THE MAG: Cover story - 'Ring' bearer

Lawrence artist has crucial hand in look of 'The Lord of the Rings'

In 1937, a quiet Oxford University professor named J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a book called "The Hobbit," based on stories he had made up for his children about a little fellow who leaves his comfortable home and embarks on a great journey. The book was successful, and his publishers requested a sequel. Nearly two decades later, he obliged with "The Lord of the Rings," a meticulously detailed, three-volume fantasy adventure, this time written for grown-ups.

Set in the long-lost world of Middle-earth, the "Rings" trilogy is full of magical creatures, strange tongues (Tolkien was a lifelong student of language) and a powerful sense of wonder mingled with doom. By the end of the 1960s, the books had become a cultural phenomenon, inspiring countless other works of fiction and spawning a devoted fan base.

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Elijah Wood stands on one of the many CGI-enhanced sets of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

Inevitably, filmmakers dreamed of bringing the story to the screen, but capturing the scope of Tolkien's creation seemed nearly impossible. Those who tried usually relied on animation, Ralph Bakshi's 1978 attempt being the most famous (or infamous) of the lot. To truly do Tolkien justice, however, someone would have to find a way to make this world seem real, and that would almost certainly mean undertaking a risky, expensive live-action version. Until recently, that was apparently a prospect too daunting for any studio or filmmaker to risk.

Enter Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director best known for unnerving splatter films ("Dead Alive") and even more unnerving dramas ("Heavenly Creatures"). A longtime Tolkien fan, Jackson gratefully accepted the generosity of New Line Cinema, which gave him nearly $300 million to make separate films of all three "Rings" books, which he shot together over a 15-month period.

When the project was green-lighted in 1998, Jackson began assembling a crew that finally included over 2,000 people. Screenplays had to be written that would remain faithful to the stories while still condensing them to feature length. Actors had to be cast who would fit Tolkien's descriptions and live up to fan expectations. Locations had to be found that could pass for the wild, magical realm of Middle-earth. Sets, props and costumes had to be manufactured to precise specifications.

And there had to be trolls. And orcs, dwarves, elves, wizards and hobbits. Creatures like the slimy Gollum and the fiery Balrog needed to look as solid as the human actors. Characters would live in the Shire, rest at Rivendell and travel through the Mines of Moria. If all those things weren't completely believable, the audience would laugh the movie right off the screen.

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Melissa Lacey/Journal-World Photo Donny Rausch, a Kansas University graduate, re

Donny Rausch, a Kansas University graduate, relocated from Lawrence to New Zealand to work on the film's visual effects.

Massive undertaking

In this regard, Jackson's horror film past ended up being a blessing � he had years of experience with cinematic trickery (his previous effort "The Frighteners" was an optical showcase), and wasn't the least bit intimidated by the more than 500 visual effects shots required for the first "Rings" movie alone.

It also helped that he was a co-founder of Weta Limited, a special effects company whose Digital division handled nearly all the movies' computerized tasks (the Workshop branch took care of the physical effects). The company even developed Massive, a program that gave digital characters an artificial intelligence, allowing them to react individually to their environments in crowd scenes. Jackson's technicians did everything from matching the colors in different shots to creating entire armies of rampaging orcs.

One of those technicians was Donny Rausch, a Hoyt native who graduated from Kansas University in 2000. Rausch agreed to commit two years of his life to the job, and left his Lawrence home to move to New Zealand where all the filming and most of the post-production took place. Credited as a Digital Paint Artist, Rausch started on the initial film, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," with jobs like painting out the markers that were placed on blue screens to orient perspective and camera movements in computer-generated scenes. Before long, however, he found himself assigned to more momentous duties, and his handiwork can been seen, to varying degrees, throughout the entire film.

Rausch's talent is on display early in the story, in a scene that features the outwardly simple action of one character handing an object to another. In this case, however, the characters are the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), between which there is supposed to be a considerable height difference.

"In the beginning, Ian McKellen was (in front of) a blue screen, and he had his own staff," Rausch explains. "He's miming the whole time to somebody who wasn't actually even there. When he handed (the staff) to Bilbo, somebody else was actually receiving it."

Holm's part of the scene was shot on the hobbit hole set, with the help of a stand-in.

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Gandalph (Ian McKellen) arrives at the Shire, a region inhabited by hobbits.

"In (Holm's) case, there was a guy who was really, really tall, so he was interacting with that guy. It was an eye reference for him (so he'd know where to look during the scene)," Rausch says. "What I had to do was take the staff that Gandalf had and morph it into the staff that Bilbo had. When they were handing it, I just made them match up to each other, and made one part equal another part."

Head games

Much more challenging was the job Rausch did for most of the film, doing head and face replacements, primarily for the actors playing hobbits. He even had to "direct" star Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo Baggins, when an attempt to digitally place his head on the body of a child stand-in wasn't working out. When the scene was shot on the set, a blue sock was placed over the boy's head ("he looked like one of those Mexican wrestlers," Rausch jokes) and he was carried by actor Sean Bean, playing Boromir, as they run from an attacking foe.

Earlier, Wood had filmed his portion in front of a blue screen, but when Rausch tried to insert the actor's head into the finished sequence "(it) looked like it was flying off, like he was possessed by the devil or something, and we couldn't have that" Rausch says. "So I went ahead and kind of directed Elijah to look in a certain way and react in certain ways so we could get a better take of it. He was also looking in the wrong direction (the first time). When he shot it the second time, he nailed it."

The scene in question was part of a fast-paced action sequence, which made Rausch's job more difficult.

"Peter wanted (Boromir) to carry (Frodo) off and have a lot of motion in the scene," Rausch explains, "so they shot it at a high frame rate, 48 frames per second, instead of the normal 24 frames per second. (That) made it even harder to do, because it was in slow motion and everything had to look a lot better. So it took me quite awhile to do it."

Even seemingly small matters become important when creating illusions under such circumstances.

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Director Peter Jackson, left, confers with actor Viggo Mortensen on the set of "The Fellowship of the Ring."

"I had to think about things like atmospheric haze, which is, as things go off in the distance, they get a little more blurry, and they get a little foggier, and the color changes," Rausch says. "There's a lot of little, tiny things there, around the neck and things like that, you have to make stable and not shake around and cover up here and there."

Lifelong fan

Although his work kept him in front of the computer most of the time, Rausch was able to visit some of the "real" Middle-earth while he lived in New Zealand.

"We got to go eat lunch a couple of times on two different sets that are dealing with the next two movies," he says, being deliberately vague about the details (confidentiality is a high priority with this project). "The craftsmanship was amazing, and you'd be so amazed at what these things are actually made of."

He was also taken with how well such a huge production was kept under control.

"There were, like, 50 little things that went into one shot," he points out. "It kind of got a little crazy at times, but over all, it was really, really good. I was very impressed by the organization."

Rausch had little direct contact with Jackson, who usually relayed his wishes through Jim Rygiel, the visual effects producer. Rausch did notice one amusing thing about the director that made him seem even more perfect for the job of bringing Tolkien's work to life.

"He (looks) like a hobbit," Rausch says with a laugh. "He's short and he's barefoot all the time, and he's kind of a hairy guy, too. At the cast and crew party at the end, (Special Effects Designer) Richard Taylor came over with this little thing they were going to present Peter with onstage later. (It was) a sculpture of Peter with a little megaphone and director's chair, but they made him as a hobbit. It was so cool."

Rausch was an illustration major at KU, where he began studying animation and computer graphics. While still a student, he did video graphics work for Sunflower Cablevision, working on commercials and news programs, and also made short animated films that won awards at the KAN Film Festival. His manager at Sunflower met someone who worked for Weta Digital, and recommended Rausch for a job.

"They kind of put my tape on the top of the pile," he says, noting that there were 3,000 applicants for his position, "and they decided that I would be good enough to come down there and paint for them."

Getting the chance to work on "The Lord of the Rings" had a special meaning for Rausch, who had never been a member of a feature film crew before.

"All my brothers and I were big fans of it (growing up)," he says. "My brother actually had his room all decorated in J.R.R. Tolkien stuff. We had always said that we'd love to make an (animated) 'Lord of the Rings' movie when we got older, but we never really thought one of us would actually be working on it."

Back to the Shire

Rausch will be returning to New Zealand to finish work on the next two films, which have both completed principal photography. His contract extends through October 2002, with release dates for the upcoming movies set for Christmas 2002 (for "The Two Towers") and Christmas 2003 (for "The Return of the King").

"It's in the very early stages right now," he says of "The Two Towers," for which re-shoots and post-production work still need to be finished. "Not too much of the CG or anything like that is done. As far as filming goes, it looks just like the first one."

So far, Rausch does not have his next project lined up, preferring instead to focus on the enormous job at hand and enjoy the feeling of being involved in something so special.

"It's like a dream come true," he says. "I always wanted to do something like this when I was little. I never thought it would be such a big thing so quickly."

A small-town adventurer, caught up in something he could never have imagined? Tolkien would have loved it.

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