Interview: Jim Rygiel (Three times Academy Award winner for LOTR)

Now, as I was posting my VFX story (right below this one), I remembered an interview that I had done with Jim Rygiel, who was the VFX supervisor for the LOTR trilogy. It was my biggest international story at that time. And it was an amazing feeling interacting with Rygiel, as I am a great fan of his work, especially in LOTR. Not to miss out the fact, that he was very candid and would not shy away from calling a spade a spade. He even spoke about the future of Indian VFX. The story was published on CIOL: (
The Lord of Visual Effects on VFX!

The excitement came back in the movies sometimes in the early eighties, a time when Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., scared, spooked and thrilled audiences worldwide. Steadily computer took its rightful place in movie industry, making the impossible very much possible.

Over the years, the aliens became creepier, the monsters monstrous and extraordinary events became more lifelike. Real and Big are the two words that come to mind when one thinks of computer generated (CG) effects, everything seemed so very real and that too on a big scale. And the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy epitomizes the progress of visual effects industry, it is a landmark, something that can be compared to Armstrong’s landing on the moon. Jim Rygiel was the visual effects supervisor for the three films directed by Peter Jackson. He was awarded the ‘Best Visual Effects’ Academy Awards (or Oscars) for three consecutive years for LOTR, a record of sorts.

Jim started his career in the 1980 by joining Pacific Electric Pictures, one of the earliest companies to employ computer animation for the advertising and film markets. He has worked as a visual effects supervisor in films like Species, Outbreak, Air Force One, Cliffhanger, Batman Returns, Alien III, Ghost, Anna and the King, 102 Dalmatians and of course the LOTR trilogy. He holds a degree in architecture and a master of fine arts (MFA) degree. He is currently working on films like Click. Jim speaks about how visual effects industry is shaping up, what goes behind the screen (especially in the LOTR) to Shashwat Chaturvedi from Cyber Media News in an email interview. Excerpts.

You are from the fine arts background, how does visual effects fit into your profile? In visual effects, one is constantly trying to make the fantastical as believable as possible, more monsters, more real dragons, etc. Would you refer to visual effects as an art form?
I have always had the concept that anything I do in life is art. The craft and aesthetic of painting a house, cooking a fantastic diner, or even doing ones finances takes special talents and skills that is crafted over time (is like art). Similarly, visual effects is a combination of art, science, mechanics, and even some politics!

The Lord of the Rings trilogy has been heralded as the hallmark movies of the generation, how hard was it to make it a reality? What was the single most arduous task involved?
It was interesting working on Lord of the Rings, when I first approached it I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I could not possibly do the movie in New Zealand, and planned to take it all back to Los Angeles. However within the first 45 minutes after landing, I was swayed with the technical advancements and filmmaking skills that Peter Jackson had built in New Zealand. The biggest task was to get the entire crew moving forward in production mode.

In LOTR there was a lot of innovative technology that was used, right from motion animation, keyframing to the usage of proprietary software Massive (developed by Weta Digital). Can you briefly describe the various techniques that were used and what were the challenges in implementing them?
Well, we always tried to push the technology, we used virtual reality cameras (based on motion capture) to help us pre-visualize sequences. Motion capture ran for about 3 years straight as we had to capture thousands of motion for all of the different characters, in all of the 3 films. The motion capture was then applied to the Massive software, which drove the many different captured cycles. Our miniature dept ran for approximately 1000 days, shooting all of the various pieces, which would be composited with our live action and CG effects.

You have been supervising visual effects in many Hollywood blockbusters like the Last Action Super Hero, Cliffhanger, Batman Returns, Outbreak, etc. How has your experience with LOTR different from these?
Usually when you work on a film there are 1 or 2 different types of effects, for instance in Batman Returns, we did some digital penguins that performed a few moves, and we also did some digital compositing, but it was basically the same thing. With LOTR almost every shot had something different going on with it. Cave trolls, flying fell beasts, Giant Mumakil elephants, miniatures, live action, CG effects, it had it all!

What was the experience of creating Gollum (Speagol)? Was it completely based on motion-capture of actor Andy Serkis?
Gollum was an evolutionary concept, when we first started thinking about him we had a completely different vision for him. He was a bit more alien looking than his current self. As the shooting progressed Peter Jackson felt he needed someone to play the eyeline character for Frodo and Samwise so he got Andy Serkis. Andy began to play the eyeline character, and slowly start to recite the lines back during the actor, Andy honed his part and was eventually reciting all of the lines for Gollum, so Peter said hey, lets use Andy’s voice for Gollum since he was doing it so well, as Andy got more into the part, he started hopping around like Gollum, as Peter was editing the film Andy was so amazing as Gollum that Peter asked us to copy his motions as closely as possible because he was perfect for the part. So we did a bit of what we call rotomaton, which is a process where you bend the digital character to match frame by frame to the real character (Andy), we also did some motion capture, and keyframe animation , but I believe the best performance came out through the use of rotomation.

Of the Cave Troll, Gollum, Treebeard, and Shelob, whom do you find the most fascinating and why?
Well, Treebeard and the Ents gave us some struggle in creating the characters, the animators had to bring forth the age-old grandfatherly wisdom of the giant trees, and yet they had to have great strength, and a bit of whimsy. However it was the Balrog in the first film that was the most challenging and fascinating in terms of technical execution.

To get the feeling that 30-foot waves of fire and smoke were emanating through the character, we shot small flame elements and then used a particle system to create the 30-foot wall of fire that moved with and around the Balrog.

What is the software that you used for LOTR? What was the hardware? What were the kinds of innovations involved, like props, etc.? And how big was a challenge to supervise a big and diverse team of visual effects artists?
We used Maya software for our animation, particle systems, and general scene setup. Shake was primarily used for compositing the elements together, we had farms of Intels and IBMs (about 6000 on the last film) for our rendering power, and we used Renderman for the final rendering of the CG effects. The Artists themselves were fantastic, there was a great diversity from around the world. On the last film, I supervised 450 global artists (we called ourselves digital migrant workers) as many of them went from job to job around the globe. Language was a barrier but we all spoke a global CG language (Maya, Shake).

What is your views about the trouble with audience habituation, people are becoming so accustomed to special effects in films like War of the Worlds, Jurassic Park, King Kong, etc. that the effect-wizards are locked in an upward spiral of an endless special-effects arms race, with demands for bigger explosions, uglier villains, and ever expanding battle scenes?
From a job standpoint, I love it as it keeps me employed. But in my book story is always the king! In all too many films we have seen amazing crazy mind bending effects that have either gotten lost or suffered because of the lack of story. I love working on mega blockbusters, as well as the small intimate films, in both types of films my job is the same that is to help the director tell his story.

You have been in the industry for over two decades now, where do you think is the special effects/animation industry headed? What is the road ahead so as to say?
The nice thing about digital filmmaking is that, it is limitless. Anything that can be thought, can be achieved. There will be new venues, audience participation films, virtual reality films, and in the future who knows maybe even holographic films. Things are definitely getting more exciting in the visual effects world.

Tell us about your interactions with Peter Jackson, how was it working with him?
Well its amazing when you are working with a genius, Peter is as nice in person as he is in interviews, he absolutely knows what he wants and lets you know exactly what that is, there is no beating around the bush. He is very attentive to your feedback as an individual. It was truly amazing to work with a man like him.

Which movie has impressed you the most (special effects) and have you seen a film where special effects are too overwhelming and in the end losing the plot?
I guess I would have to say 2001, even though it was very simplistic in its approach, (It was basically flying matte paintings). It was earth shattering at the time in terms of its look, we were brought up on bad 50’s sci-fi films and then along comes a movie that actually showed us what living in space is going to be like, it was bringing the mundane-ness of everyday life into space. For instance a Pan-Am spaceship bringing you up to a Howard Johnsons Hotel in space and the AT&T space phone.

The Matrix 2 and 3 became overwhelming for me the effects were fantastic but it became too much of a good thing. I think it was a problem again with the story vs. the effects.

Have you ever seen an Indian movie, if yes, what are you views on the same?
I have never been to India but would love to come over there sometime. I occasionally turn on the Indian channel on television , and watch the spectacle of the Indian film, I have no idea what is going on, but it is quite beautiful to watch all of the dances and costumes.

Indian is renowned for its IT prowess globally; do you think India can ever replicate the kind of work done by Weta in New Zealand?
Yes absolutely! However the machines are nothing, so that makes all of the IT power in the world worthless, unless you can get good artists to run those machines. The aesthetic needs to be addressed, much like the difference in aesthetics between the Indian film and the Hollywood blockbuster. However, I feel that the world is getting smaller and I am actually doing some work in Mumbai, with a company called Frame Flow, I used the same Indian producer for some work on Lord of the Rings.

Feature: State of VFX in India

It has been 25 years since spielberg’s E.T. was released and sadly Indian cinema has not really been able to recreate that magic. It has nothing to do with technology, today Indian animators have worked on movies like Spiderman, Superman, Narinia, etc..According to me, there are two real aspects to it; one the vision of the maker and second is the ability. While there has been some improvement on the later, nothing much seems to have changed on the former. Take the case of much-hyped Roshan films (the first one was a copy of ET), they seem to completely take the ‘story-telling’ aspect for granted. It is all style, no real story. I really don’t know when things would change, we need someone like Peter Jackson, who completely revolutionised how VFX was used. He is a true magician put life into inanimate things through the use of computers. Quite sometime back, I had taken a stock of Indian VFX industry on CIOL, what is hapenning and what is possible. It is still valid today….

Will VFX arrive in India, Day After Tomorrow?

While Hollywood blockbusters like Day After Tomorrow saw a giant tidal wave submerge the Statue of Liberty, Indian films seem to be quite content to blow up a plane or two using computer effects…

Saturday, January 21, 2006

It’s evening, Ann Darow, a vaudeville artist and the giant ape are sitting on the tallest peak on Skull Island, gazing at the setting sun. The view from the top is serene and beautiful, a world that is almost magical, too good to be real.

But that world does exist, on one of the workstation at Weta studios in New Zealand, a ‘Matrixian’ sort of world made of 0s and 1s. Visual Special Effects — or VFX as it is popularly known — is constantly blurring the divide between real and surreal, nothing seems to be impossible anymore, as it was in the King Kong movie recently. Computers have brought the magic back in movies.

Right from the very start, filmmakers have been trying to make movies that defy conventional reality and in the process stretching the very limits of technology. George Méliès made the first sci-fi movie, A Trip to the Moon in 1902 inventing something known as trick photography.

The next big thing was the original King Kong made in 1932; Merian Cooper pioneered the use of stop-action model effects. George Lucas’ Star Wars in the 1970s opened the realm of possibilities with the use of robotics and computer effects. Steven Spielberg brought to life aliens in E.T., dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, sharks in Jaws and alien machines in War of the Worlds.

Finally, Peter Jackson went a notch higher, the Lord of the Rings trilogy proved what modern high-end computing can achieve. And if that was not enough, he put life in the giant ape King Kong. VFX in Hollywood is getting bigger and bigger by the day, every year big blockbuster movies are released that heavily rely on VFX to pull the audiences.

Bombay Dreams

In contrast, VFX in India is fairly primitive; we have barely achieved in Koi Mil Gaya, what Spielberg had in E.T. way back in 1982! Abhishek De, producer (VFX), Maya Entertainment, is of the opinion that, “we might be late, but we are catching up fast enough.” He cites the example of a film done by his company, Jajantaram Mamantaram, “It had over 90 minutes of special effects, fairly large by even international standards.”

Merzin Tavaria, creative director/VFX supervisor, Prime Focus, says, “VFX in India is coming up in a big way. Over the past 2-3 years, filmmakers are ready to experiment and explore new possibilities. These are ominous signs for the VFX industry in India.” Merzin talks about a project he is currently working on, titled Love Story 2050, he promises it will be a “real biggie” in terms of VFX used.

Color of Money

What are the shackles that bind Indian VFX artists from achieving the same as their brethren in Hollywood? “Cost,” says Abhishek, adding, “a visual effects sequence can cost anything from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 50,000 per second, or more, depending upon the complexity of the shot. Sadly, typical Hindi movie budgets are not in the position to commit that kind of money for VFX.” Thus, most Indian makers are content to just make their heroes do a summersault or leap from a rooftop with the help of VFX, or at best blow up obnoxious aircraft. All this work just about scratches the possibilities that are available with VFX.

According to Merzin it is has more to do with ignorance, “Directors in India are slowly waking up to the possibilities. We are coaxing makers to dream big and creating a market for VFX in India.” Recently, Prime Focus was in the news due to its association with a film Vaah! Life ho to Aisi that reportedly had a VFX budget of Rs. 60 million.

The Rise of the Machine

Are we lacking in technology or machines? Do we have the same hardware as ILM or Weta does? Pankaj Kedia, regional sales manager (South East Asia & India), Autodesk Media and Entertainment Division, assures that we do. “All the latest technology and software used internationally is available in India and the studios here are also adopting them. The Indian market is growing quite fast, in fact it is the largest growing worldwide market for Autodesk solutions,” he says.
Two-thirds of the top grossing films in Hollywood since 1993 have used Autodesk’s effects and editing technology; films like Day After Tomorrow, Lord of the Rings, King Kong, etc. Pankaj also believes that there is a growing realization of VFX possibilities in Indian makers, “Sanjay Gadhvi (director of Dhoom) is more convinced about the use of VFX after using it in Dhoom, so we will see a lot more effects in Dhoom 2. Similarly, Rakesh Roshan is also going all out for Krish after experimenting with VFX in Koi Mil Gaya,” he adds.
Yet, not every studio can afford Autodesk’s latest tech machines, an Inferno system costs approximately Rs. 30 million, a Flame system close to Rs. 18 million, a Flint system approximately Rs. 8-9 million. According to Pankaj, the VFX biggies in India are: Prime Focus, VCL, Prasad EFX, Maya Entertainment, etc.

A Man Apart

Weta Digital was just another studio in Wellington, New Zealand, a decade or so ago. But that was before a maverick maker by the name of Peter Jackson decided to rewrite history. He embarked upon one of the most ambitious projects of all time; bring to life J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings. Now, Weta is a VFX powerhouse, giving the best studios in Hollywood a run for their dollar. That’s the difference a single man’s will does. Do we need a desi Peter Jackson, who could dream big and then make it come true as well? “Of course, that would help,” says Abhishek from Maya, adding, “we indeed need makers for whom cost does not matter, only the vision does.”

The View from Beyond

Jesh Krishna Murthy has worked on films like Batman Returns, Lara Croft Tomb Raider, The Cell, etc. He is currently setting up shop in India, launching a company called Anibrain, targeting Hollywood and the Indian market. He is quite effusive on the subject, “VFX is not about machines or software; it has more to do with pushing the limits. I do not see many people in India doing that. And unless we really push ourselves hard, like developing software solutions, plug-ins, etc., we will never reach the level Hollywood has.”

Another person who is of a similar opinion is Jim Rygiel, three times Academy Award winner for Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy. He was the VFX supervisor for the three LOTR films. He is an industry veteran, having worked in films like Ghost, Cliffhanger, 102 Dalmatians, etc. He is of the view that, Indian companies can replicate the success of Weta Digital, “however machines are nothing, so that makes all of the IT power in the world worthless unless you can get good artists to run those machines. The aesthetic needs to be addressed, much like the difference in aesthetics between an Indian film and a Hollywood blockbuster,” he says.

In conclusion, we have the machines, we have software, and we have the required talent. What we need now is the will: The will and self-belief to do anything.