Weta Digital has been in the digital effects game for over 25 years, and the company’s most recent contribution to the cinematic landscape was in Avengers: Endgame, specifically through the explosive final battle. During my recent interview with Weta visual effects supervisor Matt Aiken, I asked him whether there were any non-Marvel movies Weta had worked on that inspired the work done on Endgame, and he informed me that there were quite a few parallels between the final chapter of the Infinity Saga and what he and his team had done on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Aiken explained:
A bunch of us, myself included, go all the way back to Lord of the Rings at WETA Digital. That had giant battle sequences, predominantly CG battle sequences as well. It was interesting, we really felt like we were back in the territory of Helm’s Deep and the Battle of Pelennor Fields at times on this film, which was fun for a bunch of us who’d worked on those films as well. And we’re using some of the same techniques and software in Lord of the Rings. We’re using MASSIVE, which is the crowd-simulation software that we developed in house at WETA Digital to do those battle scenes for Lord of the Rings to do the crowd simulation work for Endgame as well. It’s a way more developed version of that, but it’s still plenty of the same software.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has delivered some amazing battles over the last 11 years, but for now, Avengers: Endgame’s final conflict ranks as the biggest yet. All the major MCU heroes, from the ones we’d followed along with since the beginning of the movie to those who were dusted in Avengers: Infinity War coming back to life, as well as their armies of allies, fighting the 2014 versions of Thanos and his forces. Who knows if/when we’ll ever see a clash like this again in the MCU.
While a battle of that scale is novel for the superhero franchise, for Matt Aiken and his team, it was familiar territory for them, because even though it’s been nearly two decades since the Lord of the Rings trilogy launched, they were using the same software to create these large crowds back then as they did for Avengers: Endgame in the last year or so, albeit with many improvements.
However, the trick with creating these kind of fights isn’t just plopping large crowds onto a battlefield; it’s also ensuring that the combatants can stand out amidst all the action. What’s the point watching two sides duke it out if everyone’s actions look the same? That would be boring. Matt Aiken and his Weta team figured that out during their time on Lord of the Rings and incorporated it into Avengers: Endgame. As Aiken put it:
And then things we learned from Lord of the Rings that we were able to bring to bear here as well. The one thing we always like to do is when we have these big battle scenes is not to just treat everybody the same, so in Endgame, we’ve got multiple different flavors of army on both sides, both Thanos’ side and our heroes’ side. We’ve got Wakandans, Asgardians, Ravagers, sorcerers on the heroes’ side, and we’ve got Chitauri, Outriders, Sakaarans, the Black Order on Thanos’ side. And we want to preserve the individual fighting styles for each of these sub-armies, if you like, so that when we have a clash, we can tell if it’s a bunch of Outriders dealing to some sorcerers, or maybe we’ve got some Wakandans who are able to take on a whole lot of Chitauri.
The MCU and Middle-Earths sagas are incredibly different from one another, but when it comes to VFX work, as Matt Aiken laid out, a lot of the same methods were applied to both franchises. Given technological advancement, obviously these methods were more refined for Avengers: Endgame, but overall, it’s like the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
While Weta Digital handled VFX for all the Lord of the Rings movie and the subsequent Hobbit trilogy that followed a decade later, Avengers: Endgame marked just the fifth MCU movie the company worked on, the previous ones being The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Avengers: Infinity War. Given what Weta pulled off in all those movies, Endgame especially, I suspect Marvel Studios will continue relying on its services for future installments.
Avengers: Endgame’s final battle definitely gave viewers a lot of moving pieces keep track of, from Captain America finally wielding Mjolnir to the women of Marvel coming together to transport the Infinity Gauntlet to Scott Lang’s van. Even with the good guys getting that surge of reinforcements, Thanos nearly succeeded in destroying the universe and replacing it with a new one, but Tony Stark managed to swipe the Infinity Stones and channel their power to turn all the Mad Titan and his minions to dust, though it came at the cost of his own life.
As for the Lord of the Rings franchise, obviously its time on the big screen has come and gone, but the Middle-Earth mythology will soon be explored on the small screen. Amazon has a Lord of the Rings TV series in the works, although instead of just adapting the original novels again, it will tell new stories set before The Fellowship of the Ring. Given that Weta primarily works on movies, as well as Amazon probably wanted its series to look different from the movies, it’s unlikely the New Zealand-based company will be brought in to work on this show, but I suppose anything is possible.
Avengers: Endgame is still playing in theaters, so be sure to read CinemaBlend’s review of the movie and stay tuned for more coverage on it. If you’re curious about what the MCU has coming up, check out our Marvel movies guide. As for the Lord of the Rings series, it doesn’t have an official premiere date, although it might be ready by 2021.