who isn’t here right now.
In-between takes, Sean runs over and sees me frantically trying to write down my perceptions of all of this… He asks me what I think of what is going on, and I can’t help but respond that this is the most complicated blue screen work I’ve seen being done.
Sean laughs at me and says, "Well on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the hardest, I’d say this rates a 6.5."
Yeesh… I think, "So what was a 10?"
He then sets out to tell me about a scene where Frodo and Gollum had to roll down the side of a mountain… where Frodo had to defy gravity, leaving room between himself and the ground beneath him as he tumbled.
To this, Randy Cook – visual effects god (he handled the stop motion animation of the ‘dogs’ in GHOSTBUSTERS, everything on THE GATE, a great deal of the dinosaurs in CAVEMAN and… well go look em up on IMDB ya lazy bastich, well… Randy says, and by the time we’re done with it, it will probably be an 11.
They continue to work away at the shot. This type of Bluescreen work is exceptionally painful. You see in this case there is a physical element that must be in the exact right place at the beginning of the shot… as it is the thread that ties the big with the small… and in this case it is Frodo’s blindfold… that piece of cloth is the connecting tissue between the two shots… and to get it to do what you want… well, it took 6 takes, but on that last take there was a feeling… right before it, Randy Cook passed on from Philippa Boyens to me, "This is the last shot between Sean and Elijah."
I ceased watching the monitors… put down the computer, and I walked over towards where they were and watched. This scene… this is where Frodo and Sam said goodbye to one another in the realm of film production. They nailed the shot, and fell into each other… hugging. They’ve been atop mountains together… spent long sleepless nights… Sean has had to carry Elijah… they’ve wrestled with invisible cg beasties… They’ve cried over one another… and each morning for the last year and a half plus… they sat in FEET & MAKEUP… and became Hobbits together.
There was no champagne… no big celebration… just an honest moment between the crew and them. Elijah and Sean stood side by side… looking for the words… trying to think of something poignant to say, but instead just threw their arms up and began hugging people. This was also Sean’s last day of shooting on set.
I choked up a bit, really because I know… as do all of you really, that when playing the types of characters that Sean and Elijah have here… it is a long friendship… Sure they’ll stay in contact, but this is something special… the film relationship that Elijah and Sean will share onscreen… that will be eternal, but this part of it… this is it. They’ll see each other in ADR… promotional junkets… They’ll recall being evacuated off a mountaintop as a blizzard blew in via helicopters while Peter scouted the lowlands so as to not lose the day. I sit here and I think of what it will be like to grow an attachment with these two over the 3 films… to see Frodo and Sam… in Mordor… to imagine seeing Sam lifting Frodo while saying something along the lines of, "I may not be able to carry that for you Mr Frodo Baggins, but I can carry you!" And the idea that I was here to witness their last onscreen moment… And that it is a tiny scene really…
Two Hobbits amongst Men… recalling their journey in brief… the separation from the Fellowship… and hearing of a fallen comrade. Sigh.
After they break for lunch I join Sean and Elijah for lunch back at the homebase… a trailer park for characters of Tolkien. It’s like an Oklahoma Suburb… upon the sides of the trailers… names like Gollum (Andy Serkis was tying his door open as I passed by), Gandalf, Eowyn, Aragorn, Frodo and Sam and so on.
We enter the trailer of Frodo. Inside Elijah is greeted by his agent, Nicole Jaffe… a heroine of mine. Do you not know the name of Nicole Jaffe? HOW DARE YOU NOT KNOW THAT NAME!!! Nicole Jaffe is just about the coolest person I have ever met in my life… and on top of everything else… I got a kiss! Who is she besides Elijah’s agent? Nicole Jaffe is VELMA!!! No, not Velma from MURDER MY SWEET with Dick Powell… I’m talking about THE VELMA… as in the HOLY VELMA! Scooby Doo Velma! I met the real Velma… Sean Astin and I began doing that, worship bit… I mean, Nicole Jaffe’s voice is a MAJOR INFLUENCE ON OUR CHILDHOOD! Utter awe!
We hung out and talked for a bit while chowing down… and then Sean was off to make-up and I was off to WETA WORKSHOP!
So I walk to the security booth of the THREE FOOT SIX Lot and get a cab… the driver drives for about 5 minutes and I am at Weta Workshop…
From the outside it is a rather plain looking manufacturing looking facility… but as I walked past the security guard’s booth I see hundreds of heads… hundreds of molds… all being set to be destroyed, as they have no room for storage. A waterfall of tears cascade from my cheeks… DESTROYED? Oh the agony… the torment!
As I’m in the midst of a MATRIX style kung fu fight with the guards, Richard Taylor, head poobah of Weta Workshop, comes jogging up to meet me. He shakes my hand and says I can drop off my bag upstairs where we’ll begin the tour. So I go up, and drop off the bag.
The stairway has pictures alongside the walls of creatures and effects that WETA WORKSHOP have created in the 14 years they’ve been tinkering and creating magic.
Now before I start this you must understand something… I saw roughly 35,000 objects created for LORD OF THE RINGS in a one and a half hour time frame…. I was introduced to dozens and dozens of folks creating the stuff… handed an ice cream cone, a coke and various objects that I’d give my right and left nut to possess. I held everything from Sting to Gandalf’s (I know I’ll misspell it) Glamdring the Thoehammer (alright scream at me, I don’t have the sacred text on me at the moment.) Did I see Gollum and the Balrog? Well… I’ll put it this way… I saw about 75 maquettes of each of those characters. What did they look like… well, they were all Gollum-y and Balrog-y…
Alright… Gollums ranged from Froggy giant eyed large mouthed things… to emaciated drooping fleshy shells of Hobbits… Some had long stringy patchy areas of hair… some were clean shaven…. It literally felt like being at the end of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE… "Choose one, but choose wisely!" Balrogs ranged from having wings to not… to fiery manes to black monstrosities… all the designs had a primeval darkness to them.
Uruk Hai… well you remember those maquettes you saw in the Internet Teaser? They have a lot more…. Hundreds of the buggers. I don’t have the capability to tell you about them… I know it feels like a cop out… but ya know, to even do what I saw justice, I would need to be left alone in each room with a guide… my laptop and a case of caffienated soda and write about 10,000 words about each room of the place.
However, you want some good news? You want to be REAL FUCKING HAPPY? You see, Weta Workshop is basically done with LORD OF THE RINGS… they still have some miniature work they are doing… but… to make sure they don’t lose the creative staff they have… Right now, WETA is in the process… alongside SIDESHOW TOYS… of delivering their own sculpts and reproductions of the items used in LORD OF THE RINGS… the creatures, the characters, the costumes, the weaponry… EVERYTHING. Hundreds of items… sculpted by the same people that made the items for the movie.
As far as I know, this is the first time this has been done. All I know is I want a pair of SAM’s Feet, a one true ring, Sting and Gandalf the Grey’s staff and hat and the Witch King’s helmet.
TOY FAIR this year is going to have some AMAZING things on display… I’ve seen the artist’s proofs that Weta is finishing.
I went through the prosthetic’s department… hanging bodysuits of Uruk Hai and Goblins and Orcs… leg muscles, arm muscles… everything. HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS of body parts to be worn. Helmets and masks… nightmarish primitive monstrosities… Elven armor… everybit as gorgeous as you would expect… lettering that I can’t read, but perhaps some of you could… Armor… beaten out of steel, molded and reproduced… all with that beaten tooled look as if by hand. The goblin armor with that porcupine deathy cruel rusted nasty look…
Then there was the area with things 30 or 40 feet high… I point towards this Troll in the corner…. "How the fuck do you even begin to sculpt something that big?"
Richard Taylor answers, "Oh, with a chainsaw!"
Then there was Minas Tirith… and it’s a Three Dimensional ALAN LEE Painting! GIGANTIC! I mean it was friggin ENORMOUS… it’s a miniature…. Well, yeah, if you were the size of that freaking troll in the corner.
I mean, why do they even have one that big? I understand sculpting for detail, but crikey… That’s like bigger than Winston’s big things. What’d the troll look like? LIKE AN ALAN LEE TROLL! What did you think?
Watcher in the Lake…. Well again… there were like 25 designs all over the place, but I don’t know which one… if any… they are going with, but all the designs had tentacles… I know that… some had bigger suckers… some had no suckers…
There were like 15 Treebeard maquettes… and having seen Treebeard the other day… I can tell you, none of these maquettes were Treebeard. So what does that tell me?
I DON’T KNOW!
All I know is I want this stuff delivered to me in AUSTIN…. Pronto!
You know the pictures you see of the Lucasfilm Archive… ya know how in any one shot you can recognize 500 or so Star Wars and Indiana Jones items?
And they told me that most of the cool stuff was packed away somewheres. ACK! I felt like Raymond Babbitt in a Casino! And when they took me into the archive…
As a Peter Jackson geek, I about lost it. The first thing my eyes locked onto… Christ, I was in love the moment my eyes locked onto the red and white pajama striped body of Baby Selwyn! That’s right, the little bugger from BRAIN DEAD (aka DEAD ALIVE)!!! And then I saw, The Feebles! And over there was Diello from HEAVENLY CREATURES! And over there was MUM! OOOOhhhh the stomach and the intestines! Oh my god… I want to just live here. If only Richard would leave me alone long enough to make off with Baby Selwyn! That would RULE! Screw all this Lord of the Rings stuff…. I want BABY SELWYN!!! It looks almost exactly like my nephew… but cuter.
I went through the Leather department…. 3 leather craftsmen were tooling away on garments and such for costumes… all hand tooled… hand beveled hand sewn…. Hand dyed. Oh the smell of this room was outstanding. It reminded me of my father’s workshop that I grew up in. We did leather work and metal work…. Bronze sculpture and all for the first 12 years of my life… sigh…. This was grand. The smell isn’t like that of LEATHER STORE at the mall…. There, you have a slight chemical odor added to the shredded funk of dried animal skin… Here, it’s the raw leather smell… the particles in the air are thick and pungent. I love this smell. I wish Minas Tirith smelled like this.
We visit the Metal workshop… there is this man from the 11th Century there… doing engraving work on armor… the OLDE WAY! I could spend two days with this guy alone. I mean, this is the stuff I dig like you wouldn’t believe….
Then there are the sculptors… they are throughout the building… doing the thingees for TOY FAIR and SIDE SHOW!
This mates… this is going to rule. The detail work throughout is enough to fry my brain by itself. Going through the family crests of Middle Earth… symbols that then become incorporated into their armor…. That Elven writing on this or that… Elvish bows… Goblin bows…. Rohan Bows…
Uruk Axes Dwarf Axes… and on and on and on.
We will have hundreds of items available over the next lifetime… I mean, lets face it folks… there is a new merchandizing beast on the horizon, and for the first time I can remember… the effects house is doing it themselves.
OH…. And then there was the freaking KING KONG SCULPTURE where he battles 3 T-REXs. ACKKKKKKK!!!!!!! God I want this… they had one down below that was a rush paintjob. I’ll take that one… I’ll strip it and paint it up proper. Call Robert Rodriguez… ask him… I’m a damn great model painter.
I discover that I have officially begun to take up too much of Richard’s time at the hour and a half mark… and my brain is COMPLETELY OVERLOADED. The problem is, this was a whirlwind tour… and when you have nothing to compare it too besides John Howe and Alan Lee artwork… well, all I can say is it looks like John Howe and Alan Lee artwork…. Looks like primal evil things… looks like dwarves and elves and men of Gondor. The Rohans look like they look… the various kings and generals and such… all look great.
Was there a design that didn’t fit? Of the 30 some odd thousand things did I see something that didn’t work? Yeah… some of the maquettes for the characters didn’t work… but their later designs ruled… I just hope they have had a photographer going through archiving the images of everything.
I mean this. You can not even begin to understand the enormity of what I saw today. I barely have a grasp of it. I’ve been to effects studios before… you go through, and the majority of what you see is older projects… the new stuff is there… but in the similar amounts as the old stuff….
DUDES! Weta Workshop has created MIDDLE EARTH! 2 guys did like a half billion rings of chainmail and put them together! I saw thousands of weapons…. Hundreds upon hundreds of creatures and armor and body parts…. This was like the Grinch production even bigger.
As I went through it all… all I could think is, noone has seen anything like this.
The closest thing is Star Wars, but that is science fiction fantasy. This is hardcore Fantasy, and in this realm… something on this scale has never ever existed.
I truly wish you were with me on this. At this point, I’m a zealot. Magic is happening down here. I just can’t believe how much work has been done… and how great it all looks.
I remember as a kid watching Leonard Nimoy on Nickelodeon doing a special on RETURN OF THE JEDI… and I sat there in my parents’ bedroom at 4526 Red River and watched the Gamorrian Guard costume and thought… Sweet Jesus that’s cool. I remember a giddiness and I saw Speeder Bikes and an incomplete Death Star… Everything… and today, I got to be Leonard Nimoy walking around the shop of a new generation’s future religion of fandom. Today was a very good day.
I dearly wish you were here… I wish I had someone to come back to the hotel to talk to about this stuff! I wish Dad were here. Hell, even that bastich Moriarty. Just someone that could vaguely associate with the level of excitement I have built up in me right now. I feel like Dave in 2010…. What’s going to happen? "Something Wonderful!"
Cheers mate, I need a cold shower…