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Joe Letteri's Journey from Pittsburgh to Middle-Earth

on Sat, 05/24/2014 - 00:00

Since September 1937, millions of people across the globe have been transported to the fantasy world of Middle-Earth, the fictional continent that serves as the locale for many of J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings, including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Using intricately drawn maps crafted by Tolkien himself as well has his prose for inspiration, the universe of Bilbo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee and Gandalf the Grey have been brought to life in reader’s minds with nothing more than the power of imagination. That changed in 2001 with the film release of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which brought Middle-Earth literally to life with an onscreen world as vivid and realistic as that of our own, and it was Aliquippa native Joe Letteri who played an instrumental role in the development of Middle-Earth as much as anyone else.

“Middle-Earth is a great place to make a film,” Letteri told StudioDaily in February 2014. “There’s always something fantastic as you move through the landscape.” Since 2001, Letteri has personally contributed to that sense of “fantastic” in his role as visual effects supervisor for Weta Digital, but it was only one stop on a long journey that has seen him travel from Pittsburgh to California before heading to New Zealand, where Weta is based. After receiving his diploma from Center High School in Beaver County during the mid-1970s, Letteri attended the University of California, Berkeley. Although he graduated just as the merging of computer technology into filmmaking began in earnest, Letteri was still able to learn the basics on his own and eventually landed a job at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic. While at ILM, he helped explode the Klingon moon Praxis in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and brought dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park.

After ten years with Lucas, Letteri joined Weta Digital in New Zealand, the special effects company founded by Peter Jackson to assist with production of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. During his time there, Joe Letteri has won four “Best Special Effects” Oscars for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, King Kong and Avatar. Despite the central role he has played in the creation of so many classic sci-fi films—in addition to those already mentioned, the list likewise includes the 1997 Star Wars Special Edition and X-Men: The Last Stand—the Middle-Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien is still arguably the pinnacle of Letteri’s achievements as well as the barometer against which special effects during the Twenty First Century are ultimately measured.

“For me personally, the big step was coming here to do Gollum,” Joe Letteri explained to StudioDaily. “Before that, we did creatures. If we did a character, we tended to puppeteer it. We could do dinosaurs, but they were creatures. Gollum was the first character that had to work for the film. I remember in Two Towers, Gollum had a major role and he wasn’t going to be Andy Serkis in costume. If that didn’t work, the movie wouldn’t work. He wasn’t the main character, but he was a big focus. So for me, that was the breakthrough—bring a character that’s almost human to work side by side with actors. For the last twelve years or so we’ve built on that.”

That development includes the use of “digital doubles” for the primary actors of any given film. “Creating a believable human is still a technological challenge,” Letteri adds. “How the lighting works with the skin, the muscle simulation, the facial simulation, hair and cloth dynamics. All these simulations still require a lot of handwork. None of this is automatic. There’s really a lot we don’t know. But as we chip away, we understand more about how to do these things and we lock a few more down. We still get in and do work on top but each time, the base level is a little bit higher.”

It’s takes a lot of work and innovation, but for Joe Letteri, the end result is what matters more than anything else. “We don’t get all this handed to us,” he says. “We have to make the case that a film like this deserves the investment. We want the quality and an audience experience that will hold up for a lifetime. People tell me they watched the trilogy with their family. We’re thinking that way, that these films are things people will put in their library and pull out over the years, so we want the films to work as well as they can possibly work. It does require a big team to do that, and, yes, it helps that we can do all the work at Weta. We don’t have to spend time coordinating. We can put our time into developing the art and science we need.”

Thanks to the imagination of Joe Letteri and Weta Digital, fans of J.R.R. Tolkien are able to witness the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee and Gandalf the Grey in the most realistic and fantastic of fashions. It’s a long way from Pittsburgh to New Zealand—especially with stops in not only Middle-Earth but the Klingon moon Praxis, the Skull Island of King Kong and Avatar’s fantasy world of Pandora—but for Aliquippa native Joe Letteri, it has been a rewarding journey nonetheless.

Anthony Letizia (May 24, 2014)

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