Story by Jack Foley
"I started with one goal: to take movie-goers into the fantastical world of Middle Earth in a way that is believable and powerful." - The Lord of the Rings director, Peter Jackson.
The story of how Peter Jackson brought JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is almost as epic in scale as the movie itself; but from researching its beginnings, it is easy to tell that the project became a labour of love for the New Zealand-born director.
From the start, it was clearly a mammoth undertaking, but Jackson feels it was worth it. "I've spent seven years of my life on this project so far," he notes, "pouring my heart into every single aspect of it. But I think that's the least we owe to Tolkien and the legions of fans around the globe. They deserve our very best efforts."
Jackson began by working on a trilogy of screenplays with fellow writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, a process that took three years in itself. For the first movie, The Fellowship of the Rings, they paid particular attention to Tolkien's many vivid descriptions of characters and places, hoping to build a viscerally true and vibrant world that would pull audiences into the adventure as virtual participants.
"We constantly referred to the book, not just in writing the screenplay, but also throughout the production," explains Jackson. "Every time we shot a scene, I re-read that part of the book right before, as did the cast. It was always worth it, it was always inspiring."
Early on in the development of the screenplays, Jackson took the bold decision to shoot all three films at once, something which has never previously been done. He felt that in order to do the tale's epic nature justice, he had to shoot it as one big story. It was a decision which resulted in a record-breaking commitment of time, resources and manpower.
The director immediately engaged the services of WETA Limited, New Zealand's premier physical effects house, under the direction of supervisor, Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, and gave them a mission: to create Middle Earth's physical reality, from the interiors of hobbit holes to the heights of Mount Doom.
He also employed a crew of over 120 technicians divided into six departments - creatures, special effects, make-up and prosthetics, armour and weapons, miniatures and model effects.
But before WETA could get to work, the filmmakers turned to two men who knew Tolkien's work best: conceptual artists Alan Lee and John Howe, who illustrated the Harper Collins editions of The Lord of the Rings. Freed from that format, Lee and Howe sketched madly, producing seminal images of the cultures, buildings and landscapes that make Hobbiton, Rivendell, Mordor and more feel so alive.
The sets which followed were largely carved from polystyrene, a material that can look like wood that has aged for thousands of years. WETA also weighed in with some remarkable innovations, using a polyurethane spraying machine developed for spraying rubber coatings on North Sea oil rigs to create up to one hundred helmets a day and create many of the worlds.
Production designer Grant Major oversaw the creation of such life-sized exterior sets as the intricate and delicate Elvish kingdom of Rivendell, the grassy knolls of Hobbiton, and the underground interior realms of the mines of Moria.
However, if the attention to detail has thus far seemed excessive, then consider that Jackson also took the decision at an early stage to make every single item in Middle Earth from scratch. This meant the creation of more than 900 suits of hand-made armour, more than 2,000 rubber and safety weapons, more than 100 special, hand-made weapons, more than 20,000 individual household and everyday items handmade by artisans, and more than 1,600 pairs of prosthetic feet and ears, individually sized and shaped.
"I would say that we have been fanatical about this project," said Taylor. "We wanted to stay fanatically loyal to the written word of Tolkien. The people I hired are people who have an intensive love of Tolkien, who bring a totally freshm written word approach to design."
In addition to the usual motion picture crew, WETA brought on board blacksmiths, leather-workers, sculptors and experts in medieval armour. A special foam latexing oven was running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to churn out hobbits' ears and feet, Uruk-Hai arms and legs, among other prosthetics.
"The level of reality in WETA's creations was such that you could pick up a sword that looked completely real and find out it was made from rubber," said Jackson.
In addition to the weapons and props, WETA also brought to life some of Middle Earth's most imaginative creatures, including the orcs, of whom no two are alike. Each of the 200 orc heads made for the film was therefore unique.
Yet throughout, WETA's team referred to one 'bible' - Tolkien's original novels. "We would photocopy appropriate passages from the books and place them all around the workshops as the artists worked," said Richard Taylor, head of WETA. "We were never without Tolkien's spirit on the set."
Once the sets were in place, however, and the armour created, the filmmakers set about finding a location that could represent the earth as it might have appeared 7,000 years ago. They chose New Zealand which, in the words of Jackson, "has the essence of the old European countryside", as well as a fantastical quality that made it perfect.
From the remarkable mountain ranges of Queenstown to the deserts of Tongariro, each unique distant location became home for a cast and crew of hundreds.
"Middle-Earth has a familiar feel to us, but as an audience you don't know exactly where it is. That is the beauty of New Zealand with fields that resemble England, mountains that could double as the Swiss Alps, or beautiful pristine lakes that you get in Italy. All this eclectic mix of locations in a small country where it is easy for a film crew to get from Point A to Point B," commented Rick Porras, associate producer.
The final aspect of creating Middle-Earth was the establishment of a digital universe, which was carried out by WETA Digital. They invested in a historical first in live-action filmmaking: a massive database that has stored every single frame shot in the making of The Lord of the Rings in a digital library that can instantly access, analyze and cross-reference any single item appearing in the film.
This means that every single element in the trilogy can be subject to digital manipulation, from landscapes to mood lighting to hobbits on horses. They were also responsible for creating some of the creatures on show, from Gollum, Treebeard, Balrog and the eye of Sauron.
And while audiences the world over look set to be enthralled by Jackson and WETA's creations, they can also look forward to seeing much more in the next two installments, when they are released over the next couple of Christmas holiday periods.