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Cordobes (Lord of the Rings)

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FX Veteran Played Key Role in ‘Rings’ Trilogy

By Bruce Shutan
At a time of heavy emphasis on CGI, Richie Cordobes went back to basics as the physical effects set coordinator for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Cordobes, a 10-year special FX veteran, is a fan of simplicity and explains that not all of his peers are computer savvy. “We’ll make a practical element – whether it’s fire, rain, flowing rivers, or lava – and manipulate it however we can,” he says. “All that stuff is cut and dried as far as how it needs to be done. For example, if you drop something like rubber cement into flammable liquid it splatters.”
Technology may come into play for physical or special FX for air ratchets as well as pneumatic and hydraulic rams, he says, adding that some craftsmen prefer to use a computer-controlled firing mechanism to set off a sequence of bullet hits or explosions.
One of his mentors was Visual Effects Supervisor Mark Stetson, who won an Oscar for Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring and was indispensable to Cordobes when he was running two of the seven FX units for Director Peter Jackson. “I learned a lot from him,” he reports. “Whenever our effects work was going to intertwine with visual effects, we’d talk and he’d tell me what he needed from a computer point of view.”
Their interaction was critical to the project’s success. For example, when the Saruman character spun around Gandalf in their grand wizard war, Cordobes handled all the spinning up to about 20 feet in the air after which Stetson and his crew mass-produced and manipulated the image up through the ozone layer. In addition, the Balrog creature involved CG animation with live elements.
Cordobes also worked with Steve Ingram, who served as special effects supervisor. “He was the best person I ever worked for,” Cordobes enthuses. “He totally trusted me and by allowing me to take the reins, I was able to help him alleviate a lot of the stress he had to deal with in supervising so many different units.”
Prior to Lord of the Rings, Cordobes never worked on a fantasy project. His credits include The Mothman Prophecies, Twister, The Rock, Armageddon, Apollo 13, and Lethal Weapon 3.
“It was one of the best experiences and hardest things I’d ever done,” he says of the trilogy. After 285 straight days of shooting the same story, he says it seemed like one seamless film. It took Cordobes about six months to get used to New Zealand, where he didn’t have access to many resources or equipment. He says shooting in steep mountain ranges and inclement weather was “pretty strenuous and physically demanding.”
Still, he’s ecstatic about the result. Even with all the computer-generated images and effects, Cordobes describes the outcome as “good old-fashioned filmmaking.”

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