Roman Holiday

Joining the Lord of the Rings special-effects team was a fantasy come true

Not everyone can add arrow retrieval and blood-and-mud touchups to a résumé, but Phoenix College Art and Photography department chairman Roman Reyes can now list these skills on his.

Reyes had the opportunity to work on a special-effects team for eight months in New Zealand on the set of the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films.

Former student Gino Acevedo helped Reyes get the gig. Acevedo had worked in the movie industry as a special-effects artist on such films as Independence Day and Men in Black, and when the Rings job came up, he invited Reyes to work with him.

Kandie and Roman Reyes
Kandie and Roman Reyes

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Reyes was able to arrange an eight-month sabbatical from work, then found out he needed to submit a portfolio of his work for approval before going anywhere. His portfolio passed the test and he was on his way to New Zealand.

Reyes and I met for lunch at Sam's Cafe at Biltmore Fashion Park, and my only regret was that I was so busy scribbling notes that I hardly got a chance to eat my beef fajita wrap. Reyes was able to down a bowl of tortilla soup in between anecdotes about one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the holiday season.

He says he didn't sleep a wink on the 14-hour flight to New Zealand, and he was immediately taken to the set when he arrived. Having no idea what to expect, and wondering if he were really qualified in the first place, Reyes spent his first 12-hour day working with mud, touching up the actors between takes of a battle scene.

Then he joined 40 other guys pulling ropes to fell an enormous manmade tree -- take after take. A broken hinge made that task much more difficult than it should have been.

Many of the location shots were filmed on Mount Ruapehu, an inactive volcano reachable only by a ski lift and a three-hour hike.

Every day Reyes would receive a call sheet listing his daily duties.

"Sometimes I'd be the repair guy, sometimes I was the blood guy, sometimes I was the snot guy," making sure all of the actors' noses were running and wounds were bleeding in top form.

The battle scenes for The Lord of the Rings involved using up to 350 extras, including members of the New Zealand army. All cast and crew members were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, and every aspect of the film, every prop, in fact, was under the closest scrutiny. Three members of the New Zealand army decided to keep their sword props as mementos, and were arrested and jailed for their trouble.

Not long after he got to the location, Reyes attended the production's Halloween party, and with some of the industry's best makeup and special-effects people on hand, the costumes were top of the line. Several times throughout the evening, Reyes chatted and joked with a woman with an enormous oozing gash crossing her throat from ear to ear. The next morning in the studio, one of his co-workers inquired, "What were you and Liv Tyler talking about last night?"

Most of the time Reyes worked in the studio, performing detailed labor on masks, prosthetic feet, ears and hands (called "appliances"), and body suits, transforming plastic and silicone into fantastically detailed creature pieces.

The most detailed work involved the central cast members, good guys or bad guys, who would be directly in front of the camera. It took up to eight hours to get some actors in full costume and makeup. Once the heroes were filmed, their feet and hands would be pulled off and recycled for background people who were not in direct camera view. After the extras were done, the appliances would be shredded and destroyed.

Naturally, a special-effects team always strives for authenticity. When a technician deeply cut his finger on the set, everyone gathered around to see the texture and color of the blood pulsing from his wound, nodding to each other and making notes for use on the film.

For Reyes, working with and learning from his former student was an amazing experience. It only felt like a job when he was faced with a rack of 100 body suits and knew it was his duty to make every last one camera-ready. It was a little intimidating at first, but as soon as he adapted to this new medium, he felt perfectly at ease, he says.

Long days were the norm. Reyes often worked five consecutive 12-hour days. But he was able to send for his girlfriend, their 3-year-old daughter and his 9-year old son, and during his off time they became sightseers, taking in local beaches and museums.

When asked what was the worst part of the whole Rings experience, he does not hesitate: "Driving on the wrong side of the road down narrow streets. I never got used to it."

Working under such intense conditions, Reyes soon became a member of the family. For his birthday, his former student presented him with a hardbound copy of the Tolkien Rings trilogy, signed with warm wishes by cast and crew.

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