A (Not So) Brief Breakdown of my Weekend Film-Watching!

On a whim, I decided to watch the Lord of the Rings Trilogy over the weekend. I have owned the Special Extended editions since they came out, but never watched all three since the second two have nearly a four hour run time (actually I think the third movie is around four and a half hours long…) To make it more manageable, I watched the first one on Thursday night, and the first half of the second one Friday. The second half of the second movie was on Saturday night with my girlfriend, and I watched the entire 4 1/2 hours of the third film yesterday (after the Eagles game of course – how’s that for a movie marathon?)

Maybe it wasn’t entirely on a whim that I watched these, though. I did want to keep an eye specifically on the development of the special effects and 3D animation throughout the trilogy, and after watching it straight through like that, I was able to make some interesting observations. For instance, I know the entire trilogy was filmed almost straight through in New Zealand, with Peter Jackson’s WETA workshop adding digital effects throughout. This lessened production turnaround time considerably, and after the first film released, all the sequels were waiting on was completion of the special effects and post-production. But it did also lead to a really front-loaded schedule for the 3D artists, and it shows as you watch the progression of the trilogy.

For instance, in the first movie, notice in the large-army crowd scenes near the beginning that there are a lot of repeating animations. The artists creating that scene used models mapped to a particle system, something we here at DDA have used in some of our past work to generate a marching army of businessmen. If compared to the crowd scenes later in the trilogy, you can tell that they learned alot about varying the animations and even the model types, and creating better random chaos throughout.

Another very noticeable improvement the later films have over the first one is the digital compositing. While some scenes in Return of the King (the extended sequences especially) still feel a little unfinished, for the most part the green-screen environments which are so prevalent in this trilogy are less noticeable as the team learned more about color matching, lighting, and digital compositing in general.

Finally, we come to the star 3D character in all three films, Gollum. In the second film, Gollum looked good, but something about him didn’t always “fit” the scene right. Especially now, with 3D animation technology so far advanced from what it was even seven years ago, Gollum looked weird. By the third film, though, he was pretty much a real character. WETA nailed it; they even won an academy award that year. How did they advance so far with just one year between films? Simple – they were able to just iterate on the technology they’d already created. This is a technique that comes especially in handy at DDA when working in the medical field – if we create a medical 3D animation or model for one project, we are then able to store that model (and experience) away to use in future client work (in most cases – sometimes models are proprietary and need to be created again. Either way, the experience can definitely be re-used!)

So there you have it – an extensive breakdown of one of the most successful film trilogies of the 21st century. Until next time, when I do the Star Wars “Hexology” (and spin-offs!)