RANDALL WILLIAM COOK: AN OSCAR WINNER’S JOURNEY FROM HARRYHAUSEN TO HOBBITS
By ADAM EISENBERG
Photos courtesy of Randall William Cook, except where noted.
When Randall William Cook arrived for his first day on the set of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, director Peter Jackson immediately put him to work. Jackson introduced Cook to miniature supervisor Richard Taylor and to the enormous model Taylor and his team had constructed for the towering stone steps of Khazad-Dûm.
“Peter rushed me through the set and told me I was going to direct the previz animation,” Cook says. “We talked through the sequence with everybody offering opinions, including me. There were lots of ideas thrown out and I couldn’t see how they gelled, so I asked: ‘Do you want me to do what everybody’s been saying?’ ‘No,’ Peter replied. ‘You just do it. This is you.’”
From those initial words of encouragement, Cook went on to design one of the most breathtaking action sequences in The Fellowship of the Ring. In the scene, Frodo and company are deep in the dark mines of Moria, fleeing for their lives over stone stairs that are hundreds of feet high. As Orcs launch a barrage of arrows, the ancient steps crack and crumble beneath the Fellowship’s feet, revealing a bottomless chasm below.
“They gave me a scan of the miniature and little scale puppets of all the Fellowship guys,” Cook explains. “I choreographed the whole sequence from a God’s eye point-of-view and created a very simple presentation that Pete signed off on. Then I blocked out the camera positions, and my team of about four guys and I refined the previz. Pete gave the sequence to a second unit director and told him to copy it exactly and, with the exception of one or two shots, everything in the final film – from the lenses used to the angles to the cutting to the action – was from my previz.”
The Khazad-Dûm sequence represents just one of the many contributions Cook made as Animation Supervisor on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It also demonstrates how his cinematic career has served as a bridge between the stop- motion techniques that brought the original King Kong to life and the modern motion capture technology that made possible the hobbit-gone-mad Gollum. Along the way, Cook has won three Academy Awards, but he is most proud of his close friendship with effects master Ray Harryhausen.
Cook’s success was far from certain in 1975 when he graduated from UCLA’s film school with the dream of becoming an actor and director. His first post-college job was an animation apprenticeship at Disney at a time when cartoon features were in decline and the studio was focused on forgettable live-action comedies.
Disney provided an opportunity to interact with great animators, including many of the original Nine Old Men, but Cook’s most high-profile assignment was drawing live-action gags for the Volkswagen and human characters in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. It was less than inspiring work, and after a year his apprenticeship was suddenly cut short.
“I got fired!” Cook recalls with a laugh. “John Lasseter also spent time in their apprenticeship program, and he tells people, ‘Randy and I were fired because we were too good.’ But truthfully, I wasn’t Disney material, and I knew that going in.”
Fortunately, the mid-1970s was an exciting time for low-budget science fiction films. Cook quickly landed on his feet doing stop-motion animation for The Crater Lake Monster, Laserblast and The Day Time Ended, alongside other young artists like Jim Danforth, Ken Ralston, VES, Jon Berg, Phil Tippett, VES and David Allen. He also worked for Rob Bottin on Humanoids from the Deep and on John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Then came 1981’s Caveman, a prehistoric comedy starring ex-Beatle Ringo Starr and The Spy Who Loved Me’s Barbara Bach. Cook was one of the key animators of comical stop-motion dinosaurs that stole the show, and the movie’s cult success led to a multi-year position at Richard Edlund’s (VES) Boss Films.
At Boss, Cook sculpted and animated the stop-motion puppets for the terror dogs in Ghostbusters, and choreographed the performances of the live-action full-scale puppets on set. He also worked on 2010, Fright Night, and Poltergeist II, and was planning to work on the next Boss project, Big Trouble in Little China, when director Tibor Takács approached him with an opportunity he couldn’t refuse – the chance to supervise the effects for The Gate.
“Working under Richard Edlund with Steve Johnson and a bunch of other competing talents was great,” Cook says. “But everyone wanted their voices heard and, as a consequence, sang very loudly. Tibor was going to let me do just about whatever I wanted effects-wise, so it wasn’t much of a choice.”
In The Gate, teenagers accidentally open an entrance to Hell in their backyard and find themselves under attack from foot-tall minions and a multi-story-high Demon Lord. To accomplish the illusion of tiny minions, Cook convinced Takács to use forced perspective sets and in-camera tricks that were throwbacks to Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People.
“You want to make the audience believe they’re seeing something that’s real,” Cook says, “and even if they know it’s fake – and they have to know it’s fake – they won’t know how the hell you did it. Darby O’Gill was a huge inspiration to me. What makes it magical is when the tiny leprechauns are dancing in front of the big Darby O’Gill, but they’re actually farther away from the camera and he’s closer up. That really confuses your mind because you expect the small guys to look as though they are behind the big guy.
“On The Gate, I planned shots with economy in mind,” he adds. “First, I figured if we had guys who were five-and-a-half feet tall playing the tiny minions, the sets could be a bit smaller, and the camera depth of field could be a bit shorter than if we had guys who were six feet. Every inch counts. Second, doing it in forced perspective put much of the budget on the art department. Fortunately, we had a really good art department under Bill Beeton that built four-times-scale brick walls and other set pieces that were gorgeous.”
Cook next collaborated with Takács on I, Madman, a horror thriller about a young woman who becomes entranced by a mystery novel she’s reading, only to find herself stalked by the crazed author and a fictional monster from the book. Cook not only supervised the visual effects, but also played the horribly disfigured author modeled after Lon Chaney.
Following I, Madman, Cook oversaw the effects for The Gate II, directed a segment of TV’s Life Goes On, and directed and co-wrote the fantasy film Demon in a Bottle.
Peter Jackson first contacted Cook in 1992 to do stop-motion work on a film Jackson was planning called Blubberhead. That project never got made, but the two stayed in touch and finally had the chance to work together on The Lord of the Rings.
Cook arrived in New Zealand in October 1998 and spent the next five years completing the trilogy. It was challenging, monumental work. His extensive previz work and other duties eventually earned him the title of Animation Supervisor, but he found himself consulted on a lot of sequences that had nothing to do with animation.
“For the scene in The Two Towers where Treebeard is first introduced,” he recalls, “Fran [Walsh, producer and screenwriter] originally staged it with the hobbits running from the orcs and, suddenly, two tree-branch hands come down and pull them out of the frame. I said: ‘Why don’t we have the hobbits climb up the tree and look around, not realizing it’s Treebeard’s face? One hobbit has his hand on Treebeard’s nose. He looks back, and Treebeard is already looking at him. The hobbit looks away, does a take, and looks back at him. Treebeard’s head turns, and the hobbit falls off.’
“We did a previz of the scene this way. I wasn’t there when they ran it in the dailies, but according to several people including Pete, Fran turned to Pete and said, ‘What’s this?’ Pete replied with a chuckle, ‘Well, apparently somebody thought they had a better idea than you.’”
On Return of the King, Fran Walsh presented Cook with different problems to solve. “She came to me and said, ‘We want the ring to fall into the lava, and as soon it does Sauron will know the hobbits are trying to destroy the ring. But we want to play Frodo and Sam on the cliff after Gollum falls in with the ring. What do we do?’ I thought about it and said, ‘The ring was forged in high temperature, right? It can float on top of the lava and start to melt, but it doesn’t completely dissolve until you’re ready for it to finish melting.’
“I made a lot of suggestions that had nothing to do with animation,” Cook adds. “Peter and Fran were very generous and willing to collaborate, and I adored them both.”
Throughout the project, Cook and his team drew inspiration from a variety of sources, although sometimes he didn’t realize an influence until years later. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, Gollum appears only briefly in a shot where he is seen mostly in shadow and his hands reach into frame.
“I came up with that and animated it myself,” Cook explains. “A couple of years ago my daughter Matilda and I were watching Gunga Din, and at the end of the film, Sam Jaffe climbs to the top of the temple. You see the ledge and you see his hands come up, and I suddenly realized: ‘Son of a bitch! I stole that from Sam Jaffe!’
This past December marked the 20th anniversary of the debut of The Fellowship of the Ring. The film arrived in theaters just three months after terrorists crashed airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the 9/11 tragedy cast a long shadow over the final months of post-production.
“Peter and Fran called everybody together that morning,” Cook recalls, “and they were very sympathetic and solicitous to the Americans. Everybody was shocked, of course, but we still had a movie to finish.
“One of the last sequences in Fellowship to go into production was the prologue,” he adds. “The motion capture editor, Patrick Runyon, wanted my final approval on a shot of motion capture guys falling off a cliff in a rolling wave of bodies. But the week before I had watched live footage of real people jumping out the windows of the World Trade Center, and it was devastating. So, I said: ‘I trust you. If you think it’s fine, it’s fine, because I can’t look at that now.’”
After The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Cook served as a second unit director for Jackson’s remake of King Kong. His duties included directing the first dinosaur attack involving a Ceratops that was cut out of the theatrical release but is included in the extended version. He also directed the flying planes that attack Kong atop the Empire State Building and played one of the pilots – writer/director Frank Darabont was his tail gunner.
These days, Cook consults on a variety of projects and is hoping to direct Sinbad and the Sorcerer’s Bride, a fantasy he co-wrote with David Cairns that combines Hitchcockian suspense with the cheekiness of Ernst Lubitsch and the magic of Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.
Cook saw 7th Voyage when he was seven and instantly fell in love with Harryhausen’s unique stop-motion approach known as Dynamation. Then, when he was 19, he met Harryhausen.
“Ray’s mother lived in Los Angeles and her number was in the phone book,” he says. “I called her up to get his address in London, and Ray happened to be visiting at the time. I didn’t have anything to show except for a couple of drawings and a little makeup thing I’d done, but I wanted to meet and get a sense of him because his work meant so much to me. Somewhere along the line Ray saw the work I did for Caveman and other projects, and we became friends.”
Harryhausen’s final film was 1981’s Clash of the Titans. Just 12 years later, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park introduced the world to CGI dinosaurs and, suddenly, Harryhausen’s Dynamation was considered passé. Even so, Cook says the effects master didn’t hold any hard feelings.
“CGI is a whole different approach,” he explains. “With stop-motion, blinking eyes require three to six separate rubber lids or a piece of clay that’s put on and sculpted per frame. You wouldn’t have the lashes or the meniscus – you’d just have the blink. With CGI, a character’s blinking eyes can be a wonderful simulation of flesh and muscle and skin and the mucous membrane. And the eyeball – rather than a doll’s eye or an acrylic eye made in your own shop – can be a gelatinous, dilating organ that perfectly simulates the way the eye transmits light and reacts to outside light sources.
“By the time CGI had arrived, Ray was a virtuoso in retirement who had no need or desire to learn a new instrument,” Cook adds. “Had Ray been born later I think he would have gotten CGI and created his illusions using a computer. As a boy I loved Ray’s films, but I was not reacting to stop-motion, I was reacting to Ray Harryhausen. I loved his work because of what that particular artist put into his work, and Ray just happened to be using stop-motion as his medium of expression.”
Harryhausen passed away in 2013 at the age of 92, and Cook is an advisor to the Ray and Diana Harryhausen Foundation.
Looking back on his own career, Cook recalls the night in 2002 when he won his first Academy Award for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. After the ceremony, Robert Redford came up to him and asked how it felt to hold an Oscar.
“I said, ‘It feels wonderful. But four weeks ago, my boyhood idol, Ray Harryhausen, came down to New Zealand and brought with him the skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. I got to hold that, a thrill that has thrown this one into a slight shadow. Holding this Oscar is great, but the skeleton from Sinbad is why I got into the business.’”