Along come a spider, Witch-king, ’58 Chevy
By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
New Line Cinema may be downplaying the effects while making one final Oscar pitch when the conclusion of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King, opens Dec. 17. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some neat visual feats afoot in the embattled universe of Middle-earth. What your eyes can look forward to:
**Creepy-crawly Shelob. Forget that eight-legged freak from the last Harry Potter movie. This CG she-arachnid that attacks hobbits Sam and Frodo is built to give no less than director Peter Jackson himself the heebie-jeebies.
“Peter is a chronic arachnophobe,” says Richard Taylor, head of the Weta Workshop. When his friend first moved out of his parents’ home, “he bought the smallest house in Wellington. It was really two rooms. One weekend he asked if we could help clean his garage out. It was because it was infested with big black spiders. The whole design process of Shelob has been dictated by what makes the hair on the back of his neck go up.”
Inspired by native New Zealand spiders such as the tunnelweb, this leggy gal’s most distinguishing feature is the fact that baby’s got back. J. Lo-size back. As for her other end, Taylor says that after Jackson rejected the first version as not being scary enough, “we spent three months redesigning the facial features. Because she is ultimately the only female adversary, we had to try to invest that level of personification in her. She’s the elder stateswoman, like Cruella de Vil.”
Does she talk? Says Taylor, inconclusively, “No. Well, we’ll see.”
**A more substantial Witch-king. When we first saw this lord of the Nazgul, also known as the Ringwraiths, he was a wisp of a ghostly figure who haunted Frodo after the hobbit put on the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring.
But the brawnier foe who participates in the Battle of Pelennor Fields has been reconfigured into a tough armor-encased nightmare with a tall spiky helmet.
“In the third film, the Nazgul are back on their flying fell beasts,” Taylor says. “They are armored up and serious fighting machines. Peter is very much into treating them like the German Stukas of the second World War. They swoop down silently out of the sky and create huge devastation.”
**Orc version 2.0. The orcs, the rat-faced fiends who were mere bumblers next to those massive Urak-hai warriors in The Two Towers, have reorganized into a lean, mean fighting unit.
“Peter gave us the opportunity to create a new, more organized race that has a militarized feel,” Taylor says. “We had theorized that orcs were this ragtag army of mercenaries that sweep across the land, picking on the carrion of Middle-earth. For the final battle, we realized that orcs needed a much more malicious presence. There are these aggressive elitist fighting forces.”
With 100,000 orcs participating in the massive Battle of Pelennor Fields, Taylor and his crew decided to provide them with distinguishing features. “We played around with prosthetics. We created an Elephant Man-style orc and characters with more mutated growths.”
The Battle of Pelennor Fields – Fallen Mumakil**Powered-up pachyderms. Speaking of elephants, they’re back. The beasts of war that are the mumakil, also known as oliphaunts, are akin to the AT-AT walkers in The Empire Strikes Back. In The Two Towers, “you saw them being transport vehicles,” says visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel. “Like big tanks bringing troops to battle. This is where they get to put their war paint on. You are going to see them in the thick of the battle.”
**Keep a lookout. Occasionally, in-jokes are stuck in the background. In The Return of the King, watch for a ’58 Chevy parked in the swamps near the city of Minas Morgul, according to Alex Funke, visual effects director of photography for the miniature unit.