The Lord of the Rings trilogy has a dragon’s wealth of indelible cinematic moments to choose from. Who can forget when Samwise Gamgee swam to Frodo Baggins even though he couldn’t swim? Or when Gandalf arrives at the first light to turn the tide against the forces of Isengard? These are touching moments of high emotion that resonate even 20 years after they were first encountered.
But the one that resonates the most is obviously when Legolas got on that horse like that.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies' 20th anniversary, and we couldn't imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we'll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon's Year of the Ring.
In the warg attack sequence of The Two Towers, Legolas has gone ahead to observe the oncoming foe, and as the Rohirrim catch up to him he senses Gimli approaching on horseback. Legolas turns, grabs his galloping steed by the breast collar, and then he swings in front of the horse, rotates in the air, and lands in the saddle in front of Gimli.
It’s a spectacular stunt, showcasing the elf’s agility and strength. And it’s a magnificent feat of visual effects work from Weta Digital. But why on Middle-earth was it necessary to have him get on a horse that way? And is there any chance that it’s a physically possible thing to do, by man or elf?
Surely, a scientist and the folks at Weta Digital had answers.
How to put Legolas on a horse, with magic
The Extended Edition of The Two Towers reveals the genesis of this particular shot in its half-hour “Weta Digital” segment. In it, actor Orlando Bloom, director Peter Jackson, and Weta Digital’s Matt Aitken, Joe Letteri, and Jim Rygiel discuss the scene only briefly. Aitken, still a visual effects supervisor at Weta Digital today, spoke to Polygon to provide more details into how that scene was made.
As is made clear in the DVD featurette, digitally putting Legolas on a horse wasn’t in the original plan. All three Lord of the Rings movies were shot simultaneously, and on that scale, accidents occur. After falling off of a horse earlier in the day, Bloom had cracked a rib, and was unable to performed the stunt as planned. The filmmakers had footage of the Rohirrim reaching Legolas, with Bloom hopping into the air with one arm raised. In the editing room, Jackson and company discovered the need to complete that sequence. That’s when they decided to use a digital double.
A digital double is a virtual recreation of a live-action character, allowing filmmakers to fill in the gaps in production and innovate where the use of stunt doubles would be dangerous. Weta Digital’s digital double work is commonplace nowadays, cropping up in movies like Furious 7, Gemini Man, and even the climatic sequence of Avengers: Endgame. But during the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the company was still experimenting with this tech, as with a brief shot of digital miniatures of the Fellowship crossing the Bridge of Khazad-dûm in The Fellowship of the Ring. In the case of Legolas getting on the horse, the team at Weta Digital had a more difficult job ahead of them: a handoff from the live-action footage of Legolas to a completely new CGI version of the character.
Aitken told Polygon, “In terms of Weta Digital’s history, I think it was probably our first big digital double shot. It was a technology that we were working up. We had done little background figures and our massive armies in the battles, but they were already quite small in frame. To have a digital character that big in the frame, he’s pretty much full frame. To have him hold up and not be too distracting for the audience. I think that shot was a turning point for us.”
Having to make a full-frame digital model look convincing was intensive work. “[In] two and a half months, [former Weta Digital animator Christopher Hatala] did about thirty-five different versions of what this action could be,” said Atiken. “He had Legolas going up on one side of the horse, using a stirrup to get up. Another version he does a backflip, spirals in the air, and lands behind Gimli. He does one [motion] just as the horse lifts its foot forward and creates a step ladder.”
Eventually, they created the one you finally see in the film, though Aitken acknowledges that “if you looked at that action from any other angle, it would look ridiculous. It would defy the laws of physics. I think [Legolas] goes through the ground and goes through the horse. I think he probably goes right through Gimli.”
Then, Weta Digital then needed to create a space where the 3D element of Legolas could live. “We’ve got the hill,” Aitken explained, “we’ve got a wireframe version of the horse. We’ve got a low-res version of Gimli on the horse, and we’ve got a digital puppet version of Legolas. The camera department creates this scene like you’re playing a three-dimensional computer game, and it matches exactly to what was filmed.” This technique, match moving, allowed WETA digital to manipulate a digital double of Legolas and integrate it into the scene.
In addition to settling on the specific movement, many factors work together to make the sequence believable. The lighting on the digital model has to match the real lighting on the day of shoot, the hair and cloth simulation has to match the live performer, who themselves have to be painted out of the shot once the digital double takes over. All of those elements are then layered to create a convincing CGI character that is the focal point of the action.
The CGI version of Legolas wasn’t even the only digital element in the scene. Aitken told me, “[Bloom] fires an arrow and that would be digital as well. One thing that I can guarantee is [Bloom] never fired a real arrow at any point of The Lord of the Rings. They were all added later in CGI.”
How to put Legolas on a horse, with science
Understanding how the scene was made is one thing, but it’s obviously impossible for a real human to do, right? Unless… Rhett Allain, who has a doctorate in physics and is a science consultant for MacGyver, talked with Polygon on the real world logistics of Legolas’ horse leap.
The first problem Allain raised was the amount of force his movement would have on a human arm. Allain told Polygon, “You grab on with one arm, and then you’re going from 0 to 10 miles per hour in a very short amount of time. That’s a very large force on your arm. If I did that I think it would dislocate my shoulder.”
Another issue comes from how the artists approached the animation. Despite how epic it looks in motion, something about how Legolas moves remains odd. “I don’t think that’s physically realistic, but stylistically, I was trying to figure out why they would animate it that way. I couldn’t figure out the reason artistically that they would do that,” Allain said. “If he grabs on the horse, he’s on the right side of the horse. You would think he would swing up on the right side of the horse, but instead he swings out in front of the horse and on the other side.” Not only would a human seriously injure their arm trying to attempt the action, Allain said, it’s more likely they would mount the horse from its right side or be dragged along trying.
But Legolas isn’t exactly a human. Could his elf heritage have any bearing on our theorizing?
“Let’s say he’s an elf and elves don’t weigh as much as humans,” Allain said. “Or elves aren’t as strong as humans, which we don’t know either one. If they have a very high strength compared to their weight, maybe he could do this.”
How much do elves weigh? In order to determine the weight of Legolas, there is a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring that acts as a guide. As the Fellowship attempts to travel through the Pass of Caradhras, they all struggle as the path becomes choked with snow — except for Legolas, who displays his elven ability to walk on top of deep snow, leaving only the barest of traces. In 2017, Kyle Hill of Because Science used these parameters to show that Legolas’ body has a density of 72 or fewer kilgrams per cubic meter.
With that information in hand, Allain said “...his mass is probably, and I’m just guessing, 20 kilograms or something super small like that. That would make it easier for him to pull himself up on the horse, because you’re not changing momentum as much with the lower mass.” Even with that being the case, it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. “I would say it definitely stands out as a weird looking motion. It’s something that goes out of bounds of what we’d expect,” Allain said.
But even if it looks a little odd when you see Legolas getting on that horse, there’s no denying its effect in The Two Towers. It’s a crowd pleaser in every aspect. And for Weta Digital, it was an important scene in their history as well. It proved that digital doubles could be used in place of real actors.
“Digital doubles are a core part of our work that we get asked to do on pretty much every show we work on, and this was a real proving ground and turning point for us,” Aitken said. “As a visual effects facility to be able to achieve that shot, it showed filmmakers that it was available to them to help them not just get out of sticky situations that they got into, but also have their characters do things that maybe the actors wouldn’t be able to do or wouldn’t feel safe doing,” said Aitken. “We’re thrilled that we were able to pull it off and I’d like to think [Jackson] was pretty happy as well.”
The magnificent feat that Legolas performs might not be possible for man or elf, but nevertheless, Legolas got on that damn horse.