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Into The Woodland Realm
The forest of Mirkwood is a complex environment in the film, which created a myriad of practical concerns for the production. To bring cinematic reality to this memorable passage from the book required a set that would both evoke danger and decay while also accommodating extensive action sequences and visual effects. Previsualization (Previs) supervisor Christian Rivers worked with Jackson to fully develop the sequence long before shooting to help lay the foundation and technical requirements for the sets that would need to be built.

The enormous, toxic forest was realized with 32 giant, craggy trees carved out of polystyrene that stood over 30 feet high and could be rearranged to create different environments. The trees were then covered with latex bark, and each element of the forest, including fungi, limbs and assorted debris, was painted with a bright, multi-colored palette to enhance the hallucinatory quality of the forest, though it does not appear that bright on film. When the Mirkwood footage was desaturated in post-production, it creates a paling effect on Bilbo and the Dwarves, as if the forest itself were draining their energy. But on set, Jackson jokes, "It was almost like we were back in 1967 again."

The Giant Spiders stalking the Company through the trees are CGI creations hand-animated by Weta Digital. "Peter wanted all the action to be set in the canopy, with Spiders using webs to travel from limb to limb through the treetops," Joe Letteri relates. "With everything happening through space, we could really play with the three-dimensionality of it, but needed to choreograph the Spiders precisely and figure out where their feet needed to be to get the action we wanted towards camera."

As the actors learned, however, the giant webs in which the Spiders encase the Dwarves would be accomplished practically. "They wrapped this webbing around you like plastic wrap, and once you were in there, you had to stay that way," remembers Dean O'Gorman, who plays Fili. "It was quite funny because you couldn't see anything, but you could maybe feel a bit of an elbow or leg. As we waited, you'd hear the collective groaning of the Dwarves. Then, when they called action, we could rip it all off, which was quite satisfying."

To give the actors something to fight against on set, stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell dressed his stunt performers as "Kermits"--so-named because of their head-to-toe green suits-- which would be replaced by Spiders later on. "You can't swing a weapon through space, pull your blow physically, and make it look like you've made contact," Boswell comments. "So we'd give the actors targets to hit in the form of green pads and green sticks with which they could make contact."

The forest theme continues in Thranduil's fortress in Mirkwood, a complex limestone cave system carved out of a mountain, with massive tree roots and water from the river running through it. "The main design is reminiscent of the art nouveau elements we used at Rivendell, but in a much more confined environment," Hennah says. "The Wood-elves come from the forest and have found a safe place that they can defend inside this mountain, but they've brought the forest in with them, so all the pillars are carved like trees. It's not just a flat-bottomed cave; it has ravines, walkways and big limestone bridges that run through the middle of it."

Its vast breadth demanded that it be created almost entirely in CG, with a number of practical sets being built, including Thranduil's imposing throne room, the Elves' wine cellar, and the cells where the Dwarves are locked up.

Their barrel escape down a log flume and into the river rapids below represented one of the filmmaking team's greatest challenges. "Shooting on water is difficult at the best of times," Jackson notes, "but for the barrel sequence, as we devised it, we didn't require a calm river--we wanted actors inside barrels, with the lids off, going down the most massive, deadly rapids you could imagine. So what we came up with was not one solution but a sum total of several different approaches."

To enable Jackson to work with the actors in a controlled, safe, interior environment, the art department, special effects and stunt teams worked together to build an indoor river that Jackson describes as "like a log ride at a theme park." The kidney-shaped whirlpool set was constructed to be wide enough at its narrowest point to fit two barrels through, with special effects coordinator Steve Ingram and his team installing powerful 500hp water jets to circulate the roughly one thousand cubic feet of water. To ensure the safety of the cast, Boswell and the stunt team plunged into dive tanks to engineer the buoyancy of the barrels using inflated tubes and ballast with steel weights.

For sweeping exteriors shots on somewhat calm waters, the company next moved to the Pelorus River. Though visually dramatic, the river courses along a narrow gorge, rendering it virtually inaccessible to filmmaking equipment. The solution was to extend 300 feet of scaffolding from the parking lot all the way across the river, suspended above the water. Location supervisor Jared Connon recalls, "We had our two-ton TechnoCrane out on a rocky point, Jet Skis in the river, stunt rigs everywhere and special effects creating a small waterfall." Just as filming wrapped, a heavy rain blew in, nearly flooding out the entire operation.

Jackson also wanted to capture imagery of the barrels caught in violent, raging rapids, which was a near impossible proposition in New Zealand. But the director's own memories provided the answer--the Aratiatia Dam located near Lake Taupo--which he'd visited with his parents as a child. "Below the dam is this rocky gully with about a mile of twists and turns," Jackson details. "Most of the time it's dry, but every three or four hours when the enormous gates of this dam open, it becomes the most horrific, turbulent run of water that you could ever imagine."

The filmmakers knew they couldn't put people in barrels caught in these rapids, but could instead use digital doubles for the roughest segments of the barrel ride. The whole sequence was planned in previs, meticulously breaking down the different elements that would make up each shot. Christian Rivers and a splinter unit from Weta Digital traveled to the Aratiatia Dam to gather as much footage of the dam's release as possible, syncing closely with the hydroelectricity company operating the dam. With cameras positioned at strategic locations along the mile-long gorge, carefully weighted barrels--some with GoPro digital cameras installed to capture POV shots--were thrown into the rapids for the roughly 10 minutes of release. "Then the gates would close, the barrels would be retrieved, and we could go have a cup of tea," Jackson recalls with a smile.

Letteri estimates that the artists at Weta Digital treated virtually every frame of the sequence in one way or another, whether in providing environments, digital characters or water simulation. "For us, it was like the three hardest things to achieve from a visual effects perspective coming together in one place," he relates. "We were constantly rebuilding and reconfiguring the waterway as the animation was further refined. Technically, what's really challenging is water simulation because we're pushing tons of water down these rapids, while integrating the barrels and animations in just the right way."

"By creating this mix of live action with the actors and the digital water, I think audiences will get a real sense of being in those barrels in that terrifying stretch of river," Jackson says.

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