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From 'LOTR' to 'Spiderman,' Kenosha Native Adds Special Effects to Blockbusters

Weta Digital

Moviegoers have come to expect more and more sophisticated, seamless special effects, thanks to advances in computer graphics. A UWM graduate has played a big role in creating this CG movie magic.

Kenosha native Jim Rygiel is the man behind special effects ranging from Lord of the Rings' Gollum and the Balrog to what made Patrick Swayze look otherworldly in Ghost.

For this work and much more, he's received three Academy Awards, three BAFTAs, and numerous other awards and nominations.

Going right or left

Rygiel graduated from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1977 with a degree in painting and drawing.  But a career in fine art was not to be. Rygiel says when he was leaving Milwaukee after graduation, he could have turned left and gone to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, or right, to the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

"I turned right," he laughs. "I wanted to be warm."

It was an auspicious time to be in Southern California. Computers were just becoming available to the mass market and the digital effects industry was in its infancy. Rygiel got in on the ground floor by calling a number on a 3x5 card on his school's bulletin board. He started with one of the first companies to use computers in film called Digital Productions and the rest, as they say, is history.

Role in filmmaking

Credit Ellen Friebert Schupper
Lake Effect's Bonnie North with UWM graduate and special effects supervisor Jim Rygiel

Fast forward three-plus decades, and Rygiel has risen to the top of the profession. His resume is an impressive read; in addition to the aforementioned films, he's also created special effects for movies such as The Last of the Mohicans, Starship Troopers and The Amazing Spiderman, and is currently in post production on Godzilla.

Rygiel says audiences appreciate the special effects he creates, but the need for them is often underestimated by directors and producers.

“We’re sort of the bad stepchild of filmmaking," he says. "We’re probably 90% of the film, but they tend to pretend that we are just 5% because they don’t want to pay for what they want.”

Rygiel emphasizes that creating the effects in a movie is a collaborative process. As Special Effects Supervisor on a film, he is second or third in the hierarchy after the director. Rygiel says directors often will claim they want to do most of their shooting on stage sets or on location.

But many times, as filming progresses, they realize they can't always do that and get the effect they want. That's where the visual effects department comes in and creates their movie magic.

Working on LOTR

But these kinds of effects take a lot of time, money and team effort. On the Lord of the Rings films, Rygiel had about 800 people working under him during production.

"After the 'Lord of the Rings' was all said and done, I found out that over the course of all three movies there was 25,000 people that worked on the movie," he says.

One of the biggest challenges Rygiel faced on that project was creating the animated character of Gollum. He worked with director Peter Jackson to decide how the character would look, but then it was up to the animators to figure out how to make him move realistically.

A team of animation artists worked on specific scenes involving Gollum and used their own reflections to study how the face moves and create the character's facial expressions. Rygiel says their work was so precise, in fact, that he was always able to tell which animator worked on which scene.

The team then scanned Gollum actor Andy Serkis' face on the animations to make it look consistent.

Future of special effects

Looking forward, Rygiel says visual effects are going play a bigger role than ever in filmmaking, as witnessed by recent releases like Avatar and Life of Pi. He estimates 80% of a film will be computer graphics and 20%, acting. But Rygiel is quick to say that actors will never be completely replaced by effects.

“While we can visually reproduce an actor, we can’t produce his soul,” he says. “I’m saying that you are still going to need actors to do what they do.”

That can only be good news for all those actors out there who still dream of making it big in Hollywood - and for the next generation of aspiring visual effects wizards, as well.

Kenosha native, UWM graduate, and multiple Oscar winner Jim Rygiel was back in Milwaukee to receive the Chancellor’s Recognition Award from UW-Milwaukee. 

Listen to the supplemental audio below to learn about Rygiel's time at UWM and about the visual effect in Lord of the Rings that didn't go as planned:

Supplemental Audio of Jim Rygiel.

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Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.