Gollum and Digital Realism

Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis gave cinema audience one of the most unforgettable and psychologically intricate digital characters in cinema – Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003). It also brought in focus the technique of motion-capture. By capturing the dynamism of human body and subtle micro-expressions the technique can be considered a “novel route to realism” (Allison, 2011, p325). But how can audience identify with a digital character which they know does not exist in reality? Human beings can identify with various aspects of human emotion and behavior, even if subtle. Gabriel Giralt specifies that the viewers’ emotional response to a character is interconnected with identification with the realistic visual representation of the character (2010, p10). This means the greater the identification the higher is the emotional response. How do filmmakers achieve that degree of identification through digital techniques and aesthetics?

Jackson and Serkis rely on traditional techniques of character psychology and method acting. In method acting the performers attempt to identify with the emotions, mindset, and physical attributes of the character they are portraying, often bringing their personal experiences to the character. This makes the character of Gollum believable. Joe Letteri, Academy award winner and senior visual effects supervisor, employed motion capture to create Gollum. Serkis wore a special suit with reflective markers put on key positions of his joints to capture the micro expressions of the facial muscles and body movement. This provided accurate, perceptual cues to the spectator that made them identify with the virtual character of Gollum.


Calling it “realistic animation”, Letteri emphasizes on knowing how light bounces off the object along with knowledge of movement of skin, muscles and hair, independent of a character’s performance is crucial for realistic portrayal. It could be argued that the character of Gollum surpasses Bazin’s notion of realism, yet it appeals to “the effect of realism or even the sensation of physical presence” (Gunning, 2006, p347).

By Sagar Chhatwani


Allison, T. (2011). More than a man in a monkey suit: Andy Serkis, motion capture, and digital realism. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 28 (4), 325-341. Available from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10509208.2010.500947?journalCode=gqrf20 [Accessed 19 March 2017].

Giralt, G.F. (2010). Realism and realistic representation in the digital age. Journal of film and video, 62 (3), 3-16. Available from http://muse.jhu.edu/article/390815 [Accessed 19 March 2017].

Gunning, T. (2006). Gollum and golem: special effects and the technology of artificial bodies. From Hobbits to Hollywood: Essays on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Amsterdam: Rudopi, 319-350.

Letteri, J. (2013). Computer animation: Digital heroes and computer-generated worlds. Nature, 504 (7479), 214-216. Available from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v504/n7479/full/504214a.html [Accessed 19 March 2017].

Wired. (2012). Andy Serkis as Gollum [image]. Available from https://www.wired.com/2012/12/andy-serkis/ [Accessed 22 March 2017].


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