“We went 11 for 11 that night,” Joe Letteri says of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’s clean sweep (the highest in history) at the 2004 Academy Awards. Return of the King’s final Oscar haul tied it with Ben-Hur and Titanic for most Academy Awards won by a single film.
Among the awards was the statue for Best Visual Effects, accepted by Letteri, Jim Rygiel, Randall William Cook, and Alex Funke. Letteri, currently the director of Weta Digital, spoke to Polygon in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the film’s big night at the Oscars. Here, he breaks down five of the greatest creatures that made the leap from page to screen.
“We started with drawings from [illustrator and lead concept artist] Alan Lee, as did most of the creature designs, and really just took it from there. They’re based on elephants, of course, so there was a lot of study for that, and especially for Return of the King, because they have so much battle action and had those big battle towers on top of them.
“[The sense of scale] was really based on needing to get those towers on them for the battle, and to make that as big as possible but still make it look like these were creatures that could bear that weight. There was a lot of work that went into just trying to understand the physics of doing all that to get the weight right, and the muscle movement, and to get that big, shifting basket up on top, moving back and forth.
“When you’re doing it digitally, you tend to cheat those things. There would tend to be a fairly big sway. We would restrict the movement so it didn’t move that much, because otherwise it looked like the actors were getting thrown around too much. But you didn’t want to stiffen up the oliphaunt’s walk because that would’ve looked wrong as well, so we just kind of absorbed a little bit of the motion in the padding underneath the tower.
“There were some insert shots of the basket that were done practically on the stage with people on them, and then we would take those and put the elephant underneath them. Sometimes we only saw them in wide shots, like that big charging shot — those would all be digital.”
“In those days doing feathers was really hard; we spent a lot of time on those eagles. The feathers are very thin and they’re all layered together, and they break off into what is essentially fur, and it becomes very complicated to put all those things together.
“To really do it properly, you need to just run big simulations. You need to lay out all the feathers and let the computer run through all the calculations of what piece is colliding with what other piece. We’ve gotten better at the software that we need to do that and computers have gotten a lot faster so we can rely on them more. In those days, you really couldn’t, so we had to guide it a little bit more by hand. There was a lot of just going in and fixing everything by hand to make sure that all the feathers layered properly.
“Because they were eagles, we followed real birds as much as possible; the layout of the feathers, the guide feathers, the tail feathers, the way it’s all layered, from the beak and around the eyes and back onto the neck. We tried to be as faithful as possible, and then really just scaled the whole thing up.
“I think the only time we cheated that was on the close-up shots where you saw [characters] riding on their backs. We would bring the size of the feathers down because they’re big birds, and if you see them in a wide shot— you expect them to look like eagles, but if you think about that, it means they’ve got these really huge feathers. If you scaled them down and made more feathers then it wouldn’t look like an eagle anymore. But when you put the riders on their back for those close-up shots, those really big feathers looked out of place. It made everything look miniature.
“We would scale the feathers down so they looked more correct to the riders, because you never saw both, really. You’d see them in a wide shot, and then you weren’t paying attention so much to the scale of the riders or the feathers, but when you went in for the blue-screen shots where you saw the riders who were on the buck we use to put the bird underneath them, that’s when we would kind of adjust the size.”
Army of the Dead
“We had a couple of things to do there. One was obviously the look of them when you saw them, and that was just some great makeup, and then we treated the imagery to give you that [ghostly] look, especially on the king.
“One of the big things we had to deal with was the battle itself. The way Tolkien writes it is they’re kind of invincible, and that doesn’t make for much of a battle when they’re just going through everything. So Peter was actually very judicious in how and when he deployed them; you’ll see he kind of saves them for the end and uses them for the big payoff when you sort of already expect them to win. He just sort of brought that out in a few different stages until you just saw them swarming and taking over everything.
“As for how they move, in the caves, you’re seeing them awakening for the first time. They’re sort of assembling. There actually wasn’t a lot of room to float around so much because there were so many of them, but out in the battlefield, something more fluid was the idea. They were sort of running, but you needed them to be ghost-like, so they had a floatiness on top of it. We did work with that for a little while, because sometimes that could just look wrong, it could just look like things slipping. We played with that timing a lot to get something that still felt like they were running, but running in their own dimension that was allowing them to go faster than a normal run, and you get that ghostly kind of floating that goes with it.
“There was some difficulty in having them in daylight, because glowing things work better in dark caves than they do out in the sunlight. But again, our compositor spent a lot of time manipulating the images, popping the highlights here and there to make sure they still had that feeling of glowing and adding a little bit more contrast in the daylight scenes, that kind of thing.
“And then I remember Peter wanted us to come up with an effect for when they’re released from their bond, and so we tried several different ideas of how they might dissolve and break up and float away until we hit on the one that he liked. It was just playing with different ways of doing it. How big do you make the particles, do they look flaky or do they look smokey? Ultimately we stuck with the idea that there was something ghostly even as they were coming apart, because anything else felt like it was too physical. That’s not what they were supposed to be.
“I think we tried a couple of different colors for them, just because you always try to explore the different possibilities. But I think in the original concept art, it was a little bit greenish, and in the end, that’s where we landed. It seemed to fit better, especially once we got to the outdoor scenes. There was so much grass and natural colors around them. Orange wouldn’t have made sense for a ghost, and blue doesn’t quite work when you’re out in daylight, so we came back to the green. That seemed to be the best way to go.”
“They were fairly straightforward. The designs didn’t change too much from Alan’s drawings. Peter homed in pretty quickly on what he wanted for the design, and then Alan would pop in and give us some detailed sketches for — especially areas around the face — what that would look like.
“[The skin] had sort of a lizard quality to it. We went with that right off the bat and it seemed to work, so we stuck with it. We had that sort of purplish black skin on them. We really tried to play up the translucency of the wings; because we had gotten subsurface scattering working for Gollum, we thought that was another good place to use it, so that was helpful to have on those big wing flaps to see the light bleeding through. I know we played around a little bit with the armor and how the rider sat on them, but they kind of were what they were.
“I would say we spent most of our time just in the execution of the flight, just making sure that they looked appropriately big and scary, but could still do things like, there’s a shot where they rise up above the city and you’re almost coming up on a thermal, in a way — the way they just ride up and sort of hover there with the wraith on its back. It was a lot about the animation and the character that we put into them — that’s, I think, where we spent most of the time on those guys.
“[They were] a combination of bats and, really, eagles. Eagles are big birds, and they’re great flight reference when you’re doing big creatures, but of course the wings were more like bat wings. So we studied the two and tried to put the two together.”
“Peter has always had an intense fear of spiders, and so he wanted a big, scary spider. It was Christian Rivers who was with us at the time as one of our art directors — Christian just directed Mortal Engines — he actually found [these things] called trapdoor spiders. They live in little holes in the ground; they cover themselves with a little flap of dirt, and when prey goes by, they pop up and run out and grab it. He happened to find one in his garden one morning and just photographed it, and that was our reference, that was what we used. We got other pictures as well, but that was the main one.
“The biggest thing to remember about her design was trying to come up with what her eyes should look like. Spiders have eight eyes, but if you put them where real spiders’ eyes are, it doesn’t make for an interesting shot, because you don’t know which one you’re supposed to look at. So what we did is we moved the eyes around to have the two that you would recognize as eyes on a face. Those were the main ones and the other ones became less important around it.
“And then Peter, of course, wanted the sense of history, the scarring of the eyes and the sense that she’d been in a battle and had to be in lots of fights, whether for defense or prey, for all of her life. We did a lot of revisions of that to try to work all of that out, and then the look of the fur. At that scale, you get that translucent fur, but it’s almost like the beer bottle effect; when you get those big hairs that are that big in size, they get very refractive. That was something that was new for us, but we had to figure out how to make it look that way, so that when you backlit it, you got that nice kind of amber quality covering each of the furs.
“We spent quite a long time on her, getting the articulation right, getting the joints pretty close to a spider, but we took liberties because we wanted her to have a little bit more flexible motion than what a spider could do — just little changes here and there as we kind of worked out what she needed to do for animation. You can do the basic locomotion of all eight legs, you can study spiders and see what they’re doing, but you always need to come up with something interesting. Especially in the battle, when Sam is running around her and they’re fighting, you need to choreograph it so that each one is doing something to either hold the weight or be adjusted for the move, or to be striking out or moving in a direction she needs to move. With eight legs, you always have to be thinking about it because you don’t want any of them to look like they’re not engaged because then you lose the excitement, but you also don’t want them just flailing around for no reason at all because then it just looks wrong. The animators spent a lot of time just trying to find that right level.
“What we did for the fight was actually pretty cool. We had a stunt person on set in a blue suit, with this big extension with two fangs at the end. He did a lot of the fighting with Sam that way. Sean [Astin] actually reworked all of the animation, in a way, backwards for us, because he would grab the fangs and kind of fight with them and puppeteer it, and because we had to fit all that action to his hands, those became what her fangs were doing, and then we fit the body performance around that.
“The thing that really drove the scale was the scene where she needed to wrap up Frodo. She needed to be big enough to do that believably, because if you watch spiders doing that with insects, they can do them with insects that are fairly large compared to their body size, but we wanted something that felt a little bit more easy for her to handle to make it really look scary, so that relationship is kind of what drove the final pick on size.
“That scene was a combination between some live-action elements that we shot with Elijah [Wood] and then going to a digital double of him as he’s getting wrapped up in the wide shots when you see her spinning him around. We created this sort of silken, cloth-like texture that came out of her spinners and that she wrapped around him.”