Rings around the world

Rings around the world

By Stuart Finlayson

The behind the scenes technology that helped bring the magic of the blockbusting Lord of the Rings movie trilogy to our screens. By Stuart Finlayson.

Anyone who has seen any of the instalments of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy can fully appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking that director Peter Jackson took upon himself when directing all three parts of the trilogy simultaneously-a first for large-scale film production.

Fewer will be aware that during the 274 days it took to film the three movies, at 150 locations across New Zealand, Jackson was regularly managing multiple film crews at various locations.

Without the ability to clone the director or have him in several different places at the same time, Jackson's production company, 3Foot6 Limited, turned to video conferencing specialists Polycom, who provided the infrastructure that enabled the director to see what was going on in three places at once and give instructions based upon the footage seen.

This use of video communications provided significant financial and artistic benefits in the film series production. The director viewed footage as it was being filmed by linking the movie cameras into Polycom's video conferencing systems and viewing the footage over a high-speed network connection from either the Pinewood editing studio in the UK, the main studio in Warkworth, New Zealand, or somewhere on location.

"Peter Jackson would watch what the locations were filming and then make suggestions," says Duncan Nimmo, IT manager for 3Foot6 Limited, a company formed specifically for the film series." Jackson suggested changes such as different lighting or camera angles, and could see differences in the way certain types of characters moved or acted and make sure that the film conformed to his overall vision. This didn't just save time; it made the overall film a better one."

The real-time interaction with the film crews and location directors resulted in fewer re-takes, which shortened filming time and saved major costs, as Nimmo explains.

"The challenge we had was that we wanted to have it running all day, every day, but to buy a satellite connection and have it running all the time would be expensive beyond belief. That is what led us to use a TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) network."

TCP uses the Internet to route packets of data. It is known as a connection-oriented protocol, which means that the connection is only maintained between the various users while a message or multiple messages are being exchanged. It is responsible for dividing such messages up into packets that Internet Protocol (IP) manages, and is also responsible for re-assembling said messages into complete messages at their destination.

The production crew used high frequency radio transmitters and military grade fibre optic cable to connect crews operating at great distances. Once the signal was received, it was fed through the analogue video inputs on the back of the Polycom video conferencing system and was ready for transmission. The footage was then transmitted over satellite to the director, whether he was in the central studio or out on location.

Far from being operated in a stable environment, Polycom's video conferencing systems were used in sub-zero temperatures in the winter, exposed to searing heat in the summer and bounced around in the back of a variety of vehicles over thousands of kilometres without a single fault being recorded. That's not to say that the operation of the system was always trouble free, as Nimmo explains.

"Obviously, the first thing we had to do was align the satellite dishes, which is done manually using a compass. In terms of running Polycom itself, it was really very simple-it was just a matter of turning it on and dialling up a number.

"We did always have to be careful about where we put the dish, which occasionally proved challenging. One particular occasion, we started setting it up at 10 o'clock at night in the dark on the side of a mountain, when a blizzard started. We were swinging the dish around for some time and couldn't find the satellite. There was no indication of its existence at all. This continued until about four in the morning, by which time snow was piling up all around us.

"It was at this time when, just for a minute, the snow and the mist cleared away to reveal the moonlight, which was when we discovered that we had the dish parked just three or four metres away from a sheer cliff face, so we would have no hope of getting a signal there!"

Spending the majority of the shooting schedule in the midst of the rugged and beautiful terrain of New Zealand's countryside did throw up technological challenges not normally encountered in establishing communication links of this nature, explains Steve Neville, Territory Manager at Polycom.

"It was a lot more complex in that they had a lot of issues that we do not have in the more traditional corporate and education implementations, i.e., running cables through bushes and trees and moving satellites around locations. As far as the concept of what they were trying to achieve (setting up multiple videoconference systems and connecting people in multiple locations), that is something we do every day."

Satellite communications proved essential to shooting the film series in just 274 days. Although the video conferencing system was originally conceived for video communications alone, the ability to integrate phone and network services became a critical part of the operation.

Video conferencing also played a key role in the post production process. To help meet the important post production delivery date, the crew used Polycom's systems, which enabled the director to provide input from New Zealand to the music studios in London on the final music score, highlighting how such technology can provide significant benefits to the film making process by unlocking new, more effective methods of production.

"We are very proud that Polycom's products were able to assist Peter Jackson in the making of the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. We are constantly amazed when we find out how customers are using video communications in different ways, thus demonstrating the versatility, reliability and adaptability of Polycom products and solutions," enthuses Jean-Francois Poulain, Vice President and Managing Director, Polycom Asia. "The ability to communicate and collaborate effectively over distances enabled the director to make decisions faster, save time and reduce production costs."

Polycom's video conferencing systems run full-motion TV-quality video and can deliver near CD-quality audio. An embedded web server handles diagnostics and simple software upgrades over the Net. In addition to the Graphics User Interface (GUI), the voice tracking camera and preset tracking function means that customers can adapt the product to fit their needs.

According to Polycom's Steve Neville, the company's association with such a hugely popular production has given it exposure far beyond its traditional parameters.

"I think it has brought us into the mainstream environment in the sense that people on the street are aware of us, rather than just the markets we normally sell into. I think it has also created an awareness that this technology is not just for the corporate environment, but can be used for anything to do with video and audio communication over distances. It certainly hasn't hurt, let's put it that way!"

Jackson made movie history by filming all three parts of the "Rings" trilogy simultaneously, a cinematic achievement unlikely to be surpassed on such a grand scale. The first two films have earned a combined US$1.8 billion and won a total of six Oscars. The third and final part of the trilogy-The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King-is still showing in cinemas and won a record equalling 11 Oscars (from 11 nominations) at this year's Academy Awards ceremony.

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