For the unprecedented VFX demands of “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power,” producer Ron Ames (who oversaw VFX and post-production) devised a new cloud-based processing system, leveraging tech from Amazon to wrangle the work of more than 20 visual effects companies and 1,500 artists around the globe (led by Industrial Light & Magic and Wētā FX). This allowed them to quickly and efficiently handle such epic sequences as the Sundering Seas storm in Episodes 1 and 2 and the cataclysmic destruction at the end of Episode 6.
“We had to build a new industrial system and put together teams that would allow us to do eight hours of content, 70% visual effects,” Ames told IndieWire. “We probably had 9,000 to 9,500 shots at any one time in flow somewhere in the pipeline for a final 6,500 shots.” Managing the daily workflow and shot review was VFX supervisor Jason Smith, who was referred to as “ubervisor” for his unconventional role. He also oversaw the onset supervisors, the creature work, and shot all the aerial plate photography.
The VFX aesthetic was naturalism for the return to Middle Earth in the Second Age, thousands of years before the events depicted in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies. As such, the teams looked to nature as reference for water and fire. In the Sundering Seas storm sequences, in which Elven warrior Galadriel (Morfydd Clark) and the mysterious human Halbrand (Charlie Vickers) attempt to cross the seas of Arda, they shot 50/50 practical and CG.
First, it was boarded and planned with virtual cameras, with Smith shooting aerial plates from a helicopter and closer ones from a boat. Then they filmed for several weeks in outdoor and indoor water tanks, using first-unit motion-control cameras, with gallons of water hurled at the actors. ILM subsequently provided the CG ocean waves to complete the realism. “ILM then ingested those reference clips and as we were developing what became known as ‘our ocean machine,’ which could spin up an ocean of a certain type and put it up against a certain sky,” Smith told IndieWire. Then ILM added more complex strips of water and all the customized effects to finish the realism.
ILM also added the sea monster called The Worm, based on concept work in clay by artist Simon Lee. Resembling an eel, “it had a pointy, dangerous look with fins,” Smith added. “The mouth was like an angler fish. A bony protuberance at the front brought a dinosaur aesthetic to it. This definitely opens the way for surprises in Season 2.”
Wētā’s involvement in the series was a welcome homecoming. The Jackson-founded studio won VFX Oscars for all three “Lord of the Rings” films, and a few veterans from the series even returned to work on the Amazon prequel. One of their primary concerns was the interior of the glittering dwarf city, Khazad-dûm, along with the Warg wolves and a brief glimpse of the Balrog fire demon, which was a standout in “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers.”
“The Wargs live with the Orcs but even [they] aren’t safe from their destruction,” Smith said. “We steered it toward small dogs because they are so ferocious. We looked at footage of Chihuahuas as they get upset at their owners. I liked the idea of taking that Chihuahua with that attitude but none of the size to back it up. And you scale that up to something that’s 5 1/2 feet tall. As we see more Wargs, I want to continue with that same level of insane, that walleyed look.”
By contrast, the other species of wolves (created by ILM) roam wild in the woods. They are more naturalistic-looking and are repelled in Episode 6 by The Stranger (Daniel Weyman). “They were based on prehistoric warthogs, which had spiny fur and it sits somewhere between dog and pig,” continued Smith. “This resonates with the primitive marsupials.” They are hungry and threatening but they are not bred to be evil.
The series’ Orcs were mostly done practically with full body suits and prosthetic makeup from Wētā Workshop. However, when Elven Bronwyn (Nazanin Boniadi) and her teen son Theo (Tyroe Muhafidin) are attacked by an Orc in Episode 2, there were CG enhancements made by Wētā. “They worked on that scene making the limbs thinner for a creepier feel,” added Smith. “There’s a shot or two where we see the inside of the creature’s mouth, and there’s a tongue that feels too big for the mouth and is infected with a black, hairy growth. And you can see the creature gagging on its own tongue. That was CG, modifying the lips and the tongue.”
The most bravura piece of VFX work in the first half of Season 1 was the massive flooding and volcanic eruption of Mount Doom, causing the transformation of the Southlands into Sauron’s dark realm of Mordor. This close collaboration between Wētā, ILM, and Rising Sun Pictures was a prime example of the new industrial system at work for streaming. The sequence began simply enough with the stolen sword-hilt acting as a key to unlock the destructive chain of events. The dam collapses, flooding the Southlands and the underground tunnels dug by the Orcs, which cause the magma to erupt and hurl lava bombs below.
“How do you base that on anything real?,” Ames asked. “This is something that can happen: If a volcanic chamber interfaces with a large amount of water very quickly, it can create a chain of events. We collected hours of footage of volcanoes and magma meeting water and ash falling, and we watched it with the teams. we boarded it and turned it into concise beats.”
Wētā did The Tower of Ostirith and helped with all the work to get from the dam opening, the water coming down the cliff, and going into the first tunnel. “At which point, ILM picked up and did the water coming through all the tunnels and trenches that go underneath the village and the wide views of the volcano,” Ames said. “And when the water spouts in the village runs off, RSP did the above-ground work. Then, ILM handled inside the magma chamber of the volcano with the ignition. And we switched over to The Tower of Ostirith for the ash cloud work. RSP did the lava bombs and more ash cloud work on the village.”
“We brought those three vendors together almost like one vendor for that scene,” Smith said. “Each shot within that sequence serves two purposes: It’s not just water rushing down a tunnel. That shot tells us how it got from the cliff to the tunnel. Then this shot tells us how it got from the tunnel to the village.”
“It was about how to tell the story of the water travel to understand what each dramatic unit would be, and we put that together in a very specific way,” Ames said.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” releases new episodes every Friday on Prime Video.