The Lord of the Rings trilogy offers a dragon’s richness of indelible cinematic moments to choose from. Who can forget when Samwise Gamgee swam to Frodo Baggins even though he couldn’t swim? Or when Gandalf arrives at first light to turn the tide against Isengard’s forces? These are touching moments of high emotion that resonate even 20 years after their first meeting.

But the one that resonates the most is obviously when Legolas rode this horse like that.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of The Lord of the Rings movies, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So every Wednesday of the year, we’ll be going back and forth again, looking at how and why movies have remained modern classics. This is the year of the Polygon ring.

In the warg attack sequence of The two towers, Legolas went ahead to observe the approaching enemy, and as the Rohirrim caught up with him, he felt Gimli approaching on horseback. Legolas turns around, grabs his galloping horse by the collar of the chest, then he swings in front of the horse, spins in the air and lands in the saddle in front of Gimli.

It’s a spectacular stunt, showcasing the elf’s agility and strength. And that’s a magnificent feat of Weta Digital’s visual effects work. But why in Middle-earth was it necessary to have him ride a horse in this way? And is there any chance that this is a physically possible thing to be done, by a man or an elf?

Sure, a scientist and the folks at Weta Digital had some answers.

How to put Legolas on a horse, with magic

Legolas is swinging on a horse

Image: New Line Cinema

The extended edition of The two towers reveals the genesis of this particular shot in its half-hour “Weta Digital” segment. In it, actor Orlando Bloom, director Peter Jackson and Matt Aitken, Joe Letteri and Jim Rygiel of Weta Digital only briefly discuss the scene. Aitken, still VFX Supervisor at Weta Digital today, spoke to Polygon to provide more details on creating this scene.

As the DVD featurette makes clear, digitally putting Legolas on a horse was not part of the original plan. All three Lord of the Rings movies were shot simultaneously, and on this scale, accidents happen. After falling from a horse earlier in the day, Bloom had cracked a rib and was unable to perform the stunt as planned. The filmmakers had footage of the Rohirrim reaching Legolas, with Bloom leaping into the air with one arm raised. In the editing room, Jackson and his company discovered the need to end this streak. It was then that they decided to use a digital double.

A digital double is a virtual recreation of a live character, allowing filmmakers to fill production gaps and innovate where using double stunts would be dangerous. Weta Digital’s dual digital work is commonplace these days, appearing in films like Furious 7, Gemini man, and even the climatic sequence of Avengers: Endgame. But during the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the company was still experimenting with this technology, such as with a brief shot of digital miniatures of the Brotherhood crossing the Khazad-Dum Bridge in The Fellowship of the Ring. In the case of Legolas riding a horse, the Weta Digital team had a tougher job ahead of them: a transfer of the live footage of Legolas to a brand new CGI version of the character.

Aitken told Polygon: “In terms of the history of Weta Digital, I think this was probably our first big digital double hit. It was a technology we were working on. We had made small background figures and our massive armies in the battles, but they were already quite small in the frame. To have such a large digital character in the frame, it’s pretty much full frame. To keep it going and not be too distracting for the audience. I think this shot was a turning point for us.

Having to make a full-frame digital model compelling was hard work. “[In] two and a half months, [former Weta Digital animator Christopher Hatala] made about thirty-five different versions of what this action might be, ”Atiken said. “He made Legolas ride to one side of the horse, using a stirrup to stand up. Another version, he does a backflip, spirals in the air and lands behind Gimli. He makes one [motion] just as the horse lifts the foot forward and creates a stepladder.

A low-poly digital double of Legolas from the early renderings of the shot where he jumps on a running horse in The Two Towers.

Image: New Line Cinema

Ultimately, they created the one you finally see in the movie, although Aitken admits that “if you looked at this action from another perspective, it would look ridiculous. It would defy the laws of physics. I think [Legolas] crosses the ground and crosses the horse. I think it probably goes through Gimli.

Then, Weta Digital then needed to create a space where the 3D element of Legolas could live. “We have the hill,” Aitken explained, “we have a corded version of the horse. We have a low-res version of Gimli on the Horse, and we have a digital puppet version of Legolas. The camera department creates this scene as if you are playing a three-dimensional video game, and it matches exactly what was filmed. “This technique, a match in motion, allowed WETA digital to manipulate a digital double of Legolas and integrate it into the scene.

In addition to focusing on the specific movement, there are many factors that work together to make the streak believable. The lighting on the digital mockup should match the actual lighting on the day of shooting, the hair and fabric simulation should match the live artist, who should himself be painted from the shot once the dual digital takes over. All of these elements are then layered together to create a compelling CGI character who is the focal point of the action.

The CGI version of Legolas wasn’t even the only digital element in the scene. Aitken told me: “[Bloom] shoot an arrow and that would also be digital. One thing I can guarantee is [Bloom] never shot a real arrow at any time of The Lord of the Rings. They were all added later in CGI.

How to put Legolas on a horse, with science

Understanding how the scene was made is one thing, but obviously it’s impossible for a real human to do it, right? Unless… Rhett Allain, doctor of physics and scientific consultant for MacGyver, spoke with Polygon about the real-world logistics of Legolas’ horse jumping.

The first issue Allain raised was how much force his movement would have on a human arm. Allain told Polygon: “You grab hold of one arm and then go from 0 to 10 miles per hour in a very short time. It is a very great force on your arm. If I did that, I think it would dislocate my shoulder.

Another problem comes from the way the artists approached animation. Despite his epic appearance on the move, the way Legolas moves remains odd. “I don’t think it’s physically realistic, but stylistically, I was trying to figure out why they would animate it that way. I couldn’t understand the artistic reason why they would be doing this, ”Allain said. “If he catches the horse, he’s on the right side of the horse. You would think he would swing to the right side of the horse, but instead he would swing in front of the horse and to the other side. Not only would a human seriously injure their arm while trying to attempt the action, Allain said, but they are more likely to ride the horse on their right side or be dragged while trying.

But Legolas isn’t exactly human. Could his elven heritage have an impact on our theorizing?

The Brotherhood trudges through the deep snow on the mountainside as Legolas briskly walks over it in The Fellowship of the Ring.

How much does Legolas weigh?
Image: New Line Cinema

“Let’s say he’s an elf and elves don’t weigh as much as humans,” Allain said. “Or elves aren’t as strong as humans, which neither of us know. If they have a very high resistance for their weight, maybe he could.

How much do the elves weigh? In order to determine the weight of Legolas, there is a scene in the Fellowship of the Ring which serves as a guide. As the Brotherhood attempts to cross the Caradhras Pass, they all struggle as the path becomes obstructed by snow – except for Legolas, who displays his elven ability to walk on deep snow, leaving only the slightest trace. . In 2017, Kyle Hill of Because science used these parameters to show that Legolas’ body has a density of 72 kilgrams or less per cubic meter.

With this information in hand, Allain said, “… its mass is probably, and I guess, 20 kilograms or something very small like that. This would make it easier for him to pull himself up onto the horse, as you don’t change as much momentum with the lower mass. Even if it does, it does not stand up to scrutiny. “I would say it definitely stands out as a weird looking move. It’s something that goes beyond what we expected, ”said Allain.

But even if it seems a little strange when you see Legolas riding this horse, there is no denying its effect in The two towers. It’s a crowd pleaser in all aspects. And for Weta Digital, it was also an important scene in their history. He proved that the digital double could be used instead of real actors.

“Digital doubles are at the heart of our work that we’re asked to do on just about every show we work on, and it was a real testing ground and a turning point for us,” Aitken said. “As an installation of visual effects to be able to carry out this shot, it showed the filmmakers that he was there to help them not only to get out of the sticky situations they found themselves in, but also to make it happen. their characters things that the actors might not do. “I can’t do it or I wouldn’t feel safe,” Aitken said. “We are delighted that we were able to achieve this and I would like to think [Jackson] was pretty happy too.

The magnificent feat that Legolas performs may not be possible for a man or an elf, but nonetheless, Legolas rode on that damn horse.

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