Making Middle-earth

Todd Eyre/Warner Brothers Pictures and MGM

How do you create a believable fantasy world on screen? Here are some tricks the wizards in New Zealand used to bring their vision of Middle-earth to life.

Making a dwarf look ‘dwarfy’

Dwarves are short and stumpy, so actors wore foam cowls to make their heads appear bigger. “Fat suits” underneath costumes added bulk; cold water was pumped through the suits to keep actors cool. Hand-punched eyebrows and hairs were affixed to face and “big hand and arm” prosthetics; flocking gave the illusion of blood under the skin, and freckles, wrinkles, and scars added realism. Each dwarf required seven wigs; most wigs were made of yak hair. Oversized, heavy boots gave actors the weighty walk of a true dwarvish warrior.

48 frames-per-second issues

Shooting at 48 frames per second captures so much information the color literally gets “eaten up.” Flesh tones looked yellow, so dwarf skins were colored extra-red to compensate. Likewise, sets and props had to be extra-detailed and blemish-free. Blades had to be sharp, wig lines absolutely invisible. Certain fabrics couldn’t withstand scrutiny.

Scale problems shooting in 3-D


“An Unexpected Journey” used scale doubles of each character — 3½ feet to 7 feet — to make it seem that hobbits are shorter than dwarves, and dwarves are shorter than human characters. But the 3-D cameras meant they couldn’t use “forced perspective” (placing actors at different distances from the camera) to fool the eye into thinking that Gandalf was taller than Bilbo. So the art department built two sets, one sized for characters like Gandalf and the other created on a green screen for the taller or shorter characters who appeared in the same scene. Actors performed the scene simultaneously on the two sets, memorizing proper eyelines and using earpieces to hear dialogue from the other set. Peter Jackson simultaneously directed both sets, while cameras using Slave Motion Control technology recorded camera moves in sync. The two scenes were then merged digitally into one scene.