How Dinosaurs Led to the Creation of Gollum in 'Lord of the Rings'

Gollum in Lord of the Rings and inset of  Joe Letteri-H 2018
New Line Cinema/Photofest; Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

King Kong. The Lord of the Rings' Gollum. Avatar's Neytiri. The Planet of the Apes' Caesar. These are just some of the iconic digitally created characters that have been brought to the screen with the help of Joe Letteri, four-time Oscar winner, Weta Digital's senior VFX supervisor and 2018's recipient of the Visual Effects Society's Georges Melies Award.

In fact, it was the opportunity to play a role in creating the tragic Gollum that brought Letteri, 60, to Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. He had worked as a CG artist on 1993's Jurassic Park, where, he explains, "I became interested in what made something like a dinosaur look realistic — some of that was the detail that you see in the dinosaur skin. I also started learning about cinematography and lighting." Seeing those creatures come alive onscreen, he realized the next step was to use similar techniques to create a character, and "Gollum was the perfect opportunity to do that."

While Gollum started with Andy Serkis' performance capture, the challenge for Letteri was "creating a facial performance that would believably convey human expressions. I had never had to work with a character that was so humanlike, delivering a compelling performance onscreen right next to other actors."

His work on Avatar took it all one step further, since performance capture was combined with virtual production while the actors were effectively working with digital sets, allowing director James Cameron to shoot as if he were filming a live-action movie. On the upcoming Avatar sequels, the process has become "more integrated than anything we have been able to do in the past and is a much more realistic representation of being in that world," says Letteri. "That's great for the actors, great for the director, and it's great for us because we know what the film is that we're trying to make."

Having set the bar more than once, Letteri admits that it now keeps getting raised higher. "If you could do one Gollum, you must be able to do a whole planet full," he notes. "Figure out how to do something new, and it quickly expands into having to do lots of them. That's still hard to do; it's still a very artist-dependent medium." 

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.