He’s big, he’s bad…and he’s not even Sauron. The most shudder-inducing villain in ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” isn’t the film’s ultimate bad guy, but Shelob, the enormous spider who tries to turn Frodo and Sam into tasty hobbit snacks. It’s not surprising that the impressively realistic arachnid steals the show: Three thousand computers and a devoted team of special-effects wizards went into its making — and the creature appears in less than 10 minutes of film footage. EW.com talked to ”Rings” visual-effects supervisor Jim Rygiel about what went into making a common household spider a terrifying foe.
OOPS, THEY DID IT OVER AGAIN Although Shelob doesn’t make its appearance until the final installment of the trilogy, the earliest models of the spider were built all the way back in 1998. ”Around then we pretty much had models of everything, from Gollum to the Fell Beast,” says Rygiel. ”But in preproduction, you’re building in a void. You can spin the model around on a turntable and say, ‘Yeah, that looks good,’ but put it in a scene, and it doesn’t always work.”
Shelob’s early start didn’t make for an early finish. ”The technology developed over the course of making these films, and expectations got higher,” says Rygiel. Further complications came with input from Jackson. ”A lot of things got pushed along without any input from him, so when we finally started showing him things, he’d say, ‘That’s all wrong.”’ Over the years, ”We pretty much looked at everything and said, ‘We’re going to have to start from scratch,”’ sighs Rygiel.
ITSY-BITSY SPIDER Before the F/X wizards could fire up their computers, a real-life Jackson-approved prototype for Shelob had to be found. Fortunately, the director’s own arachnophobia suggested a perfectly creepy critter: New Zealand’s own tunnelweb spider. ”It was the one spider he hated through his life,” says Rygiel. ”They’re fairly harmless, but they’re huge and look creepy.” While Shelob may seem exotic to American audiences, tunnelweb spiders are common in their native country, a plus for the New Zealand-based masterminds at the special-effects company Weta Workshop. ”We just got one and stuck it in a jar,” Rygiel shrugs.
PERSONALITY COUNTS Once models of the tunnelweb spider’s body were constructed, it was time for the most daunting challenge: giving Shelob a face. ”Peter said, ‘The best way to think about it is envisioning your 80-year-old auntie, this matronly, dour old woman,”’ says Rygiel. ”He didn’t want the spider to be smiling and giving the evil eye, but instead to have a blank look, though you could still feel the brain thinking.” A contest was held among 10 employees at Weta to construct plastic models of a granny-esque spider head, with the winning mug getting added to the tunnelweb body.