Richard Taylor is the head of New Zealand’s WETA special effects workshop, which has produced such dazzling effects for the Lord of the Rings films. As we anticipate the third part of Jackson’s epic trilogy, Taylor takes a moment to tell us some secrets of the new film...
By making these films in New Zealand, do you think you brought a certain freshness of style to the effects work?
Definitely. Our workshop has a specific style and that is a New Zealand style. Being part of the British Commonwealth, and being on the furthest edge of the world, we’re in a certain mindset, or Time warp. We have the sensibility and the subtlety to understand Tolkien’s writing of 50 years ago. With five departments for the film, we could create an integrated design aesthetic, like weaving the different threads of a tapestry. Rather than grandstanding effects shots, we’ve created a tapestry in front of which the actors play out the main story. We haven’t won Oscars because we’re better or worse than anyone else in the world, we won them because we’ve produced a unique and different film. I think there’s a sensitivity and a harmony to the film. I was adamant from the outset that unless we felt completely in our hearts that we could do justice to Tolkien’s writing, we shouldn’t take on the project at all. And to do justice to it, you have to take the viewer out of the cinema and place them in front of a picture window, so they can look out on a world that is in front of them. The way to create that illusion is to create cultural inheritance, the feeling that the characters’ armour, their weapons, their insignia, have all come about due to a culture that has existed over many, many centuries. In pursuing that level of design aesthetic, the audience will be transported somewhere other than a darkened cinema, and can watch the film as if they are watching the real world rolling past them.
You went through quite an elaborate design process, with many hundreds of drawings and maquettes for each creature.
We wanted a physical reality for the creatures, so a character like the cave-troll, as bizarre as it is, is still based very strongly on the skeleton of a bipedal humanoid. Likewise, in The Return of the King, we have tried very hard to rationalize all the creatures, so at no time are they so fantastical that the audience is forced into a leap of the imagination. We want people to expect the creatures to exist, as an integrated part of the world. With the Mûmakil or Oliphaunts, we have created these huge 45-foot-tall elephants. They have huge battle platforms on their backs and 50 soldiers on the upper battlements. They were designed in the workshop, then maquettes were made of them, which we scanned and replicated as digital creatures. We built a fallen Oliphaunt and it was the biggest thing we made.
by Lawrence French