As stunt coordinator for The Lord of the Rings, George Ruge has staged numerous action scenes, but perhaps none has tested his skills and stamina like the Battle of Helm's Deep.
The sequence is one of the crowning achievements in The Two Towers, but for the man charged with making the action realistic enough for audiences and safe enough for cast and crew, it was a grueling shoot. Here, Ruge recounts the long, wet nights and revels in the results.
Developing action that encompasses large numbers, full prosthetic costumes, rain, mud, and rocks made for many sleepless days (remember, we did all our filming at night).
Towards the end, T-shirts started circulating that read, "I Survived Helm's Deep." And I think that probably says it all. But we're all proud to have been a part of that sequence.
My job began long before I arrived on the set. I designed the stunt action based on Peter Jackson's notes, as well as the script, the characters and the storyboards. Then we went through an exhaustive rehearsal and choreography process.
Many of the cast members went through weeks of training before actual filming. This enabled me to be more creative in designing the action, because they became very adaptable in terms of physical action.
My typical workday would start around noon with rehearsals for that night's action. I'd get to the set about 5 p.m., which gave me a chance to be alone before the crew arrived. I'd take that time to walk the set and visualize what I had to do that night.
We would film until the sun rose, then I'd walk the set again and we'd meet regarding the next night's work. I'd get home around 8 a.m. Three or four hours sleep was the norm.
There was a large on-camera team to coordinate, with 25 to 60 stunt players as well as extras. And the actors did much of their own action. They took a lot of pride in becoming their characters, and had the ability and desire to perform their own stunts.
We tried to avoid injuries at all costs, but with the close combat and rough terrain there were a few cuts and sprained ankles. No principal cast members were injured, but I'm sure they went home feeling like they'd really been in battle each day.
The biggest challenge of the entire shoot was designing and choreographing with people on horses battling people on the ground. Once the battle starts, choreography lasts only seconds before the horses realize they'd rather not be there.
I would designate on-camera personnel on the ground to help control the horses during the battle and we developed weapon techniques that would compensate for horse unpredictability. These battles ultimately went well, but it was a very stressful enterprise.
Then there was Legolas' "shield surfing" scene. I think it took about 10 takes, with Orlando harnessed onto a cable that ran the length of the stairs. The shield was strapped to his feet, and the challenge was for him to look graceful in this wobbly environment. He did a great job.
My goal at Helm's Deep, and throughout The Lord of the Rings, was to create a layered appearance to the action. I wanted multiple things happening, without necessarily making them the focus of a particular shot.
The battle sequences were as complex as stunts get because of this philosophy and because there had to be synchronization in the madness of battle. I think the result is as good as it can ever be, and I look at those battles as filmmaking jewels.