“Dressing the Orcs in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was the project of a lifetime, says costume maker Matt Appleton. As the Orc Army art director, his work was a journey into dreams, fantasies and illusions, with just a few sketches drawn at the outset on what each Orc might look like.
Speaking at the College of Design, Fine Arts and Music, Appleton said the creation of the Orc costumes was an organic process, an exercise in resourcefulness. Although a great deal of work was put into the costumes in advance, it was when the crew were out on some remote location – when Jackson suddenly wanted five times the number of “hero” Orcs for his close-ups, for example – that things tended to get a little crazy.
“Having a whole crew waiting on you is a great way to focus the mind – on the other hand, the great thing about Orcs is the way you can cobble just about anything together, as long as its cool and tough and hard,” says Appleton of the flexibility his team needed on the set.
“So when the crew are all waiting on you – when you’ve put a jacket on someone that doesn’t fit – that’s when you’re whacking open those seams at the back that are not in shot, cobbling it all back together with safety pins. That’s when the really dodgy stuff happens.”
Appleton firstly worked from drawings to produce 100 suits of Elf armour. Each suit was made from about 50 pieces of polypropyline plastic, cut from sheets, then assembled like a kitset. The suits were held together with elastic straps at the back, to allow freedom of movement. The helmets were a fast-setting plastic, sprayed over a range of moulds.
Appleton says he pillaged op-shops in the Wellington region for jackets, coats and furs, all of which he shredded, dyed and layered, in various combinations, under the Orc armour.
“The Orcs had been fighting, living and sleeping in their clothes for years, so we had lots of fun building up the characters, splicing in the stuff we’d imagined they’d be looting off the soldiers they’d killed in battles they’d fought. I found a nobleman’s jacket always added a nice touch – particularly if you dressed it down with mud.”
Appleton says once shooting got into full swing, it was always bigger, always more. The crew were encouraged to put forward their best ideas, a lot of feedback went back and forth.
“The costumes had to keep changing, depending on where we were in the story, so we’d always be pulling them apart, reconstituting them as something else. A great deal of lateral thinking was also required – the Wraith Riders shoot at Otaki, for example. We only produced seven swords, but suddenly had nine Wraiths, so it was a case of taping flax on some garden stakes, spraying on silver paint, then handing them to the riders out on the end of the line.”
Appleton promises the battle scenes – all the black, terrifying stuff – will be stunning. “You’re working closely with the other departments, making sure your fake blood doesn’t stain the costumes or hair, for example, and with the amputations, you’re just off-camera, pulling off this fake arm as the sword goes through, pushing the button at the same time for the blood pumps, hoping the spray doesn’t cover the nearby actors too much…”
Even for fans of Jackson’s splatter movie past, these scenes will be impressive. Being an insider often had a certain surreal quality…
“You’re doing this incredible scene; you’ve got fake blood washing down the river, heaps of bodies strewn about and 100 fake dead horses scattered through the field. Then there’s a break for the reset, so you’re walking through all this mayhem, and you step on a foot. It looked like a fake, but then suddenly an extra yells ‘ouch’. Very embarrassing.”
Thanks for Cirdan at Herr der Ringe for telling us about this article.