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'Rings' Digital Dailies Circled Globe Via iPod

Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” films know him as Frodo Baggins, but in plain technical terms, the cutest hobbit ever to shuffle onto the screen, in the guise of actor Elijah Wood, was essentially a storage transfer medium.

Compact, sweet by design and capable of delivering precious goods to far-flung destinations, Frodo is to Middle Earth what Apple’s iPod is to modern-day digital media. Just as Frodo exists basically to transport that precious ring to where it needs to go, “Rings” master Peter Jackson found a way to make Apple’s iPod all about helping him get his digital dailies where they need to go, namely halfway around the world.

During the making of the “Rings” trilogy, Jackson and his Wellington, New Zealand-based Weta Digital crew upped the ante on Apple’s innovative iPod storage technology, using it for a few rigorous filmmaking sessions during production on “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” the latter of which collected 11 Oscar noms Tuesday.

The Weta wizards set up a review and approval system for remote digital dailies centered around iPods that spanned the globe from New Zealand to London.

For two months on each of the films, Jackson was stationed in the United Kingdom overseeing composer Howard Shore’s scoring sessions. And during “Towers” and “King,” Jackson also maintained a videoconferencing line to Weta so that he could spend about two hours a day reviewing the movie’s progress in absentia.

Jim Rygiel, a two-time Oscar winner and visual effects supervisor who picked up his third Oscar nom Tuesday, says Weta’s cyber Tolkien Trail was seeded by a dedicated server, safely isolated from Weta’s intranet and connected to a secure outside line.

Media was transferred from Weta to Pinewood Studios in London. There, Jackson’s 30-gig iPod was ready and waiting to upload Weta’s daily fresh-baked shots and sequences. His iPod was then delivered via sneaker net to his home a few minutes away from Pinewood.

Jackson then viewed those 1K-resolution QuickTime files on an Apple Cinema Display, tied to his G4 laptop, which drew directly from his iPod. The director’s setup was mirrored in New Zealand, so Rygiel and crew could step through shots with the help of their iPods, with Jackson’s guidance piped in over a videoconferencing system. During the course of two movies and four months, “Rings” iPods stored and served up nearly one-half terabyte of digitized footage from “Towers” and “King.”

In effect, digital crews used Apple’s iPod as a modern-day “Rings” bearer. But in their case, “precious” was actually layer upon layer of visual effects passes, matte paintings, miniatures and raw footage from the Pelanor battle sequence pulled directly from a video tap.

“What the iPod gave us, since we were in such a high-speed mode at that time, was just a real quick turnaround,” Rygiel says. “We could show Peter many, many iterations and get shots to the point where we’re 99.9% sure that when we put it on film, it was going to be final.” (The final film prints took two days on average to wend their way to Jackson via air courier.)

Rygiel says the only thing he’d change about the setup is the $15,000 videoconferencing system. While they were in the midst of “King,” Apple introduced iSight, a tiny and fast videoconferencing camera with a microphone.

“These iSight cameras are 150 bucks,” Rygiel said. “Next time – well, there is no next time…. But if we could have, we would have used iSight too.”

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