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An Unexpected Journey to New Zealand 

Bendite Scott Baxter goes there and back again to work on The Hobbit

When you're talking about "Lord of the Rings" fandom, you're talking about a very specific kind of obsession.

I read The Hobbit for the first time when I was 12. I saw all the Lord of the Rings films in the theater, then again on VHS, and again on DVD in their extended editions. I've watched the Battle of Helms Deep, like, 1,000 times. I own a set of Lord of the Rings Pez dispensers. If I had a hairless cat, he would be called Gollum.

So, when the opportunity to interview Scott Baxter, a Bend-based visual effects artist who worked on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey came across my desk, I was happier than Gollum, cradling the Precious, just before he falls into the hellish fires of Mt. Doom.

Baxter worked on The Hobbit's visual effects, and shares, at least in part, my passion for LOTR.

"As soon as I saw my first green-screen of Gandalf, I was like OHHHHH!" said Baxter.

Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based effects company that hired Baxter, is top shelf among businesses that make shit look awesome. They have facilitated visual effects for big-budget blockbusters like Avatar, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men.

In An Unexpected Journey, Weta's mastery was put to good use; it even helped earn the team an Oscar nomination for best visual effects for its creations of JRR Tolkien creatures, including orcs, goblins, mountain trolls, Gollum and a very impressive albino Orc named Azog.

If you're not a LOTR dork, skip to the next paragraph for more on Scott Baxter. But, I must mention that, in the books, Azog DIES at the Battle of Azanulbizar, where he slays the Dwarf king Náin, only to be himself slain by Náin's son Dáin. His arm is never replaced with a giant fork and he never rides a Warg up a tree. CURSE YOU, DIRECTOR PETER JACKSON!

Despite my personal qualms, the special effects in An Unexpected Journey are mind-blowing, and took a lot of man-hours to accomplish. Baxter said that for the six weeks he was in New Zealand last fall, he worked long days and nights. His job was extremely specific: rebuild images, with or without certain characters.

"I worked on taking people out, putting people back in, shrinking people—and then I do composite stuff," said Baxter. "We take the person out and we have to rebuild the information behind them. If there's a jacket blowing in the wind, we have to make that happen."

The resizing of characters is an immensely important aspect in making Tolkien's world come alive. The tiny hobbits, the towering Ents and every character in between have to range in size, just as they do in the chronicles of Middle-earth.

"[The actors] are all the same size, but then we say Gandalf is big, you have to rebuild that image," said Baxter.

He admited that his work can be tedious.

"Think about painting one frame in Photoshop, and thinking, OK, that looks really good. Then you have 48 of those frames and they all have to mesh and morph together and then that shot is five seconds long," Baxter explained.

Production is under way for two more Hobbit movies: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014), leaving fans like me drooling over the prospect of more grand Tolkien awesomeness. The films are sure to continue Weta's tradition of dazzling visual effects, as well as director Peter Jackson's trademark sweeping landscape shots and bloody battles intended to spice up Tolkien's already epic storyline.

Baxter is back in New Zealand and plans to stay for about a year. Last week, he hiked the area where they filmed the elfish city of Rivendell, in Kaitoke Regional Park in Upper Hutt, New Zealand (on the north island). He plans to post this footage, along with his visits to other LOTR-related hot spots, on a video blog YouTube channel that follows his adventures Down Under.

Baxter explained that his passion for LOTR was inspired by film, not directly by Tolkien's writing.

"I've never read the books," admitted Baxter. "But I really love the movies."

I guess it goes to show that you don't need to know the names of the kingdoms of Middle-earth to make the cinematic world come to life, but it sure does help your nerd-cred. SW

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