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Introduction Characters Teacher's Guide Inside Shelob Exhibition Store Acknowledgements

Inside Shelob
The movie version of Shelob, the giant spider, is partly based on New Zealand’s Tunnelweb spider. As a child, Peter Jackson hated these. Below, you can explore Shelob from two perspectives. Animator Andrew Calder answers your burning questions about how Weta Digital created Shelob. Then Te Papa’s resident spider expert, Phil Sirvid, sets out the scientific facts.

Creating shelob

Ask Weta Digital

How many people worked on Shelob?
If I recall correctly there were about sixteen or so animators working on the Shelob sequence. The animation director was Randy Cook of course, and the lead animator was Matt Logue .

How long did Shelob take to animate?
It probably took about 10-12 weeks to complete all the animation for the shots.

Did they use a lot of artistic licence when developing Shelob?
I do recall a lot of design work going into how her 'face' looked, which was certainly exaggerated from a normal spider.
The other design oddity was that Shelob had a stinger on her abdomen like a wasp, which normal spiders lack. This came from Tolkien’s description of her in the book – I guess he wasn't much of an entomologist.

Did they study live Tunnelweb spiders to get the movement right?
We had a variety of clips from nature documentaries of various large spiders. We didn't specifically work off the Tunnelweb as a model for the motion.

How closely did the animators stick to real spider motion?
Once you get into animating a two-ton, six-metre-long movie-monster, clips of garden spiders get left behind quite quickly.
You can get the basics of spider movement – which pairs of legs get moved in what sequence as the spider walks and the way the body mass reacts to that. But the broader behaviour is driven more by the requirements of the action and the constraints of what was shot on set with the actors. Plus she’s a movie-monster and behaves with unnatural intelligence and malevolence.

Ask Te Papa’s Spider Expert

Phil Sirvid and
Eight-Legged Friend
Tunnelweb spider

How close is Shelob to an actual tunnelweb spider?
It’s perhaps best to think of Shelob as spider-like, rather than being an actual spider. As you might expect, some artistic license was taken with the natural form to better conform to Tolkien’s vision of Shelob. For example, spiders don’t have stingers and two pairs of fang-bearing mouth parts. However, features of the tunnelweb spider such as its sturdy, fearsome appearance and its long spinnerets are clearly evident in Shelob.

Like Peter Jackson, I was freaked out by these spiders when I was young, although now I rather like them!

How realistic is Shelob’s behaviour and movement?
Shelob’s movements are extremely convincing and brilliantly portrayed on screen. The behaviour is perhaps more complex than we might expect from most spiders, but Shelob is quite a unique creature.

She’s a lot cleverer than your average spider. While different species of spider typically specialize in one way of catching meals, Shelob seems to be able to employ a variety of methods. Not only does she use webs to entrap prey like a sheetweb spider might, she’s also able wander around hunting, like a nursery web spider.

The way that Shelob spun Frodo around while covering him with silk is very typical of the way many web-building spiders wrap their prey for later consumption.

Could a spider ever be as big as Shelob?
No. The anatomy and physiology of spiders become increasingly inefficient as they get larger. This prevents them from getting to Shelob-like sizes. Remember, Shelob is perhaps best described as being spider-like rather than an actual spider, so what would normally be true of a spider might not be true for her.

Could a spider that big really wrap up a human being or hobbit?
Assuming a spider could be as large as Shelob and function normally, then yes. Real spiders are usually capable of wrapping up prey items that are significantly larger than they are. Dealing with much smaller prey such as Shelob did with Frodo is unlikely to present a problem.

Would a giant spider’s web be strong enough to hold a person?
We can only speculate how strong spider silk of the thickness depicted in the movie might be. If it were proportionately as strong as real spider silk, it would be very strong indeed. For example, measure for measure, spider dragline silk is considered to be stronger than steel cable.

Would you really be able to cut through a giant spider’s web?
Despite its strength, cutting through extra thick webbing clearly wasn’t a problem for small hobbits, but then they were armed with a magic sword!

How would Shelob digest meat and bones?
Spiders are all carnivores and are all liquid feeders. Rather than swallowing solid food and digesting it internally like we do, a spider secretes a wash of digestive enzymes that start to break down tissues into liquid form. The spider then sucks this liquid up like soup.

Some kinds of spiders can even prey on birds, fish, reptiles, and small mammals. In New Zealand, the water spider often eats small freshwater fish, and the tunnelweb spider, which Shelob is based on, has been recorded eating mice.

What is the biggest spider known to have existed?
Until recently, it was thought that 300 million year old Argentinean fossils of an animal called Megarachne were the remains of the largest spider to walk the Earth. Megarachne had a 34cm long body and a leg span estimated at half a metre. However, more recent scientific study suggests Megarachne may be some kind of water scorpion. The true identity of Megarachne is still being debated and probably won’t be resolved until more complete fossils are found.

What spider is the largest in the world today?
Currently the largest spider we know of is the Goliath bird-eating spider (Theraphosa blondi) from Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil. The largest recorded specimen had a 28cm leg span.

In New Zealand our largest spider by leg span is the Nelson cave spider, and the largest by weight is the tunnelweb spider.