Bringing the Cave Troll to life

Used to be, all you needed to create a scary swamp monster was heavy makeup, a bad actor and some amateurish camera work. But these days, computer animation can make any ghoulish creature take on a life of its own.

The technological advancements in film animation are illustrated in the first installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy , The Fellowship of the Ring, which roared into theatres last December.

Using 3-D animation software called Maya from Toronto-based Alias

Wavefront, director Peter Jackson and his special effects company, Wellington, New Zealand-based Weta Digital Ltd., re-created the book’s fantastical creatures, such as the Cave Troll, an 18-foot-tall colossus.

The process is complex. First, animators build a clay model of the creature and laser-scan it into a computer. Next, they texture and paint the computer model to make it look realistic. To animate the model, they build a computer-based skeleton that can be manipulated to create realistic movement and expression.

The computer mimics a camera lens and allows the animators to match the movement of the creature to the live-action footage of the film. Lighting and shadows are also digitally added. The Lord of the Rings used several hundred computers networked together to work on the images.

Finally those elements are layered together with the live-action footage, and color-adjusted so that it all looks like it was shot at the same time.

“The whole process takes several hundred people, between two and three years, and has peril at every step,” says Mark Sylvester, who acted as the Alias

Wavefront executive sponsor for the blockbuster project. “Trying to get all the models to look realistic and all the motion to be believable is critical.”

According to Jon Labrie, chief technical officer at Weta Digital Ltd., Maya was the primary 3D application for the Lord of the Rings films.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards.

In addition to providing the computer graphics technology behind all the films nominated in the “best visual effects’ category, Alias

Wavefront’s Maya was used to help produce the eye-catching computer animation in two of the three films nominated in the new Oscar category “best animated feature.” The films nominated in this category that made use of Maya are: Monsters, Inc. and Shrek.