David Gapes of OnFilm NZ has done a great interview with Bruce Brown, the stunt co-ordinator for The Lord of the Rings. Furthermore hes given us permission to tell you some of the fascinating things he discovered.
Bruce has worked with Peter Jackson before on The Frighteners, and he has worked with LOTR producer Tim Sanders on Aberrations. Bruces Stuntworx company, which he runs together with his wife Elaine, has been preparing a core group of twenty people for a year, ever since he knew the project was in the pipeline. In that time they have practiced stunts and fight sequences, and developed a range of fighting styles that are unique. They tried to imagine a different body language, a different kind of movement for each race .
"Very natural and realistic fighting. None of this television-series bullshit where somebody gets hit in the head and does five backward somersaults."
Bruce was asked to go into more detail about the different styles of fighting:
"Theyre styles developed for each particular character. Some are creepy and cockroach-like, some are quite smooth and dainty flowing gracefully, and some are just crash-bash-nothing-stops-them killing machines."
Bruce speaks about the swordmaster who is working with them. His name is Bob Anderson, and there in the OnFilm article you can see him at the back of the stunt team group photo. He looks like a hale and healthy 50-year-old with a big grin and a full head of grey hair. In fact, Bob Anderson is 77, and Olympic fencer, and he worked with Errol Flynn, did every Zorro film and TV series, did Highlanders, First Knight, and on top of that he played Darth Vader. (Well, maybe the fight scenes. I thought it was that big weightlifter guy the rest of the time Tehanu)
Bruce says of him:
"Even now he moves like Bruce Lee. When he has a sword or weapon in his hand, he makes the hair on the back of your head stand on end."
Bob Anderson apparently impressed by the weapons the team is using. "Theyre made of rubber, composite, kevlar, aluminium and carbon fibre, but they can definitely inflict real damage." Anderson says theyre the best stunts weapons hes seen, and in a career as long as his, thats really saying something. The designs are by WETAs Richard Taylor, and his brief from Peter Jackson has been to create something that is unique.
Bruce described a little of the stunts scripting process. The book is the closely adhered to, rest easy, Tolkien fans. Peter Jackson gives a guideline script of what should happen in a stunt sequence, the team goes away and rehearses it, the results are videoed and then Jackson reviews the tapes and suggests any changes he would like to see.
Much of the work is being done in the mysterious Bree set or old Fort Dorset army base in Seatoun.
So what happens when theres a fight involving extras? The extras that will get to fight have been screened for stable character, mostly from watching them do a bit of sparring. (And some were marked "No Way. Never, ever to go near a sword.") When theres a battle scene, the people nearest the cameras will be actors and stuntmen. There will also be a few hundred extras further back who will have been trained in groups of ten or twenty each of which is overseen by one of Bruces team.
Bruce Brown doesnt just co-ordinate fight sequences. There has been a lot of research into improving stunt techniques. For instance, they have developed a new kind of crashmat made of solid foam on the outside with hollow sections that vent and absorb air very fast. The double airbag that Bruce bought in the States can absorb an eighty-foot fall, but it takes a while to reset. The new mats theyve designed here can absorb a forty-foot fall and it only needs as long as it takes for the person to roll off and another person can follow on, so you can have a more continuous flow of action. Very useful for those scenes where people are falling off castle walls.
Bruce describes some scenes where the invaders scale the walls using massive ladders. They are getting shot off, and the ladders pivot at their base to dump the climbers onto a waiting airbag.
Theyre also using air ratchets for falls, and jerkback rigs. Bruce describes the air ratchet:
"Its a wire that attaches from a harness on your back up through some pulleys and through a purchase system and then down to a pneumatic cylinder. If in one shot you need to have someone jump 50 feet, leave, fall all the way to the ground, hit the ground and run off, this system allows you to freefall for, say, 40 feet on a slack wire. Then the wire takes up and runs a pneumatic ram out, and as it pulls to its full length, it slows and slows down your fall.
"You can have a scene where youre standing on the ground, and youre hit by, say, a magical staff which throws you at 45 degrees from the ground straight back and, say, 50 feet in the air, and then pulls you back 30 feet."
Theyre developing an air-ram that works two ways, firing in and out. With the various flying rigs, stuntmen will be look as though theyre doing somersaults as they spin through the air.
Steve Ingram, the man thats designed the two-way air-ram, has also built a wind-machine with a V8 engine, 450 horsepower. "It can blow you over."
Theres explosions too, of course. "The Wizard Saruman creates a primitive form of gunpowder. There is a battle scene where castle walls get blown up."
Well, there should be something for everyone in here as far as action goes.
My thanks again to the good people at OnFilm NZ.