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Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
‘Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder.’

* * *

Monday morning. Time to check out of the youth hostel. Before leaving I managed to have one very tasty omelet with wheat toast, sharing a chat with a traveler from Jerusalem. I was honestly growing to like it there.

At the front desk there was a phone message for me:

Cliff Please call Sauron URGENT

I raced upstairs to the phones. Nothing is worse than a NZ pay phone, let me tell you. Of course the coins themselves are 200% bigger and heavier than American coins, and you’ll get cut off every sixty seconds if you don’t dump several more dollars in. My kingdom for a cell phone!

We made a simple plan. I would meet Sala Baker out in front of the Te Papa Museum. Luggage and all that mundane stuff was smoothly taken care of by my newest pal and host David. Who could worry about luggage on a day like this?! I was on my way to the WETA Workshop!

Holy Eureka, this was the day I struck gold!

* * *

Call it karma, call it divine irony, but the Dark Lord is not a punctual creature. He was late – very late – to the point that I worried I was abandoned. I stood in the Museum parking lot for an hour, wondering if some crazy Toon had dropped a safe on Sala’s head. But my anger vanished when I realized I did this very thing to people all the time whenever I was late. Humble pie is good for you, Quickbeam, eat it up.

Sauron showed up (driving a sporty little black car, of course) and all was made right, for soon we were driving back to Middle-earth. Back at the Stone Street Studios, I looked for Gandalf and Théoden, but they were nowhere to be found. Some necessary phone calls had to be made.... everything had to check out O.K. before we descended upon the Camperdown Studio. I was about to gain entrance to the visual powerhouse behind these movies: WETA. A comfortable introduction was called for.

It helped that people were starting to recognize me. A woman from the Production Office stopped me in my tracks and said, "Oh! You’re that guy who sang Culture Club the other night! Bravo!" So I wasn’t a complete stranger.

We arranged special transport over to the other side of Miramar. We had a lot of laughs on the way over.... well, Sala had a lot of laughs, reminding me of my behavior Saturday night.

We soon arrived at the gate of a nondescript two-story building. A building that went unnoticed against the backdrop of the neighborhood. What was inside this place? What kind of magic, horror, ancient history, and phantasmagoric wonders were hiding within? You’d never know the greatest and most talented designers ever were headquartered there. Certainly not with such a meager sign on the wall! I stood beside it and Sala took the only picture we would be allowed to enjoy that day.

A sign of wondrous things to come
A sign of wondrous things to come

Inside the gate, we signed many copies of ‘Confidentiality Agreements’ (not that Sala really needed to) and the delightful young Hannah appeared. She was from the States too and we got along swimmingly.

She guided us upstairs to an office decorated with some of WETA’s great creatures – most of them from Peter Jackson films. From Heavenly Creatures, I saw Diello, heir to the throne of Borovnia! Or was that the Mario Lanza figure? In another corner was the wacky baby zombie from Dead Alive. Many other critters I simply didn’t recognize. There at the Reception Desk was a gorgeous bust of Arwen. Ah!

Delightful to look at.

Lovely to hold.

But if you break it,

consider your butt fried.

I swore I wouldn’t touch anything. I kept my hands tightly clasped behind my back the whole day.

The very tall and articulate Richard Taylor came out to greet us. Now this was a treat! If you don’t know his name yet – you will soon. He is more than Company Director and F/X Supervisor, he is a visual genius.... and also a genius at bringing together the right mix of skills, sweat, and passion. Richard had people from all over the world begging to work on the Physical Effects for LOTR. But he selected only the best. He has collected under his wing a throng of outstanding talent. These people are shockingly good! And not only that, they are all in love with Tolkien. If you like the way Andúril is crafted, Richard’s people forged it. If you like Alan Lee’s beautiful details found on the Weathertop ruins, again, Richard’s people built it. Most of Middle-earth’s organic construction starts here, under his watchful eye. So if you ever meet Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger in the future, at a Comic Book Convention or promotional event, be sure to shake their hands. When you do, you will have just shaken hands with true maestros.

Sala went sauntering off somewhere and I talked with Richard about my desire for knowledge. So many things are hiding here! I have got to learn more.... must.... discover.... more!

Richard was obliging. After making several promises that I would not touch or take pictures of anything (which made me a bit more nervous) I was ushered down a hallway to see sculptors hard at work. I was introduced to a dozen people all at once. Sadly I didn’t register all their names. A work table was filled with hard clay sculpts of Nazgûl on horseback and several fantastic Ents!

Ents. At last I was among my kind.

But the Nazgûl was most captivating, and I locked eyes with it. The hooded Wraith was searching; and I was amazed that an inanimate, stationary figure could capture so much dramatic tension. Just stunning! His evil cloak was so finely detailed it actually looked like real black cloth. These were the prototypes that would become special polystone sculptures sold through Sideshow Toys. Fine collector’s items!

I met the young and stylish Daniel Falconer (this guy is a real lady-killer). His design team worked on Treebeard in many aspects: drawing, models, giant animatronic. He laughed at my nickname saying, "Oh yeah, I spent quite some time drawing early versions of that character!" I was dying to see!

He pulled out a portfolio that was carefully tucked away. Dozens of pages.... dozens of amazing Ents! None of them were cartoonish, nor even remotely similar to the Ralph Bakshi design for an Ent (I’m sure you folks remember THAT Treebeard design, which looked like it just stepped off the front panel of a box of cereal). No, these were seriously botanical Ents! They were utterly realistic as trees, in their own right, with a little anthropomorphization here and there. It is sad that not all of these creations will end up in The Two Towers. I also saw Daniel’s version of Quickbeam!! Woo-hoo!

Man, have I got big roots down there. I had no idea.

Sala reappeared and we said farewell to the sculptors. Down on a shelf he showed me an armor prototype for Sauron. It was fierce and spiky-looking. It is hard for my mind to picture Sauron in this form, a bipedal giant warrior coming forth from Barad-dûr to engage Isildur (though he certainly did at one point). I usually think of Sauron as a floating inchoate Shadow, sometimes taking a nebulous Eye-shape. But this armored figure was wicked and burning with malice. I really liked the spiked forms on his great helm. You can imagine how proud Sala was to wear that outfit.... but the version we looked at was not the "final," of course. All these early designs get modified and re-sculpted a thousand times before they end up in the approved, completed state. That means WETA is up to its molars in fantastic visions of Middle-earth that the world will never see. They are all carefully hidden away.

Hannah walked us down to the work rooms and soundstages. Orc heads were piled on huge racks everywhere. Ghastly!

Here’s how it works. Orc actors closest to the camera would spend several hours in make-up; ending up with fully movable facial features, special contact lenses and teeth. These were "Hero Orcs." That’s movie lingo for these close-up types: Hero, meaning you see great detail on whatever it is because when it’s blown up on the silver screen 40 feet high, the audience will see all that detail. All things made especially for close-ups are categorized this way: Hero Armor, Hero Mallorn Leaves, Hero Weapons.... As far as that goes, if you’re an Orc actor further in the background, you might end up wearing a latex mask instead.

These Orc heads were just as ugly as could be. Barely humanoid, they all looked bloody and bruised. That was what made them so beautiful.

There were great racks of Orc prosthetic limbs too; for the stunt players working in combat scenes. You can’t be an Orc with pale human-colored skin showing from underneath your gauntlets, can you? Ergo these arm pieces were created to cover any exposed length of arm or leg. Hannah said it got bloody hot in them too.

In another room sat the chain mail workers. They weren’t there at the moment but I could see their materials laid out on the table. Tiny ringlets of steel lay everywhere, an ocean of little washers spilling from table to floor. Two Gondorian mail shirts were carefully being sewn together. It was insanely complicated.

Weaving and linking was their daily task. They would sit at this table for days on end putting it all together, each shirt an original.... custom made. I had heard of these armor-makers WETA had brought in, just for these items, but I boggled at the intense labor and grueling pace of their work. Can you imagine the arthritic cramps in your hands after your day was done?

Soon we were in a larger space filled with a mighty ship. There was hardly any room to walk around it. Though it was a scale miniature, it was still as large as a moving van. It was one of the Black Fleet – indeed the foremost ship in which Aragorn sails up to the Harlond, unveiling the great standard of Elendil. Oh, what a magnificent piece of work! The ship looked ancient and sleek, fitted with great shining masts and ebony smooth planks. I only wished I could see Aragorn’s standard waving in the wind from this baby!

My admiration was cut short, for on the other side lay a thing of deepest terror and evil.


There it was, alongside the great ship, seething with ruinous magic. I moved in closer and saw it was scaled with hundreds of pieces of steel, and on each scale was crafted an evil rune marking. It was just like Tolkien described: "its hideous head.... was shaped in the likeness of a ravening wolf." Good heavens above, this was beyond brilliant! Just think of the effort it took to make this baleful battering ram so malignant, so profane, so perfect!

Damn, damn, damn, if only I had the camera!

I got the sense that these people, the painters, craftsmen, and designers, were living spirits of pure artistry. Everything they touched sprang from the organic right-half of the brain – the raw imagination – and would become tangible. These things are real! You can touch them, smell them, be crushed into a wincing pulp by them. Didn’t I tell you? Genius!

Then I saw the corpse and jumped out of my skin. It was Boromir, lying on the floor. However, it was only painted from the shoulders up. Very odd. My mind was convinced it was real; and that something weird had been done to mummify the body in some way. IT LOOKED SO REAL! Shivers of gooseflesh.... Blinking a few times I realized it was a giant foam-latex body. Only the face would be visible after the costume was put on. I bet it was the prop sent in the funeral boat over the falls of Rauros.

Behold! A great purple Shelob! She was hanging on the wall right above Boromir, looking all the more guilty. It was a bas relief painted in bright colors, and it represented one of WETA’s earliest designs of the creature. If they didn’t change a thing (yeah right) and used this exact design, it would be perfect. So many evil eyes staring. Horrible prickly legs and mandibles. Huge swollen belly of darkness.

Help. I can’t breathe. She has poisoned me.

Then Hannah brought me back, showing me something more pleasing: Hobbit ears and feet. It’s really awful of me that I can’t recall the names of these people, but they impressed me mightily. The latex ears were laid out, being carefully painted with an airbrush-type tool. I immediately thought: Mr. Spock, please report to the Bridge. But when you look carefully, you’ll see these ears are quite different; they are warmer, smaller, and have a different pointed tip. How many of these things did they make? Oh yeah, only about 1,600.

The waggish Hobbit feet live up to the hype – big and hairy. They doubled for actual shoes; so it was imperative they be tough on the outside to walk through rain, mud, and across mountains. I barely caught the explanation of how they’re made, the true facts elude me, but I thought she said super-industrial latex with real yak hairs implanted. I wanted to try on a pair but wouldn’t you know that Sean Astin doesn’t wear my size?

We walked into an adjacent room brimming with pikes, halberds, scimitars, and axes. The place was wall-to-wall medieval weaponry. The variety was exhaustive! Totally gorgeous pieces; many of which weren’t even made of metal. I met some wonderful designers; there was a riot of handshakes and new faces.

I kept gushing to everyone I met. "Wondrous! You guys are absolutely amazing. Wait until the awards start pouring in!" More earnest words were never said.

* * *

On we went into the biggest open vault of space; a warehouse adequate in size for a jumbo jet. There, a great Stone Troll leered above me. It was bearing down, ready to smash my fragile skull.

Goliath brute! Massive hulking thing!

It was over 10 meters tall (two stories) or I have no sense of space. This was the prop to end all props. While I cowered underneath it, I almost lost my balance and fell on my butt. How could such an elephantine thing be put together? Hannah said it was mostly polystyrene.

I stood under its stony gaze for a long time. Was that a bird’s nest behind its ear?

Truly, I had seen many wonders at WETA that day. More than my fair share. But the most breathtaking, the most absurdly grand of all waited on the far wall. There was Minas Tirith, built to exacting detail, filling up the entire warehouse to the rafters. It was a scale model built at a ratio of 75:1. As wide as two Greyhound Buses and more complex than Chaos Theory, it cleanly took my breath away.

Adjectives fail me.

All the great circles of the City wound up and up the slopes of Mindolluin. Within each circle were cast halls, houses, fountains, stables, plazas and infinite columns. Each ramp and walkway built to the finest realistic detail. It was a "miniature," technically speaking, but the assemblage was so towering you just couldn’t use such a word!

I felt like a certain Took staring at it: "Pippin gazed in wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of."

May it go down in history as the most celebrated scale model of all time.

* * *

The only downside to this visit (and I must be mad to even name one) was missing the chance to hang out at WETA Digital. There you could find plenty more magic, of a different sort. The Army of the Dead, the Cave-Troll from Moria, and of course the best-kept secret in show business: Gollum. The one I most wanted to see was the Army of the Dead.... How would these clever designers create such an effect!?

Balrog? If you want to see the Balrog, well, that’s easy enough. No need to make a special trip to visit WETA. If you have a copy of the Reiner Knizia LOTR board game you have already seen John Howe’s incredible Balrog design. And with a few adjustments here and there, it’s pretty much the same creature as in the film.

Our tour ended and my feet came back to touch the ground. Back in the front office people were buzzing about some exciting news – a certain red-head who runs a certain film website was coming down next week to pay a visit. Yes, Harry Knowles from Ain’t It Cool News would soon be in Wellington. Hannah and the others clapped their hands in delight. Of course, this meant a little more spotlight on WETA. With Harry doing a story, the entire Net would learn more of the fantastic creativity within these walls.

No wonder they were happy. A little acknowledgment can go a long way.

The WETA team was duly proud. I sensed a unifying feeling of satisfaction and pride from every one I met that day. They knew in their hearts this stuff was brilliant.... and it was time the world knew.

* * *

Back at the Stone Street Studios I met the wonderful Casting people. Both Sauron and the Witch-king wanted me to speak to Karl. Who could argue with that kind of advocacy?

I was met with several warm smiles. All the young women said, "So you’re the American who was singing on Saturday? That was great! Yeah, come on in!"

My goal was clear. Up in the Dry Creek Quarry, the full-scale Minas Tirith external set had replaced Helm’s Deep just a few weeks before my arrival. Word on the street was that they could use another tall, strapping lad to play a soldier.

Karl made a couple of phone calls and my Polaroid was taken. I received my instructions and timetable. All was set.

Tomorrow I would spend the entire day living the dream of Gondor.

* * *

Sala said good-bye then; evidently he had some Easterlings to enslave, and I was left to my own devices. I checked out the Call Sheet and learned where they were filming Fangorn Forest. I was on my way to Studio K in a scant 10 minutes.

Gaining entry at the gate, I made a beeline straight for the first bluescreen I could see. It was like a family reunion in Derndingle! There was Treebeard himself, the great Shepherd of the Trees. He was built on a rolling platform with great handles and controls along the bottom. He was an animatronic puppet about 50 times bigger than Yoda! Bright optic-blue cloth hung around the perimeter.

I realized that Studio K was just one of many bluescreens that Peter Jackson could watch from his "wall of monitors" over in the Golden Hall. Anything filmed on these auxiliary stages could be watched while he was in-between other tasks.

As for Treebeard, well, what can I say? I’ve already used the word brilliant about 4,000 times today. He topped out at around 6 meters, I would guess, and top to bottom covered in rough brown bark (a fascinating paint job!). He looked every bit his age, very tree-like, with a dominant mossy beard pouring down from his large, deep-set eyes. I loved it. There was a feeling of Old World about him. How shall I say – he looked like a soberly British old tree.

Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd were getting strapped into a safety harness, while touch-ups were applied to their feet. Merry and Pippin, the greatest mischief-makers in hobbit history, were about to go for an unconventional ride.

Up the back of Treebeard they went; and perched safely atop they looked like hapless birds tossed from the nest. The wind machine was turned on and the remote operators started to manipulate mouth, beard, and bushy eyebrows. The pole-arm operators gently moved the Ent’s branchy arms. The whole apparatus was heaved and rocked on its platform with the poor hobbits bobbing up and down on their perch! From the camera’s perspective the rocking translated to a reasonable semblance of Ent-strides. This alone was worth the price of admission.

That day’s call sheet for Studio K
That day’s call sheet for Studio K

Sitting near me was voice artist Ken Blackburn. Holding a small microphone, he read pages from the script while Treebeard’s mouth moved. It should be noted here that Mr. Blackburn, who provided a most excellent and amusing rendition of the old Ent's voice, is NOT the actual voice you will hear in the movies; rather that honor has been given to John Rhys-Davies. And good grief, did they shoot a lot of takes! It just went on and on.... Even though it was great fun to watch, after a time I started to feel bad for Dom and Billy. They were getting the worst of it, being tossed around like that all day.

I was very glad to meet 2nd Unit Director, Rick Porras, a man of much patience. He had to take remote instructions from PJ (who would phone in every so often), keep track of any number of motion and weather effects, and plan a series of camera angles that would fit the digital effects yet-to-come. I don’t know how he kept up with it.

Daniel Falconer walked in, coming all the way from WETA to admire the new Treebeard. It was his first time seeing it complete and operational. After he and his team worked on it for so long.... he was like a new father in the delivery room. Ah, the glow that he had around him! The emotions going across his face were exquisite. He drew me closer and pointed to the beard. "See that? We put a lovely little snail in there."

* * *

In the adjacent soundstage I discovered the real Fangorn set. It was empty. It was dark. Alone I walked in and found myself taken to another imaginary world. The realism and care applied to every twig, every knotted stump, every strip of green would fool anyone.

Dozens of trees were rooted on various platforms and raised scaffolds. Thick branches reached up and across, stretching high above my head. The forest sloped upward to an invisible wall at the back. Extinguished lights stood silent, watching me from behind the trunks. Overhead, leafy boughs and blankets of moss dripped down.

The smell of wet dirt became strong. A small stream flowed towards me, and as I walked further within the trees the soil gave gently under my feet.

Under the darkling eaves of Fangorn, I stood still. With absolute quiet wrapped close about me, I wondered at the marvels of this world.

To be continued....

Much too hasty,


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Past Limbs
An Open Letter to the Screen Actors Guild
Review: The Return of the King
Kingly Proof
For the Love of Arwen
The Atlantis Connection
Noble Is As Noble Does
Send in the Penguins
War! What is it Good For?
In Defense of Philippa Boyens
Movie Review - The Two Towers
The Final Word
Very, Very, Very Impatient
Book Review: The Annotated Hobbit
Finding a Hobbit’s Voice
Conversation with a Newbie
Inside Information
The Silver Lining
Movie Review - Fellowship of the Ring
Where the Stars are Strange: Part V
Where the Stars are Strange: Part IV
Where the Stars are Strange: Part III
Where the Stars are Strange: Part II
Where the Stars are Strange: Part I
The Spectacular Cannes Footage
Comic-Con International 2001
An Open Letter to Jeffrey Wells
The Shadow of Racism
All About Sam
The Game’s the Thing!
Who’s Spiking Who?
The 2000 Vote: Gandalf or Saruman?
Tolkien’s Greatest Hits
Return to The Furthest Reaches
The Furthest Reaches
True Fans, Truly Obsessed
"Yes, Elanor, there really is a Gandalf"
…And In the Closet Bind Them
Welcome to Merchandising Hell
In Defense of Escapism
Out on a Limb Home


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