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Randy Cook – The Man Who ‘Created’ Gollum

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Randy Cook is that rarest of creatures, he is a triple Oscar winner. He is also the animation genius who breathed life into the Gollum character from Lord of the Rings. Randys animated history is an encapsulation of the recent history of animation itself.

At an early age as a precocious kid in California, Randy was ‘lucky’ to encounter the work of Ray Harryhausen. In the 1950s fantasy creatures in feature films had normally been portrayed by blowing up insects (in the film sense!). Or else they were represented, in the eyes of a young Randy Cook, by the ‘recognisably and disappointingly human’.

Instead Harryhausen, particularly in the influential ‘Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’, used a fully animated Cyclops and a sword wielding skeleton. To an eight year old Randy Cook, watching these cinematic miracles he knew this was the way he wanted to go and he ‘foolishly hoped to emulate Harryhausen’. The difficulty was that Harryhausen had a very supportive Producer and had worked out a matting process that allowed for the gruelling process of stop motion to be produced in a better and cheaper way than Hollywood had hitherto seen. Harryhausen had a great eye for design and for compositing his vision next to the live action sequences. Randy Cook had his work cut out and besides he was still only eight years old!!!

Randys first stop motion efforts in clay were of a ‘Great Mummy’ (as he says ‘not just any old mummy but a great one’) which ‘went nuts and killed people’. Eight year old boys will never change!!

In those days there was no great library of animation textbooks and he learnt by trial and error. After graduating from UCLA Film School in a ‘golden age’ for this renowned creative factory, he approached Bob Clampett for a job. Clampett had no positions for the young Randy but suggested that he try Disney who were looking. Randy was reluctant to commit, fearing that Disney would want him for life. Young Randy was not ready for a job for life. ‘I know that, replied Clampett, and you know that but Disney don’t’.

At Disney, Randy worked with the likes of John Lasseter on ‘The Rescuers’ and even produced storyboards on ‘Herbie goes to Monte Carlo’ (‘don’t knock it, it’s a living’).

His end at Disney came unexpectedly. Among his many talents, he was able to do a very passable Mickey Mouse impression. To this day he receives royalty cheques for a small voice over in ‘The Brave Little Toaster’. Disney wanted Randy to sign up as Mickey.

Not wanting to be stuck as the voice of the beloved Mouse did not go down well with the studio bosses and he was banished to an ‘animation Siberia’ with a young guy called Brad Bird (now I wonder what happened to him?).

By way of ‘Q:The Winged Serpent’, ‘Poltergeist 2’ and his first human character animation which was Ringo Starr in the epic ‘Caveman’, he continued his extraordinary animation adventure. Along the way he produced the classic poster for ‘Fright Night’ in his ‘own time’.

So how did he get the ‘Lord of the Rings’ gig, possibly the ultimate animation challenge?

Peter Jackson, the Director (did I really need to put that?) had asked Randy in 1992 to work on a film called ‘Blubberhead’. They had known each other since Peter Jacksons brief foray into stop motion on a film called ‘Brain Dead’. By one of those monumentally historic coincidences, a few weeks before the ‘Blubberhead’ offer, Randy had been shown some revolutionary compositing on a Mac. Jackson was persuaded that this was the way forward. ‘Blubberhead’ never got made and circumstances conspired to allow the two to create in LOTR ‘the ultimate Harryhausen picture’.

When Randy was brought in to the LOTR project, the character of Gollum was already designed but he was ‘a lot greener and the face was more cartoonish’.

In Gollums character, Randy was able to create something that would be ‘impossible in stop motion’. Until now there have been limits to the lip synch, the detail and the surface texture. Randy feels that he is still doing ‘wild monster stuff’ although on LOTR he is the head of a 42 strong animation team. Despite all the technology he still feels the joy of an animator. ‘As an animator, he says, the pleasure is seeing people react to your work in the way you would like’. He also encourages animators to continue to learn the more traditional skills. Those who have never done stop motion or traditional animation will never know the full picture. ‘It is, says Randy, like playing tennis without a net’.

Randy also does not believe that synthetic characters will ever replace actors. ‘No actor got cheated out of a job by Bugs Bunny’. He also, interestingly enough, does not see an end in sight for the ubiquitous use of Maya, as indeed they used on LOTR.

However he feels that we have a long way to go with motion capture as the ‘toolbox is still getting bigger’. ‘Right now, he says, we’re at the talking dog stage-not good, but amazing that it is done at all. It will get better’.

Randy Cook should know. If anyone has been there, seen it, animated it, Randy has. I am left with one final piece of advice. ‘Just keep doing what you love’.

Simple really.

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