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Talking Benedict Cumberbatch, Dragon Secrets and More with the Oscar-Nominated Sound Editors of ‘Smaug’

Talking Benedict Cumberbatch, Dragon Secrets and More with the Oscar-Nominated Sound Editors of 'Smaug'

In returning to Middle-Earth for the second “Hobbit” adventure, “The Desolation of Smaug,” Oscar-nominated sound editors Brent Burge and Chris Ward were given a gift with the very hot Benedict Cumberbatch. But when he was first announced, they were apprehensive that his overexposure on “Sherlock” and “Star Trek Into Darkness” might make his voice too familiar. But that all changed when he showed up and got down on his hands and knees, played around with his voice, and became the dragon.

“It was an opportunity to experiment with Benedict,” offers Ward. “Early on, during the first ‘Hobbit’ film, we made some recordings about what the quality of the dragon’s voice might be like. You could almost say it was like an audition. We had some very good results with some new miking arrangements that we’d been thinking about. Obviously with Gollum, Kong, and now Smaug, these digital characters seem to pop up in Peter Jackson’s films, and it’s important to him that these are living and breathing creatures, so we experimented a bit. 

“But when it came time to do the actual voice, Benedict came in for two days and we built a platform in the ADR stage so that he was above everyone, even though he was on his hands and knees, because he wanted to basically play the lizard. Then he would thrust his neck out and that physically changed the delivery of the sound. I believe that through the process it became more reptilian because early on he was playing with snake-like tongue movements and using sibilance a lot. It was a total physical performance.”

In fact, going off a list of “dragonisms” recommended by sound designer David Farmer, Cumberbatch came up with a range of appropriate sounds to enhance the performance. These included snoring, waking to different breaths, licking his lips with glee at the thought of devouring Martin Freeman’s Bilbo, as well as an assortment of humming sounds and other musings.

Then the sound team worked out a way of wheeling in microphones so they were always equidistant from Cumberbatch’s mouth. “Wherever he moved, he had the freedom to be the dragon,” Ward continues. “And he was able to deliver this performance during what was a couple of difficult days for him. Peter wanted Smaug to be really frightening so we adjusted our sounds for that.”

According to Burge, Smaug’s voice is unmistakably Cumberbatch’s but has been cleverly disguised. “Dave Farmer actually worked out a method of adjusting the voice subtly and then adding elements behind the voice to burn it into the creature’s world,” Burge explains. “Once the voice was there, it was put into this enormous reverb to create the size and then he added a couple of layers behind the voice until it was no longer Benedict but this dragon.”

Since “Kong,” they’ve provided the actor with the ability to hear the real-time process in their work while recording. Thus, they have really good isolation in the headphones and can hear the result, which gives them the ability to tailor their delivery.

And like the previous cave encounter between Bilbo and Gollum, this one takes place in quiet ambient space for showcasing both Bilbo and Smaug. “You’ve got a conversation that can happen, and nothing can fight against it, and that was a real gift for us from the filmmakers and from Tolkien,” Burge adds. 

Only with much more control since Freeman and Cumberbatch performed separately. “One of the contrasts, we wanted to have was with the treasure movement and what that movement sounded like,” Ward says. “Smaug would be sliding through the coins and into the treasure whereas Bilbo’s movement of course was much lighter.”

Cumberbatch also voiced the villainous Necromancer/Sauron who attacks Ian McKellen’s Gandalf. Turns out that the actor has an extraordinary gift that would impress the great Sherlock Holmes: the ability to talk backwards.”Benedict has one of the most unique vocal boxes that I’ve ever come across,” Ward admits. “He learned all of the Black Speech [The Dark Tongue of Mordor] forwards and delivered that perfectly and then he would do it backwards and he had the ability of flipping it and then blending it to really mess it up. Once again, he didn’t go over the top. It was a performance with a little bit of flavor behind it.”

Indeed, as we shall witness, Sauron is an evolving being who grows in strength in “The Hobbit” finale, “There and Back Again” (December 17), taking us full circle back to “The Lord of the Rings.”

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