What it was Like to be an Orc in ROTK

by Celedor

"I am no captain. Neither office nor rank nor lordship have I, being but a plain man of arms of the Third Company of the Citadel. Yet, Master Peregrin, to be only a man of arms of the Guard of the Tower of Gondor is held worthy in this City, and such men have honour in the land."

- Beregond, Book V Chapter 1

Zac was a mere Orc in the Lord of the Rings. Yet, to be only such is held worthy by us Ringers. His relationship with Peter and Weta goes back to the days of "The Frightners", and he's presently trying to carve his own path in the industry as a script-writer and an actor. I was fortunate to be able to talk to him about what it was like being in the movie. I thought some of you might like to see through his eyes what it was like for a regular guy to be out there shooting ROTK.

Celedor: Hello, Zac. How did you become involved with the project?

Zac: I have an agent and was rung during last year's pick-up shots. But as I had just started a new job, I turned it down. I had sworn off doing any further extras work after "The Frighteners" (I am in the museum scene, and can only be seen running across screen in the exterior shot where Chi McBride is putting his head in the bonnet of the sherrif's car to unplug the sparks.) This year, I was again rung up (to be an Orc), so thought I might as well give it a go. I went in on my day off, loved it so much I resigned my work and have been doing what I love ever since July: it is possible to follow your dreams, people. At some point in one's life, one has to follow one's passion to happiness, success and fulfilment, or languish in the Valley of Regret for evermore.

Celedor: You must feel really lucky to have the biggest movie project ever in your area at this time.

Zac: Not so much lucky, maybe privileged to be a part of the whole amazing experience. PJ and Weta and everyone who poured heart and soul into the project has done so much for film-making in this country (New Zealand) not to mention the tourism spin-offs.

Celedor: Have you read the books?

Zac: No, I only read The Hobbit as a kid, but deliberately stayed away from LOTR when it was announced back in 1998. I wanted to see if I could follow the story without having any pre-conceptions or expectations. Mostly, seeing the films, it worked. But I didn't see the need for the octopus thing (The Watcher) at the time, and still don't. What amazed me with Fellowship was the whole "wow" factor, as of course, it was all new to me. When the camera swoops down into the Orc caves, I wanted it to slow down, so I could take in all that was going on. The way to handle it, was to see it a few more times. With Two Towers, I loved how it leapt straight into the story and didn't let up. With Return, you will see a battle that will make Helm's Deep look like a child's tantrum in comparison. But you will also be very moved by the emotional content, as PJ really piles on the tension/danger, etc. The trailer only barely hints at what is to come. And the Mt Doom sequence... well, best bring a box of tissues with you.

Celedor: What parts of the Lord of the Rings were you involved with?

Zac: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Minas Tirith, and the Gates of Mordor. Mostly either marching towards Minas Tirith, fleeing from the Spectrals, or a bit of fighting on the fields.

Celedor: What did you have to do to prepare for shooting?

Zac: The general Orc costume consisted of: a lycra body suit, thermal wear if you wanted them, then trousers, two tops (one short- and one long-sleeved) and boots. After wardrobe, you walked over to Weta and were assigned your mask, a helmet and pair of gloves. Then back to make-up to have the prosthetic (glue) make-up applied. This was 'raccoon' rings around the eyes, mouth, and sometimes across the bridge of the nose, to hide the pink flesh from showing through the mask. Then over to catering for breakfast, and chill out until you were called to set. The actors who were Close-Up Orcs had their makeup applied in the make up bus, as they had prosthetic attachments to wear and contact lenses. Then as you went on set, you were given a weapon to wield and sometimes a shield to carry. Then you had to run for it!

Often there was an indoor unit shooting as well as the outdoor one (Pelennor Fields for most of the time I was involved). The call-time varied from 5 am to 7 am. Occasionally later. Here, it is twelve hours work before overtime applies.

Celedor: What was it like on set?

Zac: The first thing that struck me was how incredibly well organised it was. After four years, one would certainly know what worked and what didn't. The Helm's Deep battle was hell, and I am sooo glad I wasn't there. It was filmed in the middle of winter out at Hayward's Quarry (which, incidentally, is not too far from where I live) and the call time was 5:15 pm till around 7 or 8 am the next morning. Most people live in town, so had to leave earlier to beat the rush-hour traffic, then it was the reverse coming home. So it made for long days. It was originally meant to film for 3 weeks; it ended up being 16!

One night, when it was very chilly and a southerly wind was blowing (which comes up from Antarctica), they had done several takes with the rain tower, and a freak gust of wind came up and blow one of the towers over. A great Rohan cheer went up. But even the Uruk-Hai didn't have it easy, as they wore prosthetic arms and legs, made from a sponge foam latex, that soaked up water like a sponge.

Celedor: Fortunately you had an easier time!

Zac: Consideration was always given to our well-being; not only did the A.D.s carry the cups of water to keep us cool between the shots, but at times, anyone on hand would help out, take "heads off" (the foam latex masks we wore) or put them on, including the Producer, Barry Osborne! This I believe stems from the close-knit nature of kiwi film-makers and the can-do attitude we have. As far as the catering, the food was wonderful. Breakfast and lunch were provided, and all you needed to eat later that night at home, was maybe a cookie for supper and that was it. For the first 15 month block of filming, with up to 1500 crew and several hundred cast, the catering budget alone was NZ$40,000,000.

Celedor: It reminds me of Bilbo's birthday party: the scope of that project was so large, and required so many supplies, all of Hobbiton was involved with it. The Lord of the Rings project must have affected New Zealand in a similar way.

Zac: Very much so. We are a small nation of only 4 million people, with a pioneering attitude that is a descendent from our ancestor's days of arrival to New Zealand. The Do-It-Youself (DIY) attitude is a real kiwi institution, if not mythical one. Almost everyone is a handyman - except me! But yes, apart from the now near-legendary making of the chain mail plastic rings by hand by an elderly couple (a few million of them), much if not all of LOTR was built from scratch. Even the locations were an open-call for people to send in photos of places NZ-wide that they thought would be of use in the films. And there were those who sent or wanted to loan various bric-brac like candelabra for the films. At one point, it seemed as though everyone knew someone who was either involved directly (e.g. crew, actors or extras) or making something for the films. You will know about the so-called "Six Degrees of Separation". Well, here it is referred to as one degree!

Celedor: What was it like during shooting?

Zac: Sometimes it was hard work - marching over and over, or fleeing the CG elements that are added later. An enormous amount of footage was shot using variations to give Pete a wider choice in the editing suite. This is something I have noticed since being on The Frighteners. Not only was a take done however many times it was required, but they sectioned us off into small areas and filmed again and again using the Mocon camera (Motion Control) to do repeated passes, thus building up the numbers of Orcs. Usually there were about 70-80 of us; in the film up to 200,000. Magic, huh?

PJ directed some of our scenes, but when he was in England editing the final cut, staff from Weta Digital did the directing, explaining to us each time, what was occuring in the on-screen action. Frequently, this meant a foreground scene that had been shot months earlier. For example, Legolas hanging onto the leg of the Mumakil, attacking it with his sword (that scene from the trailer), well, we did the background part of it a few weeks ago. Kinda weird but a fascinating process.

Every 100th day was "Frock Day" where all the crew wore frocks (dresses) to work, including wearing lippy (lipstick). I missed it, as the 100th day this year was an Army of the Dead day, and being under 6'3" I was not on set.

Celedor: You know its a big movie project when all this is happening for reshoots.

Zac: Gimli's stunt double is an acquaintance of mine. He said he was flown all over the country to work, and had three months of reshoots this year alone. Several times this was as a stunt co-ordinator which meant he could stay in civvies instead of being made up and put in costume.

Celedor: What have you learned from the project that you can apply to your career?

Zac: Persistence pays, and if you believe you can do it, anything is possible. I know some readers may dismiss that as a cliche, but believe me, it is for real. With LOTR, PJ, Fran, Philippa, Tanya and Richard from Weta... all knew that we had only one chance to get it right. And in a sense, LOTR has shown the world that "kiwis can fly". I also personally only did 29 days in total; other extras did far more, but when you realise that in New Zealand, most films are shot in about five weeks, suddenly four years takes on quite a significant meaning. I now know what I am capable of achieving, and am more likely to take greater risks to achieve my goals/dreams than in the past. Such as auditioning for The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Which Weta are involved with, but it is hearsay at the moment that it will be filmed in New Zealand. Nevertheless, I am going all out for a part in it, and not as an extra, either.

Next up for PJ is of course, King Kong. There have been lots of banana jokes already. And Weta are working on SPFX creature stuff for the Narnia films. No one seems certain that it is going to be filmed here, but I would say that certainly SOME of it will be. The talk at present is they will use the ex-Airforce base at Whenuapai in West Auckland. Which is logical from a transportation point of view; the runway still works.

Celedor: What will you be thinking December 17 when millions of people will be watching you and your fellow orcs perform?

Zac: Thank God I didn't fluff my lines! Kidding, I didn't have any. Really, we will be unrecognisable as individuals...

(Cue: Brian "You're all individuals."
Crowd: "Yes. We're all individuals."
Dennis: "I'm not."
Crowd: "Sshhh.")

Seriously, though, very pleased that when my agent rang up this time, that I didn't turn it down like I did last year. And I guess that even though it has been an incredible experience, thank goodness it's all over. Oh, wait on, there's the reshoots for the Extended DVD next year, and the...

By the way, I saw the Extended Edition of Two Towers. It makes a lot more sense than the original release.

Celedor: Yea, that's what I've been telling people. FOTR Extended added extra character building scenes but told the same story as the theatrical cut. TTT Extended not only adds important bits that help us understand things better, it adds a lot to the story.

Zac: The entire father-to-sons section with Denethor, Boromir and Faramir is in the EE. It really enhances the conflict that Boromir faces in betraying Frodo for the ring, and Faramir's insistence on holding Sam and Frodo in the caves - he desperately wants to prove himself to his father who overlooks him, says he is not up to it, etc. Which given the irony of Boromir's death in Fellowship, is even sadder.

There's also a rousing speech by Boromir. And the Uruk-Hai fleeing the water flooding that has been released by the Ents; they suddenly are all gone from sight. Well, many fled into Fangorn where the remaining Ents ate them for lunch.

Celedor: Zac, thank you very much for answering my questions.

Zac: You are welcome. And thank you for asking.
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