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Weta’s Joe Letteri Talks Animating the Smaug Dragon for ‘The Hobbit’

Weta's Joe Letteri Talks Animating the Smaug Dragon for 'The Hobbit'

Peter Jackson’s well-received second “Hobbit” movie, “The Desolation of Smaug,” not only moves along more swiftly and assuredly, but it also contains a greater variety of VFX (spiders, bear, shadowy Necromancer, and a rollicking barrel chase down a river). The high-frame rate is also improved with a more filmic look applied during post. But, of course, the centerpiece for Weta Digital is Smaug (voiced with menace and charm by Benedict Cumberbatch), the best CG-animated dragon ever created and sure to make a great impression at the Academy bakeoff.

Like the riveting encounter between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gollum in the cave, his dance with Smaug in the treasure chamber is a tricky test of courage and craftiness (it’s probably no coincidence that Jackson reversed roles for “Sherlock’s” co-stars). But Smaug is keyframed rather than performance-captured because the differences between human and dragon were too great and, besides, the ubiquitous Cumberbatch was only available for his voice work during post.

Yet Smaug necessitated a quick redesign from four legs to two allowing him to gesture with his wings as forearms. It makes all the difference in the deft performance. “And the rest of it was trying to find the intimacy,” explains four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri, Weta’s senior visual effects supervisor. “You have a character that’s twice as big as a jumbo jet; huge compared to Bilbo. But it’s all about the dialog moments. How do you get that connection between the two?” 

So they looked at the Gollum encounter as a reference point with Bilbo engaging Smaug to keep the situation and himself alive, borrowing the concept of the banter from the book. For Smaug, he’s hungry and bored, so Bilbo has to play the fine line through flattery and inquisitiveness. Cumberbatch did an initial mo-cap session purely for reference, but there were several challenges, given the dragon’s immense size.

“How do you create that intimacy without a large head and seeming over articulated? How do you keep it in frame but always aware of the size and threat? We spent most of our time developing the nuances of personality that are essential in pulling off a suspenseful and engaging encounter.

“The skin was interesting because you wanted him to be this tough dragon and we looked at lizard and reptile references and made him out of scales. But we had to make the scales big because most of the time he performs far away and you had to read the scales. We kept playing with size, especially around the head because you didn’t want the scales to be too fine around the lips where it almost looked like skin.”

But it couldn’t be too big either to impede articulation of the mouth. They used a combination of Maya for modeling, Mari for texture painting, their proprietary tissue software for muscle simulations, and RenderMan for rendering.

The layering of scales went through several iterations led by textures supervisor/creative art director Gino Acevedo to get the proper detail and flexing and bending. Then they developed an aging process of cracking the scales, putting scars in and removing the scales. And aging layers of dead, flaky skin. Layers and layers of detail. 

Turns out you don’t get a full view of Smaug too often because he’s in the dark treasure chamber. “We had the whole question of how you light him underground with no natural light sources. So they played with hidden ambient lights. We never get a good look at him until he flies away and shakes off the molten gold.”

The eyes were important, particularly in retaining the glow ascribed by Tolkien. Although real creatures obviously don’t have glowing eyes they came up with a natural-looking eye with a highlight. “When he’s angry you can play up the flaring — that sense of a furnace.”

Speaking of furnace, you see the fire building inside Smaug. This telegraphs a buildup process and not something that erupts instantaneously. A large volume of fire can’t be turned on and off. Fire was done with Weta’s in-house fluid solver, Synapse, which was also useful for Gandolf’s encounter with the Necromancer (a volumetric shadow effect that bursts into a flaming eye), as well as for the water in the barrel sequence.
“It was interesting tying it all together because the book had huge gaps where Gandolf would disappear. They make a joke about it here. But in fact what Peter and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] did was show where he was going and use that as a prequel to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.”
And what a cliffhanger with Smaug that climaxes in the finale, “There and Back Again” (December 17, 2014).

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