How Weta Digital pushed the FX envelope over the 13-year Middle Earth saga

For the past three years, the wizards of Weta Digital have returned audiences to Middle Earth after first enthralling viewers with its wonders a decade ago. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the last of Peter Jackson's six films in the saga, and, accordingly, the last chance to honor the series in the category of Best Visual Effects – the only category where all five films to date have picked up an Oscar nod.

Joe Letteri first arrived at Weta some 15 years ago, just as production on “The Fellowship of the Ring” was ending. His primary task was discrete enough but couldn't have been more important: creating the iconic creature Gollum. “I was interested in creature work – how do you make things come alive,” Letteri says. “At the time, there was a perception that visual effects artists primarily ‘blew stuff up,' whereas creatures were the work of puppets. 'Jurassic Park' began to change that but Gollum was a totally new idea. He was not just a creature, but a character. A lot of times it was just him on screen. That was really interesting.” Leterri has since remained, not only to become the anchor of Jackson's visual effects team but to be instrumental in event pics like “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Avatar” and the “Planet of the Apes” franchise.

Eric Saindon's journey on the Middle Earth films has been equally deep and intense. A native of Maine, he came to New Zealand on a six-month contract when “Fellowship” was filming in 1999. Fifteen years and four Kiwi children later, he's still there, though the organization has changed. “When I started, we had 35 people and for ‘Hobbit' we had about 1,400,” he says. “In size, it's drastically changed a lot but it's also gone from this very ragtag group of lone wolves putting it together at the end to being a very organized, well-oiled machine and getting lots of quality work at a good strong pace. Because of a strong pipeline, we can get these huge shows through.”

Letteri also reminisces about the early days. Some approaches to effects-creating have certainly changed. “In order to create Gollum, we wanted to approach how you would create him as a character,” he says. This required determining how to make the effects as believable as possible for each aspect of the character they were trying to create. For example, when Gollum flexed his arm, Letteri's team put inflatable bladders in his arms for his muscles, like a puppet's. But it was still the creating of an artificial character. That changed with “Avatar.” Letteri notes that “to really make it physically correct, we had to look at biology and understand how a body works wholly.”

In this sense, Letteri views himself as a scientist in many ways, with research on matters from physics (movement), biology (character creation) and meteorology (thunderstorms, anyone?) being pivotal to the work Weta pulls off. And speaking of which, advances in science are particularly obvious when looking at the changes in film technology from the early 2000s to the present.

Saindon views those changes as a positive thing. “Our pipeline is obviously a lot better – speed of computers and things like that,” he says. “But we have a huge group always pushing our pipeline and technology further into the realm of reality.” Saindon describes creation of hair as a case in point, notably that each hair can now be created using extremely realistic simulations, something that was not the case when he began working on “The Lord of the Rings.”

Letteri agrees that doing much more in the way of simulation has been the principal technological change. He explains that he has simply been able to create so much more of Middle Earth on a computer and have it look so realistic. This luxury was admittedly assisted by the fact that the world in which the characters found themselves was already implanted visually in viewers' minds. “With 'Hobbit,' we had already established that we're in this vast new world,” he says. “We wanted to expand it. If we were out shooting in the New Zealand landscape, we added something to it to make it more fantastical but that's changed to the point that in 'Battle of the Five Armies,' it's all digital. We took parts of the New Zealand landscape that we liked and put it in.”

Like all entries in Peter Jackson's Middle Earth canon, “The Battle of the Five Armies” posed new and daunting challenges. Letteri centers on particulars that his team had to create, using two examples. The first was Ravenhill. “It was a bit of a set piece that we shot with our actors but the set piece was in fact small,” he says. “We built all of Ravenhill as a digital model. Also, we had this big, broad landscape and Peter had this idea to give this heavenly, foggy, snowy look, and that wasn't in the photography. That was all something we did with massive simulation done custom for every shot that gave us the interesting, cold look to the landscape. That was new for us.”
Letteri's second example was the battle itself, which, for the actors, was shot in front of a green screen. “To create that landscape, everything you see became an entirely digital creation,” he says. “Those are all digital and then you'll cut into a close-up shot to our heroes fighting. Even the ground under their feet is all digital and just a huge amount of creative effort for us to get all the pieces, elements, interaction, simulation.”

Saindon also focuses on the battle itself: “Pete didn't even have time to sort out all the details of the Battle while filming. We finished filming and a year later, most of the battle was sorted out and we worked it all together with motion editors and animation supes.”

The saga's finale leaves bittersweetness in the minds of Weta's artists. At the same time, they are ready to move on. “It feels like it's time for it,” Saindon says. “If we went any further, we'd be dragging it out for too long. I'm a little bit sad because the longer you work on a character, the better the character becomes. Smaug was 100 times better in this movie than the last, in my opinion. It's unfortunate you get to be so good at a character and learn that side and then it leaves.”

As we leave Middle Earth, it's easy to forget that 15 years ago, Letteri and Saindon joined a small, quirky visual effects shop in New Zealand. Weta has changed the art form as skills have developed and continue to develop. And “The Battle of the Five Armies” stands as a testament to that particular growth over the last three years as well.