Blog | 3 October 2000 | Orcs; Shadowfax

There are any number of fantastical creatures in Lord of the Rings and I have seen a few of them recently. Some, like the armies of orcs and goblins, are played by actors and stuntspeople, whilst others, stars like the Balrog, are being created within the computers of WETA's workshops, home of the props and masks and the prosthetics which most of the actors must wear to varying degrees. Gandalf doesn't meet Gollum or Smeagol so what Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson are cooking up between them I'm not privy to.

Not all of Tolkien's creatures are as outlandish as Gollum or Treebeard or the cave troll. Horses are dear to his heart - even the Ringwraith steeds, which may be evil-looking, snorting like devils, their hooves cloven with nails but, like all nags, are only obeying orders. They have been pressed into service and are furious. I'm glad I didn't have to work with them.

More my style is the chestnut Rastus who plays Bill the pony and is adorable. The compliant, ever-licking Rastus is 11 years old, an American quarter horse crossed with Shetland. Led by Samwise (Sean Astin) he reliably carried the Fellowship's baggage and endured the uncomfortable snowstorm of polystyrene and rice flakes when Saruman's agents attacked the nine of us in the Wellington studio en route for Moria. He was less fazed by the tempest than the rest of the cast, even though he didn't have blinkers on. He didn't complain of dust in the eyes or polysterene balls in every bodily crevice. Between takes, as I called for bottled water and a make-up check, Rastus calmly helped himself to the layer of salt which added glitter to the surface of the snow. I wish he had made it into the mines of Moria. He would not have been daunted by all those steps and passageways nor by the rowdy goblins. Indeed I would have trusted him with the ring itself.

Last week, for the last time, I filmed with him or with what was inelegantly referred to in the daily Call Sheet as "Panto Bill" (Rebecca Fitzgerald and Kerry). British Christmas pantomimes often feature a fairytale animal played by an agile actor - Dick Whittington's Cat, Jack's cow, which he sold for the beanstalk seeds or Mother Goose herself. "Cinderella" always boasts a real pony for the transformation scene but a pantomime horse is made of two lissome actors bent double: the lowliest job in theatre is to be the back legs of a horse. In the mountain range above Takaka on Golden Bay (South Island of New Zealand) Rastus couldn't make it into the helicopter that ferried the rest of us up and so panto took over.

Gandalf of course isn't as sentimental as this Englishman, although I had him whispering to the chestnut Clyde who dropped him off at Bag End in the first film's opening scene. Gandalf's equine faith lies other than in the likes of Bill and Clyde. As he tells Pippin: "Shadowfax will have no harness. You do not ride Shadowfax: he is willing to carry you - or not. If he is willing, that is enough. It is then his business to see that you remain on his back, unless you jump off into the air." He is speaking of a marvel and Peter Jackson has cast a white 16 year old Andalusian stallion called Domero who, standing at 16 hands is more than up to the part, at least as far as looks are concerned. His alert ears pivot above his noble skull, his mane is thick and in no need of the false hair that some of the other horses, including Bill, wear in the film.

My trouble is in riding him, as Shadowfax spurns bridle, bit, reins and even a saddle. This might all be safe enough with stable lads and lasses at the ready but often enough I am carrying a hobbit in front and clinging to a three foot six hobbit isn't safe. I am very happy for Basil Clapham (my riding double) to do the galloping in my stead. Indeed the first authentic image of Gandalf that has been broadcast across the Internet (although not from this site) was not me at all but Basil urging Shadowfax toward Helm's Deep - actually not Shadowfax either but his fast galloping double 12 year old gelding called Blanco. When I mount Domero he is generally required to be stationary. Even so the shift of haunches whenever he pulls his weight from one back leg to another can feel seismic aloft and once Fon (doubling for Pippin) and I slowly and safely slid to the soft grit of the lava field surrounding the volcano of Ruapehu.

Since then we have trotted through an artificial lake to confront Saruman at Orthanc - Saruman (in the person of Christopher Lee) was starring in Star Wars: Episode II across the Tasman Sea in the Olympiad city. So we yelled to a yellow tennis ball representing the mad maia. Domero is controlled offscreen like a circus horse with the visual aid of two whips in the hands of Don Reynolds standing to one side of the camera. Sometimes the signal is reinforced with his name but Domero can walk, stop and stand on his mark, a square meter of plank on which he bangs his hooves. To one side is Blanco who, it seems, is needed to focus Shadowfax's attention, horses being sociable. I can't think why an understudy watching him perform should be considered a comfort. But then Domero — for all he can recognise "Action" and pre-empt his cue to walk, stop or bang his plank — has no idea he is acting nor, more to the point, that the heavy weight and hobbit squirming on his spine are trying to act. We manage because Don is persistent and Domero has learnt well over their six months training together. Don Reynolds has worked with many horses in movies but I can't think he admired any of them more than he seems to respect Domero.

I've ridden often enough in movies - D. H. Lawrence loved a canter (Priest of Love film 1979) and as his namesake T. E. I was on the obligatory camel (Ross - TV). Just for five minutes. I was no sooner introduced to the unconcerned handsome beast than I was sat in his comfy saddle and told to drive him like a car. I was just looking for the ignition when the director Cedric Messina shouted for me to gallop toward the camera 100 metres away and "Stop on this mark", a black rock amidst the sand. I kicked and away we went and I didn't fall off, indeed almost stopped where was wanted. Didn't even knock the tripod over. But that was good luck. Horses are dangerous and I don't take them for granted. Roy Kinnear died after falling from one on his film The Four Musketeers.

Ian McKellen, 2000, Watercolour by Sean Foot

Sample Call Sheet

Panto Bill on duty, Photo by Ian McKellen

Chopper over Takaka, Photo by Ian McKellen

Peter Jackson, 2000, Photo by Ian McKellen

Choppers over Takaka, Photo by Ian McKellen