The Two Towers character garnering the best reviews so far is Gollum, the creature tortured and transformed by the power of the ring. Visual effects wizard Richard Taylor, director Peter Jackson, and finally, the actor who portrayed Gollum, Andy Serkis, talk about this immense collaborative effort.
Illustration by Adam Koebel.
Richard Taylor, you're responsible for creating one of the most impressive creatures in this film. Gollum almost upstages all the real actors. How do you feel about that?
Like everything in filmmaking, it's a huge cooperative affair. Gollum, obviously, is ultimately attributable to this incredible writer that wrote a rich and incredibly complex character, one of the most complex literary characters in the English language. Schizophrenic. A drug addict, addicted to the power of the ring. Ultimately, it gave us a beautiful canvas to paint this character onto. Our part started very early with conceptual design work. But it's interesting, designing a character like Gollum, already an icon of fantasy literature. You have to completely and utterly fulfill the world's preconceptions of Gollum. You can't branch out and create your own vision of this character. It's a subtle interplay of how the world perceives Gollum to be through the descriptive writings of Tolkien. A thousand illustrations later, over a hundred design models later, we finally created the three-dimensional, scannable model that delivered Gollum into the computer.
You say that Gollum is successful. I agree that Gollum is successful. I believe he's successful not because he's a technologically advanced piece of digital filmmaking, but because ultimately, it's a performance with heart and soul. Fundamentally, that's what we're registering on the screen. I'd like to suggest that very quickly, you stopped analyzing his technical achievement and accepted him as a member of the cast. So often with digital characters in the past, you can't help but continue to analyze them and their technical prowess throughout the length of the film, which detracts from the film. Because you lose the thread of the story because of this piece of visual effects grandstanding. It was our task, the task of all of us, to weave very subtle threads into a tapestry that would be the backdrop of the film, and Gollum is just a part of that.
Now, ultimately, he has soul and he has heart because of the performance of Andy Serkis. He's driven and focused by one person. Andy is the conduit upon which 20 or 30 technicians and artists and film crew and Peter and Fran channeled through this character to create this visual image that will go on for many years to come.
So how many people will there be on the stage if there's an Oscar nomination?
There's four people on the stage. But hopefully, we believe, that with the help of the press, Andy Serkis should be on the stage. There's no way that his performance, regardless of whether it's a digital character or not, isn't one of the great performances of this year. And therefore, should be recognized. It's the press that's going to help us with that because we've got to change the perceptions of the Academy.
There are digital characters in this film with artificial intelligence. They use their "mind" to fight each other?
Richard Taylor: Yes, I like to say it's a science fiction of five years ago. If you had heard this explanation in a magazine, you'd think it's like imagining in the 1940s that man would ever get on the moon. I believe it's got a similar sort of incredible story. It all goes back to Peter visualizing. He wanted to create the same sort of epic battle that Tolkien wrote about in the purging of mankind from Middle Earth. To do that, you have to create epic battles that you could never do with extras. So he turned to a young gentleman named Steven Richless, a New Zealand computer code writer, and he invented a program called Massive.
In the past, you would have either animated all the characters, which is impossible, or you'd use flocking, where you animate one character and then every other agent follows them. His process was to invent an ability to give up to ten thousand digital agents artificial intelligence using sound as their beacon to find their enemy and then motion captured performance that gives them a repertoire of military moves using the weaponry at their disposal to combat their enemy. Plus an ability to build every character of a slightly different proportion. The program's called Orc Builder and it gives the actors different digital arm lengths, leg lengths and so on, which is very important to show an army of characters, all different.
Then you push the button and you set them to war. There's no way to control the outcome of that war because once they're going, there's no way that you can tell them to do differently. Because it all comes down to how well you've trained them. They can be anything from a flock of birds to galloping horses to penguins on an ice float to Orcs working in the caverns of Isengard to Uruk-hai at Helm's Deep attacking the wall. Those particular ones had in their repertoire the ability to climb ladders and scale walls, lob crossbow bolts and so on and so forth.
So it is revolutionary, this phenomenal technology, but ultimately, it goes back to that original vision of wanting that image on the screen.
Is it true that some of them reacted by running away?
In the first two years after Steven wrote the program... [laughs] We couldn't stop them deserting the field of battle. The truth of it is that he thought he'd originally use vision. The problem with vision is that it's extremely blinkered. If I'm facing in this direction, I can't find an enemy. Now he uses sound, which gives them a 360 degree ability to find your enemy. But it's bloody funny. We've got tests that date back to 1998 and 1999 where in the back of the shot, there's thousands of soldiers just fleeing the field! We always thought that the computer was far more intelligent than humans.
Why did you decide to have a character of such importance be at least a halfway computer generated character? And why does he wear that little thing?
Peter Jackson: Would you have preferred that he didn't? [laughs] I think we'd get an R rating if he wasn't wearing his little loin cloth. But yes, going back four or five years, we knew we wanted Gollum to be a computer generated creature. Just because of his physical description in the book, that he's so emaciated and so hunched and withered. We thought it would be disappointing to see an actor in that role. I'd be expecting more than that as a reader of the books.
But at the same time, I didn't want the computer Gollum to sort of disappear into the special effects department and come out the other end and be reliant on the fact that he was suddenly going to act. Because, you know, if you got a Balrog or a troll or something, you can just give it to the effects guys and say, "Listen, give us a great Balrog and he's got to be scary," and they go away do their thing and you come back and you've got this great Balrog. Gollum was obviously much more complicated than that because he had to be an actor. He was an actor in our film just as Elijah Wood or Sean Astin were actors in our film. Gollum had to hold his own with these other good performances on the screen and be as good as them. If he weren't, it'd let the film down.
So the approach that we took, the strategy we thought through back about three or four years ago when we were casting the movie, was that before we shot anything, we cast Andy Serkis, this British actor, to play Gollum. And we said to Andy, "Listen, I'm afraid you're never going to be seen on screen. We're going to replace you with a computer image," but we wanted an actor to own the character. We wanted an actor to make all the decisions on behalf of Gollum just as Elijah does for Frodo. We wanted an actor's sense of timing, an actor's instincts. We wanted Andy to be totally thinking Gollum on the set for us. When we were shooting, he was in the shots with Frodo and Sam; we filmed him. And he'd be doing Gollum, down on all fours, he'd be reacting, saying his lines, working out the timings with them. Everything would be natural, would feel like he wasn't a special effect because, of course, he wasn't at that point. It was Andy Serkis in a leotard, playing out the drama of the scenes.
The processes varied after that, but one of the main ones was to hand those shots over to the CG guys and they animated Gollum right over the top of Andy, smack over the top of Andy because he was the same size as Andy, except he was a lot thinner. So everything Andy did on set, every instinct Andy had as an actor, the animators would copy exactly. If Andy decided to suddenly pull his hand back because he was frightened, then Gollum's hand would go back. So part of the way through the process, you saw these shots with the computer Gollum moving around and behind him was Andy Serkis, kind of just half covered over since he wasn't as thin as Gollum. Then we just painted out Andy and we were left with the computer Gollum.
We also had Andy in a sort of motion capture suit with these little electronic points on his body in which he could move around and the computer would exactly follow those points according to what he was doing. Also, with the close-ups, we modeled Gollum's face to look like Andy because we wanted every expression that Andy pulled as an actor doing the performance reflected in a computer Gollum that would actually look like Andy. So when you see Andy, you'll see that he sort of looks like Gollum's human bastard cousin. There's a family resemblance there. And it's totally deliberate.
I think Andy's contribution to that character of Gollum in this film is as valid a performance as what John Hurt was doing under make-up in The Elephant Man. John Hurt was completely buried under that and completely unrecognizable and he had this rubber skin that was there in front of his face and he had to move the rubber skin around. Andy is essentially moving a pixelated skin around, a skin of pixels, but it is Andy. So it's a new way of acting. It's never happened before quite like this. I mean, it's hard for me to describe it to you, but honestly, Gollum is Andy Serkis. There's no two ways about it. He's just reflected through this synthetic skin.
How much of your performance do you think is lost because it's digitalized?
Andy Serkis: I don't think it loses anything. There's a version of this film where my performance is cut in. There is a videotape around of the schizophrenic scene in which you can actually watch my performance and the final animated performance. If you look at them, they're pretty similar, really, in terms of the essence and the psychology and the physicality and the motion. The performance is there. I just feel like I'm wearing a lot of make-up, that's all. But instead of latex, it's pixels. The heart of it is not lost.
There are hundreds of people that worked on Gollum. The conceptual artists designed the look of him, there's a whole raft of animators who worked on him, there are people who worked with me on the motion capture stage, people who built sets that I had to work on. But I suppose that what I was responsible for was the continuity of the journey and the soul of him, the emotional drive. I know that was what Peter was after. He wanted an actor to drive the performance. People don't necessarily understand the whole process and the difference between putting a voice on top of a character that's been designed and the process that's taken four years of my life.
But there's a heightened truth in making him computer generated. There's an other-worldliness there which is, I think, absolutely right. Peter's instinct is absolutely right. Gollum has entered into this other existence which isn't entirely human. It's like watching puppets. Sometimes, there's a great sense of truth, a bigger truth to really strong, larger than life stories which in the end say more about the human condition because they're amplified. I think that's why it works. It's unsettling. There's a real human core, but it's unsettling because of the look. That tension is what makes it work.
He's a little more sympathetic in the movie than he was in the book.
Well, I think we wanted to make the human connection in the way that Gollum impacts on Sam and Frodo. He looks extreme enough; you don't want to alienate him any more. You want to get inside his heart and head and understand the torture he's gone through by bearing the ring. I played him like an addict so I had something to hook into that was human. And all that goes with being an addict, the schizophrenia and the withdrawal, the cold turkey when he's away from the ring, the physical as well as emotional torture of it. Yes, it makes him more sympathetic because there are dark and light sides in everybody. Instead of writing him off as a one-tone villain, it was important to follow him psychologically.
Do you think that when Tolkien may have had junkies on his mind?
He may well have done, I don't know. But the nature of obsession, if you're after power, is the same.
And the schizophrenia?
I know that Fran Walsh and Peter wanted to pull in that direction and really examine that area. The duality ties in with Frodo's. Frodo obviously pities Gollum because he sees himself in him and sees that that's the way he's going. That's why Sam is able to be objective and come in to really save him from himself.
Did it strike you that he also looks a bit like E.T.?
I never thought of E.T., actually, but other people have mentioned that he's a bit like E.T. on crack.