Perhaps the most attention-grabbing, trailblazing performer in film in 2003 did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor–but he was honored nonetheless. The eerily lifelike quality of Gollum, the computer-generated (CG) creature who simpered and schemed his way through The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, remained one of the most awe-inspiring aspects of the trilogy’s final installment, The Return of the King. At the 76th Academy Awards ceremony, held on this day in 2004, the film won a record-tying 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Peter Jackson) and Best Visual Effects.
In the complicated world of the writer J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Gollum is a formerly human-like hobbit who has developed an all-consuming obsession with the titular ring after he lost it decades earlier to Bilbo Baggins (events chronicled in Tolkien’s earlier book, The Hobbit). Gollum makes a brief appearance in the first installment of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and becomes a central character in the second two films, The Two Towers (2002) and The Return of the King. His single-minded pursuit of the ring brings him into cooperation and conflict with the film’s hobbit heroes, including Frodo Baggins (Bilbo’s nephew, played by Elijah Wood) and Sam Gangee (Sean Astin), in their quest to reach the dark kingdom of Mordor and destroy the all-powerful ring in order to bring peace to Middle Earth.
Jackson wanted Gollum to be based on the movements of a real human, the actor Andy Serkis, who also provided the voice of the character (with the help of digital sound mixing). Using a technique known as motion-capture photography, a computer captured Serkis’ movements as he acted out scenes while wearing a special bodysuit. Animators used this information to create an enormously complex computer-generated image with 300 muscles and 250 face shapes. CG imagery (known as CGI) had previously been used to great effect in films such as Jurassic Park (1993) and Toy Story (1995), as well in the later Star Wars movies and the Harry Potter franchise, but Gollum was by far the most life-like example of CGI to date.
In mid-2003, Gollum won in two categories at the MTV Movie Awards: Best Virtual Performance, and co-winner of Best On-Screen Team (with Wood and Astin). Fans even lobbied for the character to receive an Academy Award nomination. Though the efforts failed, The Return of the King reigned triumphant at the 2004 Oscar ceremony, sweeping all of the categories in which it was nominated (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score, Song, Visual Effects, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Mixing and Editing) and tying Ben-Hur (1960) and Titanic (1997) for most Academy Awards won by a single film.