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Crew members describe filming 'Rings' trilogy in New Zealand

A location manager and a production legal consultant for "The Lord of the Rings" movies revealed to an MIT audience the inner workings of construction and management of one movie set--the embattled Edoras fortress shown in "The Two Towers." They spoke just weeks before the third installment in the "Ring" trilogy ruled all of Hollywood with an 11-award Oscar sweep.

The "Rings" event, held Feb. 13, was presented by the Technology and Culture Forum and organized by Miguel Molina Cecchetti, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering. Molina, who said he is a "big fan of the books and movies" about Middle Earth, added that he hoped the talks would be an opportunity to "get away from spreadsheets and models and hear the story of something more extraordinary."

The two speakers focused on logistical, environmental and legal challenges of filmmaking in an area of New Zealand where national and tribal laws as well as wildlife habitats had to be respected.

"We're talking about the basics of location management--tents, toilets, trash, transport, and if you're British, tea," said Richard Sharkey, supervising unit location manager for "The Two Towers." Sharkey is a self-described fan since age 11 of J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" books.

"The Fellowship of the Ring," the first of the three novels, was published in 1954 and hit the big screen in 2001. The movie version of "The Two Towers" came to theaters in 2002. On Monday, "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," the final installment, won every Academy Award for which it was nominated.

Part two of the saga, "The Two Towers," shows how the War of the Ring begins.

Sharkey and his colleague, Matthew Cooper, location administrator and production legal consultant, described how Edoras, the fortress city of the Rohan people, was designed, built and then completely taken apart over a period that included two years of preparation, nine months of building and three weeks of shooting.

Tourists visiting the actual location--Mount Potts, in New Zealand's Ashburton district--find the very scene that location scouts saw from their helicopter: everything Tolkien imagined for Edoras: the sheer-sided hill in the midst of a wide plain, impassable mountains, wind, extreme weather.

But Sharkey's job wasn't to enjoy the view, he said. Once the location was chosen, the challenges poured in. For example: How would he get about 800 people in and out of Edoras without roads? In an area that had, say, 150 hotel beds, where would he find 500 more? And how about the sprawling, dramatic battle scenes?

"We needed to build a safe environment for a large crew. We had to build gravel roads. We also had to find extras--we used the New Zealand army. They started out perfectly normal-looking and turned into snarling Orcs," said Sharkey with a laugh.

To illustrate their comments, Sharkey and Cooper used maps of New Zealand overlaid with maps of Middle Earth, as well as slides showing blueprints for whole production villages.

Cooper outlined the environmental impact of several aspects of production, including trampling on ground cover by the huge crew; the use of horses; special effects such as fire, rain, snow and smoke; and managing fuel and handling waste water--all of which were subject to various laws.

One example of Cooper's work on "The Two Towers" was his negotiation on behalf of migrating birds and salmon, for whom Mount Potts is a crucial and delicate habitat.

"We designed our river crossings to accommodate the fish and created culverts for them as well. Since it was winter in the film, we had to remove every tussock of grass. We put them all in a nursery and replanted them 18 months later," Cooper said.

At the end of their presentation, Sharkey and Cooper gave in and used a "Two Towers" star to describe their sense of accomplishment in building a world and then dissolving it completely.

Speaking via videoclip, Gandalf, the White Rider, played by Ian McKellen, declares, "When we were there, it was so full of life. Now it's just the sheep and the wind."

Local fans of the Tolkien trilogy marked the occasion of the first movie's release in December 2001 with a hack whereby the Great Dome was decorated with a golden ring containing an inscription in Elvish beginning "One Ring to rule them all."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 3, 2004 (download PDF).

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