Interview with the
Visual Effects Producer for WETA and for THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Talk to anyone in the film industry these days and
sooner of later (generally sooner) the conversation turns to The Lord of the Rings. So we
are especially pleased when Weta's Charlie McClellan agreed to take 30 minutes out of his
busy schedule to give deputy editor Nick Grants a progress report. American-born McClellan
got his start in films as post-production executive for Miramax Films "I was
the blades of Harvey Scissorhands," he laughs ruefully (Miramax is notorious for
recutting the films they handle, and co-chairman Harvey Weinstein most notorious of all
hence the nickname). "But since tinkering with other people's artistic
creations wasn't something I wanted to be known for, and because I wanted to get closer to
the filmmaking process itself, I took a job with Peter Jackson as post-production
supervisor on The Frighteners
" Now, after working on the film, as well as
Forgotten Silver, Jack Brown Genius and Contact, McClellan has taken on of the task of
RINGS' VISUAL FX RINGMASTER
Q.: What's your role?
I'm visual effects producer for Weta. It's largely administrative one of my
chief duties is to ensure that the visual effects plan is set up so Peter can get the most
out of all his crew on artistic level and not have to worry about the logistics of it.
They are very, very visual effects intensive films and so visual effects are a major
consideration from the very earliest stages.
Q.: How long have you been working on "Rings"?
We began an R&D effort in mid-November in '97, so we've been there almost a
We've got about 20 people in digital doing computer software development,
CGI [computer generated image] modelling and texturing, pre-visualisation, and the motion
studies for the animation for creatures and crowds. And in the workshop there are about 45
people doing design, prototyping and manufacture of creatures, armour, weapons,
prosthetics and miniatures. So they're full steam, working closely with some of the top
Tolkien artists from around the world who are here helping us with the conceptual design.
Location scouting is currently taking place, and Peter and Fran are working on the script.
Coasting is yet to begin I think they intend to be into that by the end of the
year. We've already been inundated you say 15,000 extras and, boy, everyone knocks
down your door
Q.: How would you describe the stage you're now at?
At the moment we're really in a preparatory phase prior to the pre-production
they're calling it pre-pre-production over at Windnut. We're seeking out the
various technical pipelines through which we can deliver an enormous amount of work in a
short period of time. Bad planning has been endemic in visual effects work for quite some
time and that compromises the quality of work and burns everyone out. So the new trend is
to make a good solid plan and stick to it, in order to avoid getting into bailout mode and
having to throw as much money at it as you can to get it done in time. We're working with
US$130 million , which is 43 million US bucks per film for everything, including the
effects. So it really begs for smart, up-front planning to be able to pull it off. It's
certainly the biggest challenge of my career.
Q.: A year's preparation is unusual, isn't it?
Yeah, it is unusual, but it's also crucial. The only way to nail it is to get as
much out of the director's head as early as you can, so you can get a feeling for where
the entire project is going across the board. Then when they slip you a change, a new idea
which is all part of the artistic flow of movie making you need to be able
to shift gears, so we're setting up an intelligent administrative and technical structure
to accommodate that
As part of the planning we've got a pre-visualisation unit
fleshing out what some of the visual effects sequences are going to look like and editing
them together with the dialogue and everything, so you're actually looking at an early
pre-visualised sequence of the movie, where camera angles and timing are taken into
consideration. It's a way of getting everyone quickly onto the same page and to erase the
costly lines between pre-production, production, and post-production. You don't wanna lock
your director down completely but you wanna make sure everyone has the chance to
understand what the intention are going into a sequence.
Q.: That'll be particularly important given the number of
units that'll be shooting
There could be a time when five different camera crews are rolling simultaneously,
yeah, and to be able to provide each of those camera crews the information about how there
piece of the puzzle fits into the overall effects plan the cost benefits of that
are hard to calculate, they're so great. And the art department, for example if you
have a pre-visualisation of a sequence involving a set that hasn't been made yet, you
might discover there's huge areas of the set that you don't even need to build because
you've already decided that you never actually need to look that way. So it really has a
way of benefiting everyone.
Q.: And of course CGI shots require a great deal of
Yeah, the camera angles, how many elements are going to go into a particular CGI
shot and what are these elements? Are they 2D or 3D elements, are they creatures that have
to act and perform, are they effects animation like lava or fire that need to be added to
a particular plate, or clouds to give a certain mood? You need to be able to track all of
those CGI elements to a pixel accurate level into the shot, so that when they're
composited they fit perfectly and you believe that they're there. Since it's a live action
film, Peter wants it to seem like Middle Earth is actually a place that still exists after
thousands of years and we're lucky enough to go there and film. On that level the biggest
challenge for the computer effects side of it is to be able to create invisible effects,
because if you're looking at the film and you're thinking, 'This is a nice effect', then
we've failed. You need to be able to just look at the screen and be drawn into the movie.
Q.: Using 'normal' sized actors for the hobbits will be a
technical nightmare, won't it?
We're using all different kinds of traditional techniques to pull that off. The
idea is for us to be able to switch from technique to technique, back and forth in a
seamless way, so people aren't constantly going, 'Oh it's a nice computer composite';
they're going, 'How the hell are they doing this?' Forced perspective, for example. If
these hobbits are half the size of humans, then to geet an in-camera trick conceivable all
you have to do is move that character half the distance again from the camera and, as long
as you're able to cheat the eye lines, you've created the same illusion as you did in the
computer. Then there's using oversized doubles in the form of puppets or rigs in the
foreground, and for extreme longshots you could use scale doubles. Peter wants to use
normal sized actors, for the hobbits but when they're far enough away from the camera you
can interchange them with doubles. So, for example, a tall person could double for a human
character, while a small child, say, stands in for the hobbit.
Q.: There's been talk of using CGI with artificial
intelligence for battle scenes
We're still going to be shooting extensive foreground battle elements, using
hundreds and hundreds of extras, but this is just to send the battles off into the expanse
as far as the eye can see, as Tolkien described them huge, huge armies in gigantic
battles taking place on expansive open ground. We're writing our own code to increase the
interactive capability of CGI crowds, because a battle is incredibly interactive
when somebody swings at someone else they're either going to block it or they're going to
die. The amount of animation that would have to go into that just becomes unwieldy, so
this is another way around complex problems.
Q.: So how far along the process are you?
[Sighs] Hard to know. [Laughs] It's really hard to know. We're slated to begin
shooting next June. I think the effects team will be ready to go by then, but we could use
it's just a mater of how much time you've got really
How long is a piece of
Q.: Were you already a fan of the book?
To tell you the truth, I've just finished the first one, and I'm onto the second
one. I think I'm one of the only people involved in the production that actually read the
scripts first and now is reading the books. And maybe that's of use, coming at it from a
slightly different angle
I'm a very slow reader, that's my problem I'm trying
to visualise every sentence as I read.
Q.: Well, the trilogy is a bit of a doorstop isn't
[Laughs] It's a ripping good read, though, for sure some of the first one's
a bit slow but the intellectual property for three great movies is certainly there