From those first words of encouragement, Cook crafted one of the most mind-boggling action sequences in The Fellowship of the Ring. In the scene, Frodo and his company are deep in the dark mines of Moria, fleeing for their lives up stone stairs several hundred feet high. As the Orcs hurl a barrage of arrows, the ancient steps crack and crumble beneath the Fellowship’s feet, revealing a bottomless chasm below.
“They gave me a scan of the miniature, small-scale puppets of all the guys in the Community,” says Cook. “I choreographed the entire sequence from God’s point of view and created a very simple presentation that Pete approved of. Then I blocked the camera positions, and my team of about four guys and I fine-tuned the preview. Pete gave the footage to a second unit director and told him to copy it exactly and, with the exception of one or two shots, everything in the final movie – from the lenses used at angles to cut to cut. action – was my preview.
The Khazad-Dûm sequence is just one of the many contributions that Cook made as an animation supervisor on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It also shows how his film career served as a bridge between the stop-motion techniques that brought the original King Kong to life and the modern motion capture technology that made the hobbit-mad Gollum possible. Along the way, Cook won three Oscars, but most of all he is proud of his close friendship with effects master Ray Harryhausen.
Cook’s success was far from certain in 1975 when he graduated from UCLA Film School with dreams of becoming an actor and director. His first post-graduate job was learning animation at Disney during a time when cartoons were in decline and the studio focused on forgettable live-action comedies..
Disney provided the opportunity to interact with great animators, including many original Nine Old Men, but Cook’s most publicized mission was to draw live gags for Volkswagen and human characters in Herbie goes to Monte-Carlo. It was less than inspiring work, and after a year his learning was suddenly cut short.
“I was licensed!” Cook remembers, laughing. “John Lasseter also spent time in their apprenticeship program and he tells people, ‘Randy and I were fired because we were too good.’ But honestly, I wasn’t Disney material, and I knew that when I walked in.
Fortunately, the mid-1970s were an exciting time for low-budget sci-fi movies. Cook quickly landed on his feet doing a stop-motion animation for The Crater Lake Monster, Laserblast and The time of the day has ended, alongside other young artists like Jim Danforth, Ken Ralston, VES, Jon Berg, Phil Tippett, VES and David Allen. He also worked for Rob Bottin on Humanoids of the Deep and on John Carpenter The thing.
Then came the years 1981 Caveman, a prehistoric comedy starring ex-Beatle Ringo Starr and The spy who loved me Barbara Bach. Cook was one of the leading stop-motion comic dinosaur animators who stole the show, and the film’s cult success led to a multi-year position with Richard Edlund’s Boss Films (VES).
At Boss, Cook sculpted and animated the stop-motion puppets for the terror dogs in Ghost hunters, and choreographed life-size puppet performances live on set. He also worked on 2010, Night of dread, and Poltergeist II, and planned to work on the next Boss project, Big problem in little China, when director Tibor Takács approached him with an opportunity he couldn’t turn down – the chance to oversee effects for The door.
“Working under Richard Edlund with Steve Johnson and a bunch of other competing talent was great, ”said Cook. “But everyone wanted his voice to be heard and, therefore, was singing very loudly. Tibor was going to let me do pretty much whatever I wanted in terms of effects, so it wasn’t much of a choice.