07 Jun “Lord of the Rings” visual effects creator talks about entrepreneurial experiences
Academy-award winning Kenosha native discusses LOTR experiences, future plans
MILWAUKEE – The directors of the Wisconsin Entrepreneur’s Conference chose to follow a trend when picking luncheon guest speakers, as on both days the speakers were award winners. However, Tuesday’s speaker, Don Weber of Logistics Health Incorporated, was there to receive a Seize the Day Award, but Wednesday’s speaker, acclaimed visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel, came to talk with three Academy Awards for “The Lord of the Rings” already under his belt.
In his introduction, Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, said he feels Rygiel’s background of over two decades with digital film– a struggling industry when he began – perfectly blends with the conference. And the fact that he is a Kenosha native makes him an ideal example of a Wisconsin success.
“We relentlessly hunted him down in New Zealand to get him up here,” Still said of signing Rygiel on. “It makes sense for us to find a poster boy for this cluster.”
Rygiel started talking about his digital experience with tales of his early years in Kenosha, and how at a young age it was apparent to him that he would need to take a chance if he wanted to find something different than “farming, factory, [or] shopping mall.” After completing a degree in architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Rygiel headed out to Los Angeles.
Shortly after arriving in L.A., Rygiel began to get involved in computers, in an era where the computer was not widespread – in fact, Rygiel cited a fear at the time revolved around the idea that they would grow arms and plant electrodes in the brains of those who used them. Rygiel, however, began to become more involved in working with computers and worked with several companies to use them, including Pacific Electric Pictures and Digital Productions.
While at the early stages computers were time-consuming and expensive to operate – the advanced Cray computer cost roughly “a million dollars a month overhead” and all graphics creation had to be typed in manually – Rygiel stuck with it and began producing several small parts of commercials and films, including a computer-generated Sony Walkman commercial which he won a CLIO award. However, the work remained without a primary market, as both interest and resources were scarce to produce anything larger.
“We knew we had bits and pieces of something applicable to film, but now we had to get the film executives interested,” Rygiel said of the struggle to get digital effects off the ground. “The industry saw it [the commercial] as a computer graphical ‘thing’ and not something that could make a motion picture.”
The interest began to spike with the release of the 1989 film “The Abyss,” which prominently featured digital graphics to render the monsters and turned the industry into an overnight success. Rygiel was able to move forward and founded his own company, Boss Films, which provided effects to films such as “Starship Troopers,” “Air Force One,” “Cliffhanger” and “Ghost.” The work remained freelance however, and at times Rygiel found himself digging for the next job.
“It was a lot of networking, knocking on the doors every couple of months … I kept getting turned away, but it got me to know the people there [in the industry],” Rygiel said.
This networking paid off for Rygiel in the late 1990s, when his agent told him that director Peter Jackson wanted him to come to New Zealand to join the work on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Upon arriving and starting work on the projects, Rygiel realized two things – that the project was grander and more complex than anything else he had ever attempted in Hollywood, but the cast and crew – particularly Jackson – had an enthusiasm and vision that was like nothing he’d ever seen in Hollywood.
Such inspiration allowed for a great deal of freedom in making the effects come to life, and Rygiel used all this freedom to customize each effect. Every actor had a digital map created of their body, testing all aspects – including hair and cloak wind shifts – and allowed them to map each actor’s movement and create individual motion shots for various scenes. Blue-screen technology was also utilized freely, making Orlando Bloom climbing up sandbags and mattresses look like an enormous Oliphant and transforming a rubber-clad Andy Serkis into the emaciated Gollum.
“Once you get all these elements, it’s about putting them together and seeing how it all fits,” Rygiel said.
Particularly noteworthy of his experience was working with Jackson, who brought several novel techniques to working on the film. For ambitions as great as his – wanting to make Minas Tirith real enough to “buy a plane ticket for” and make cave trolls so lifelike they seemed like they could walk into the room – many of Jackson’s techniques were obviously simple, including pulling down half the face of the Shelob model for a more distended look. Making the hobbits appear smaller was simply an optical illusion, with different camera angles, shorter extras to stand in for the hobbits next to other actors, and simply digging a hole for the actual actors to stand in.
“Peter Jackson is brilliant at understanding old technology and new technology,” Rygiel said of the director’s efforts. “I’d think to myself, ‘He’s insane – how does he expect us to do this?’ And then half an hour later I think he’s a genius.”
Rygiel concluded by telling the audience of his next entrepreneurial undertaking – becoming a director – and acknowledging that this next chapter in his life is as full of risk as the ones before. “I’m severing all ties with visual effects … I’m literally just jumping into that road,” Rygiel said.
Rygiel’s speech was praised by audience members for both its clever subject matter and its relevance to the conference.
“He has a very nice, effective style…it was clear he was having fun the whole time he was doing it,” said William Gregory, dean of the UW-Milwaukee College of Engineering.
“One of the key features is to undertake risk, and Jim’s work shows how he has survived risk to bring images to life,” said Shawn Guse of Quarles and Brady, LLP. “From the grandeur of Rivendell to the grotesqueness of Gollum, Jim brought the vision of Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien to life.”
Les Chappell is a staff writer for the Wisconsin Technology Network and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.