Maya gives life to Gollum

There can be no Gollum, no Shelob and no Battle of Pelennor Fields without Maya, or at least, that is what Weta Digital, the celluloid creator of Tolkein’s characters, tells us.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  January 6, 2004

There can be no Gollum, no Shelob and no Battle of Pelennor Fields without Maya, or at least, that is what Weta Digital, the celluloid creator of Tolkein’s characters, tells us. Maya is the core 3D animation software that has been used in all three of the Lord of the Rings films. The software has allowed the visual effects and animation team at Weta Digital to produce 1,500 computer-generated effects in the last installment of the trilogy and develop the life-like animation performances of Gollum and the other digital characters. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, is an astounding achievement in many regards: not the least of which is the unsurpassed realism of the film's CG characters and visual effects," says Bob Bennett, general manager of product management, Alias. "Weta Digital has logged many hours on our Maya software in order to make Gollum's performance, and that of the other digital characters, so completely engaging. Our team was also able to lend their support, developing custom software tools that enabled Weta to spend more time thinking about their art, and less time worrying about the technology behind it." Weta Digital chief technology officer Scott Houston enumerates some of the challenges they faced with The Return of the King. “We were looking to do things that had never been done in the history of the motion picture industry: hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the Battle of Pelennor Fields scene and the incredibly life-like animations of Shelob and Gollum. Plus, there was the pure volume of effects shots we had to deliver: 1,500 as opposed to 500 for the first film,” adds Houston. Randall William Cook, two-time Oscar award-winner for his work on the first two movies of the series and animation designer and supervisor at Weta Digital was involved in the decision to commit to Maya software from the beginning. "Maya entered the picture very early on," remembers Cook. "I was shown several selections of software and had the chance to test drive them. Based upon my experience in animation, I found Maya to be the most comfortable interface and the technical team could get into the software to customize the code - we chose Maya and never looked back." With a software package that could handle any task at hand, Cook built the considerable team that would achieve the vision placed in front of them. "Between The Two Towers and The Return of the King we added 50% more digital artists," comments Cook. "And while many of our artists had experience working with Maya software, some were traditional 2D animators with no knowledge of 3D animation." Cook continues, "In order to facilitate workflow for the animators, we built an enormous scene management system through Maya, using the software's MEL (Maya Embedded Language) scripting abilities." With this system, the animators could easily gather camera information, motion capture data, live action plate files and sound files. When it came to animating characters the team took the Maya-based animation pipeline a step further. Jason Schleifer, senior animator and creature technical director at Weta Digital and his team set up a procedural puppet system in Maya where characters could be animated via a set of simple controls and sliders. For the complex, highly emotive Gollum a set of 135 controls was put in place for his face alone. "This allowed us to really push Gollum as a character," explains Schleifer. "You really see this come through in the movie during the scene where Gollum is lying on the ground sleeping. Although he's asleep and hardly moving, you can see an internal struggle taking place as you look at his face. It's one of the hardest things in the world to animate a character that is not moving." Schleifer finishes, "Yet in this scene you get a sense of the intensity of Gollum's anguish." Anticipated to be one of the most exciting scenes of all the trilogies, the demise of the Witch King puts MEL to the test. Schleifer animated the Witch King character using Maya's animation curve tools and MEL. "Peter (Jackson) wanted the character to look something like a submarine imploding," says Schleifer. "One challenge was animating the character's hand, so that it was moving upwards, but with a very jittery feel. Using MEL, I built a tool that allowed me to combine two animation curves, one with lots of high frequency data (for the jittery-ness) and one with primary animation information." Next Schleifer put a user interface around his new Maya tool and handed it off to his other team members. "Our whole Maya-based animation pipeline is built on the premise that animators should not have to think about the technical side of things. We want them to think about their craft and the performance of the character." Life beyond the rings looks just as exciting for the team in New Zealand with new projects already underway. "We pushed Maya to its limits and beyond to deliver Peter Jackson's vision and with the help of Alias and the custom development team it's not going to stop there," says Houston. "Our next project is bigger in scale still: and suitably enough, it's King Kong. More than ever, we're going to have to rely on Alias."

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