When is a tennis ball not a tennis ball? The bizarre answer, in Hollywood, is that a tennis ball is not a tennis ball when it’s attached to the end of a long stick, and is supposed to be the stand in for a creature, a dinosaur, or a giant spider that will be added in post-production after the fact. We hear these stories often from actors, about the struggle to act opposite a creature that isn’t in the scene with you. Motion-capture experts like Andy Serkis have helped to bridge that gap, putting Gollum into key Lord of the Rings scenes opposite actors like Elijah Wood and Sean Astin. But sometimes the actor needs to really pretend, and Astin tells a story about when (and why) that became too difficult to do.
One thing that Sean Astin took a lot of pride in while filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy with Peter Jackson and his colleagues is that he felt like he’d mastered the art of seeing beyond the tennis ball. Yes, in practicality, the hobbit actors often were acting alongside something that wasn’t there. But that’s the power of make believe, and Astin says that he was very good at it. He explained:
When we first started filming, the film-culture approach to creatures in green screen was Jurassic Park. It was Sam Neill with a pole with a tennis ball on the end of it. And it was like, ‘OK, the T-Rex is the tennis ball.’ But ultimately, at a certain point, if you really focus on the X, the tape X or the tennis ball… it actually, to my eye, it looks like you're looking behind the animated character. So to me, what I prided myself on at the beginning was being able to see Gollum, or see the spider, or see the cave troll. Like, I could see it [with] my imagination. I just believed it and I could play a scene with an actual cave troll, right there in my mind.
It was easier on the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, according to Sean Astin. Because he went on to recall a time during the filming when that imagination wasn’t coming to him as easily. The trappings of suddenly being in a wildly successful and popular film series was distracting him. He only saw the tennis ball now, and that could have been a problem.
Astin singles out a sequence that they were working on for the second Lord of the Rings film, The Two Towers. His character, Samwise, confronts to massive spider creature Shelob. It was a tough, physical shoot, as Astin recalls:
I spent a week with Jeff Murphy, one of the second unit directors, filming the Shelob fight sequence. And it was really exhausting. You got this big backpack on, and you're flopping yourself on the ground and scrambling around. And you know, you'd think to look at it like, ‘Oh, you're a kid just play!’ But I don't know. I was like, I was tired. It hurt, you know? But we kept doing it. We kept doing it.
And at some point in that process, Sean Astin admits he was getting distracted. He couldn’t “see” the spider in the scene.
When we were doing this pickup, I couldn't see the spider. The camera would come in, and I'd go, ‘Get away from him, you filth,’ or whatever. And I'm like, I can't see the spider. I can see can some [film] festival. I can see the Oscars. I can see, you know, the Vanity Fair covers that we did. The movie had become this big cultural phenomenon, all the talk shows all the… everything that went along with Lord of the Rings, becoming a part of the culture for a minute there. And I was so disappointed in myself about not being able to see the spider at that moment.
What a fascinating confession from a skilled and dedicated actor about how complicated it can be to maintain the level of commitment and professionalism required, during a grueling shoot, to get the shot. And Astin admits that they DID get the shot:
I did, I did reacquire Shelob. And hopefully it shows on screen.
Judge for yourself. Here’s the sequence. We think it looks pretty amazing:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy currently is available on 4K in one package.