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Figuratively Speaking Logo

Gentle Giant Logo

Figuratively Speaking
with Gentle Giant Studios

Nestled near major movie studios in Burbank is one of the toy world's rising stars - Gentle Giant Studios. At Gentle Giant they use computers to bring extremely accurate likenesses to a toy store near you from the movies at a theatre near you. Toys are far from all they do, but toys are one of the things they do very well.

Saruman action figureThey use a "laser" (as Dr. Evil would say) to aid in scanning actor's features in order to produce a computer model. In a sense it's like making a clone, but using digital scanning for the DNA and toys as the clones. And like Mini-Me, the copies are much smaller than the original. Then this is used to create a base model, which is fine-tuned by sculptors to create miniature works of art. These are then used to make the wonderful toys we see in stores. For an in-depth look at this process, please read RTM's feature "From 'Action' to Action Figure."

It's very important to understand that Gentle Giant uses computer scanning to aid and enhance the work of sculptors, and not to replace them. The exactness of the computer allows the artists to work on the aesthetics of the figure. It's like a word processor - it can help make your work clean and legible (and help with spelling!) but it doesn't stop you from, or tell you how to express your ideas. It just enhances your ability to do it.

While Gentle Giant has a plethora of movie projects in the works (including Spider-Man, Matrix: Re-Loaded and some arty film by George Lucas), it's the work on the LOTR film trilogy that has our attention. For the big-budget trilogy they were hired by Toy Biz to make scans of the principal actors' faces and to translate the computer-generated characters and creatures into reality.

GandalfRTM had a chance to talk with Karl Meyer, the President (and the source of the company's name) of Gentle Giant Studios. Karl excitedly spoke about LOTR and some of the work Gentle Giant was doing on SW: Ep2. The staff at Gentle Giant was beyond helpful, and special thanks go to Karl Meyer and Elly Shinohara for their invaluable assistance and time. There's no doubt we'll all be hearing from Gentle Giant again soon.

And now, RTM presents an exclusive interview with Karl Meyer of Gentle Giant Studios. Enjoy!

Raving Toy Maniac (RTM): What were some of unique challenges presented by Lord of the Rings?

Karl Meyer (KM): There are always challenges! First, we had to get there-Wellington, New Zealand is on the other side of the globe from L.A. We set up our studio in a little room off one of the sets. It was raining and very windy outside, so we were thankful to have the heat! The people in New Zealand are probably the coolest people on the planet, so we were treated great! Scanning equipment is very sensitive, so it was no surprise that the shipping company damaged our gear. It's not a great feeling when you have actors scheduled for scanning and your laser is only working intermittently! Thank god our guys know how to repair stuff! We were able to head down to the local electronics store to buy all the necessary components to fix things ourselves. Once we were rolling, everything went smoothly. It was amazing to meet and scan all of the talent. They would describe their role from the script from their own perspective. I have never seen actors who were so dedicated and who seemed to be actually living their characters. The sets were also amazing. They created every aspect of Middle Earth to a tee. From the props to the costumes---everything was perfect. WETA rocks!! I also had the pleasure of working along side Jesse Falcon of Toy Biz. He basically directed the entire session (which lasted for about a week) and had everybody doing expressions from various scenes from the script. The talent was very enthusiastic and receptive. Elijah Wood and Sean Astin were especially interested in the process and outcome of making the toys. The quality of data we collected was excellent! Whenever we had problems, one of the guys would go into a software program and touch up and finesse the data until it was perfect.

RTM: Did sizing the actors who played hobbits present any difficulties since they were being shrunk to a different scale than many of the other actors?

KM: Sizing the Hobbits, Elves and Dwarves was not a problem because we were working digitally. It allows us to output to whatever size is needed.

RTM: Were the scans for LOTR full body scans or just facial scans?

KM: For LOTR, we only brought a head scanner.

RTM: Did you scan any sets or props other than people?

KM: We went specifically to do portraits for toys. Only 2 months before, we were in Sydney, Australia scanning for Star Wars: Episode II. In that case, we brought a head scanner, full body scanner, prop scanners, and also a scanner that lets us digitize large items like sets, vehicles, etc. On that project, we provided digital data to ILM for Visual FX, to the Lucas Art Department for animatics, to Lucas Arts for video game models, and to Hasbro for toys. It was a much more comprehensive, multi-use catalog that we created. For LOTR, the Visual FX group at WETA had already created all their digital models and had no real need for our data. We did end up with an incredible library, however, with many dynamic expressions and attitudes.

RTM: What kind of input did GG have beyond the scanned faces/heads and/or bodies? Basically, did you have an input in how the toys would be articulated, working to accommodate action features and electronics or painted?

KM: Working with Toy Biz has been a pleasure. They have been exceptional with art direction and are open to suggestions and allow us freedom to make the figure come to life. We've also had the privilege to work with other sculptors like Phil Ramirez and Steve Kiwus, who have done a majority of the overall work-these guys are incredible! Toy Biz has always had the coolest mechanisms and articulations - you can actually play with their toys. The designs we work from are well thought out.

RTM: Did you end up scanning a large percentage of the cast for LOTR for eventual figures?

KM: We scanned everybody we could from the 1st movie. Some of them being:

Barliman Butterbur


We also scanned a majority of the characters from films 2 and 3 as well. Hopefully they will make figures of all of them, but that's up to Toy Biz and the fans to decide.

RTM: Have you done any work on toys for the Balrog, a flying mount for one of the Ringwraiths and Sauron or any other characters that exist only as computer models and not as either actors or physical special effects?

KM: In movies today, most monsters and creatures are done digitally for certain sequences. This allows us to take the CG animation model and build sculpture off of the texture maps and geometry through means of rapid prototyping and 3D printing. We just finished a model for Toy Biz of the Balrog, which we built utilizing the CG model. It's pretty incredible to see just how accurate a physical reproduction can be to the model or scan. Both the scan data and the CG models can be used for all kinds of different applications-from action figures for Toy Biz, to Burger King toys.

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