There Be a Cun­ning Dragon!

Joe Let­teri, the Os­car-nom­i­nated vfx su­per­vi­sor of The Hob­bit: The Deso­la­tion of Smaug, dis­cusses the fine art of craft­ing the dragon, those spiders and other vis­ual treats of Peter Jack­son’s epic movie. by Ramin Za­hed

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Joe Let­teri, the Os­car-nom­i­nated vfx su­per­vi­sor of The

Hob­bit: The Deso­la­tion of Smaug, dis­cusses the fine art of craft­ing the dragon, those spiders and other vis­ual treats of Peter Jack­son’s epic movie. by Ramin Za­hed

Al­though fans had to wait a whole year to re­turn to di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son’s mag­nif­i­cent adap­ta­tion of The Hob­bit, the sec­ond part of the new Tolkien tril­ogy is packed with so much breath­less en­ergy and vis­ual panache that au­di­ences may feel like they never left Mid­dle-earth. As ex­pected, The Deso­la­tion of Smaug not only gets us back to the treach­er­ous jour­ney of the re­luc­tant Hob­bit, Bilbo Bag­gins, but it also in­tro­duces a de­li­cious se­lec­tion of new char­ac­ters and set­tings—all of which gave the vfx team at New Zealand-based Weta many op­por­tu­ni­ties to show off their con­sid­er­able skills.

Of course, as read­ers of Tolkien’s book know, meet­ing Smaug, the gold-lov­ing, ar­ro­gant dragon of the story is one of the tril­ogy’s most an­tic­i­pated high­lights. Voiced by pop­u­lar Bri­tish ac­tor Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch ( Sher­lock), the beast is de­scribed in the book as a vast red-gold dragon, who is first seen fast asleep on count­less piles of pre­cious gold, gems and sil­ver, “thrum­ming came from his jaws and nos­trils, and wisps of smoke, but his fires were low in slum­ber.”

Ac­cord­ing to Jack­son, the film­mak­ers de­cided to de­pict this huge beast as a Han­ni­bal Lecter-like psy­chopath, with an in­ex­pli­ca­ble lust for gold. “The very sim­ple thing I had in my head was to make him a hell of a lot big­ger than what peo­ple would be imag­in­ing,” says Jack­son. “The one thing that would sur­prise me is if he lifts his head out of the gold, and in­stead of his head be­ing two or three feet long, his head is the size of a bus and his body is the size of a 747. That would be scary. So I thought, OK, we’ll go with size. I wanted his size alone to be ter­ri­fy­ing for this lit­tle Hob­bit.”

As vfx su­per­vi­sor Joe Let­teri ex­plains, “The big­gest vfx chal­lenge for us was the dragon. We had this huge char­ac­ter that is the cen­ter­piece and Bilbo [played by Martin Free­man] needs to have this in­ti­macy with him. We need to un­der­stand what he’s think­ing at all times. Why isn’t he just eat­ing the lit­tle guy—he is ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing Bilbo’s flat­tery. He hes­i­tates to kill him be­cause he’s been en­joy­ing this con­ver­sa­tion. We had to de­pict all of this on a very large scale. He needs to look scary enough, and you can’t frame that in a two-shot.”

To bring more hu­man­ity and real-life pre­ci­sion to the dig­i­tal dragon, Cum­ber­batch recorded his di­a­logue in full mo-cap gear on a stage, di­rected by mo­tion-cap­ture su­per­vi­sor De­jan Mom­cilovic. This was only to guide the an­i­ma­tors with a re­li­able ref­er­ence point for the crea­ture. Let­teri, who re­ceived his eighth Vis­ual Ef­fects Os­car nom­i­na­tion for the first Hob­bit movie, notes that while a dragon’s

—Joe Let­teri, The Deso­la­tion of Smaug’s vfx su­per­vi­sor

face is very dif­fer­ent from a hu­man face, the an­i­ma­tors were able to in­cor­po­rate a lot of the ac­tor’s per­for­mance into Smaug’s per­son­al­ity. “We had to be very spe­cific with the de­tails, such as the size of the scales around his eyes and how they blend into the tex­ture of the skin and the eye­lids.”

Each one of the in­tim­i­dat­ing dragon’s scales was dig­i­tally hand-painted to bet­ter de­pict im­per­fec­tions and per­haps hint at pre­vi­ous bat­tles, his age and his­tory. “When he’s seen up close, we have to see that his face is cov­ered in scars, whether from bat­tles with other dragons or from his var­i­ous at­tacks.”

To cre­ate sub­tle, yet ef­fec­tive win­dows to Smaug’s soul, the de­sign­ers opted for a com­bi­na­tion of hu­man and rep­til­ian eyes. “We al­ways need to get a good sense of where his fo­cus is, and ev­ery­thing is seen very close-up, so there are many lay­ers of ge­om­e­try in­side the eyes,” says Let­teri. “I think one of my fa­vorite as­pects of this movie was watch­ing this dragon come alive and re­ally get­ting a good sense of his per­son­al­ity.”

To craft the film’s close to 2,000 vfx shots, the team at Weta used Ren­derMan to ren­der, Nuke for com­posit­ing, Maya for 3D as­pects of the job and var­i­ous pro­pri­etary tools for tasks such as tis­sue sim­u­la­tion (i.e. the wad­dle on the skin and the mus­cles on Smaug’s face) and fluid dy­namic sim­u­la­tion for the wa­ter in the river and rapids se­quences. The team used tools that were ini­tially cre­ated to build trees to de­liver the com­plex scene de­pict­ing the dragon atop his pre­cious moun­tain of gold coins.

The River Wild

“The big­gest vfx chal­lenge for us was de­pict­ing the dragon. We had this huge char­ac­ter that is the cen­ter­piece and Bilbo needs to have this in­ti­macy with him. We need to un­der­stand what he’s think­ing at all times. Why isn’t he just eat­ing the lit­tle guy? Be­cause he is ac­tu­ally en­joy­ing Bilbo’s flat­tery. He hes­i­tates to kill him be­cause he’s been

en­joy­ing this con­ver­sa­tion.”

Another one of the movie’s vis­ual high­lights is a metic­u­lously mounted se­quence which has the Dwarves es­cap­ing the Elf King’s fortress in bar­rels down some treach­er­ous rapids. “Shoot­ing on wa­ter is dif­fi­cult even at the best of times,” says Jack­son. “But for the bar­rel se­quence, as we de­vised it, we didn’t re­quire a calm river—we wanted ac­tors in­side bar­rels, with the lids off, go­ing down the most mas­sive, deadly rapids you could imag­ine.”

To stage the elab­o­rate scene, spe­cial ef­fects co­or­di­na­tor Steve In­gram and his team built 500hp wa­ter jets in­side roughly one thou­sand cu­bic feet of wa­ter within a whirlpool set. Us­ing real footage shot of the Pelorus River and the Ara­ti­a­tia Dam near Lake Taupo in New Zealand (shot in 3-D on state-

of-the-art RED Epic dig­i­tal cam­eras at 48 frames-per-sec­ond), the vfx team col­lab­o­rated with the pre-viz team to plan ev­ery beat of the char­ac­ters’ per­ilous jour­ney down the rapids. Let­teri says the fi­nal se­quence is a chal­leng­ing com­bi­na­tion of dig­i­tal char­ac­ters, real en­vi­ron­ments and wa­ter sim­u­la­tion. “For us, it was like the three hard­est things to achieve from a vfx per­spec­tive com­ing to­gether in one place. We were con­stantly chang­ing and fine-tun­ing the wa­ter as the an­i­ma­tion was re­fined. What’s re­ally tough is wa­ter sim­u­la­tion as we’re push­ing tons of wa­ter down th­ese rapids, while in­te­grat­ing the bar­rels and an­i­ma­tions in just the right way.”

Trapped in the Spiders’ Web

Pre-vi­su­al­iza­tion also played a cru­cial role in stag­ing the ac­tion se­quences set in the dark and omi­nous world of the Mirk­wood for­est. “Ev­ery­thing was driven by the an­i­ma­tion,” re­calls Let­teri. “We asked our­selves, how do we make th­ese gi­ant spiders move in­ter­est­ingly in a 3-D space? So the an­i­ma­tion was blocked out in pre-viz. Then we dressed the en­vi­ron­ment to sup­port the an­i­ma­tion. There was this sense of mak­ing th­ese crea­tures scary, not just be­cause of their size, but also be­cause of their speed and to­tal un­pre­dictabil­ity. We had to walk a fine line, be­cause they had to have the proper weight of a spi­der that size, but they also had to be able to sur­prise both the char­ac­ters in the movie and the au­di­ence with their sud­den move­ments.”

Let­teri fur­ther ex­plains that Jack­son wanted all the scene’s ac­tion to take place in the canopy, with the gi­ant spiders us­ing webs to travel through the tree­tops. “With ev­ery­thing hap­pen­ing in space, we were able to play with the 3-D as­pects of the film, but we also had to chore­o­graph the spiders metic­u­lously and fig­ure out where their feet needed to be so that we could cap­ture them as they ap­proach the cam­era.”

Since the spiders were com­pletely CGI cre­ations hand-an­i­mated by Weta Dig­i­tal, the ac­tors had to fight against stunt per­form­ers. Be­cause the per­form­ers wore head-to-toe green suits (which would be re­placed by the CG char­ac­ters later), they were aptly called “Ker­mits” dur­ing the pro­duc- tion. The ac­tors were also aided by green pads and green sticks which al­lowed them to swing their weapons in space, pull their blows phys­i­cally and pre­tend they were ac­tu­ally mak­ing con­tact with the dreaded arach­nids.

With a movie as com­plex and densely plot­ted and pop­u­lated as The Deso­la­tion of Smaug, a whole book can be writ­ten de­tail­ing its many bril­liant vis­ual ef­fects achieve­ments. “I love the fact that the movie al­lows us to travel through such in­ter­est­ing and dif­fer­ent land­scapes,” says Let­teri. “I am also very pleased with how we were able to bring so much per­son­al­ity to Smaug’s char­ac­ter, just like we did with Gol­lum in the past. But this time, we were able to bring that to a char­ac­ter who wasn’t hu­man. In the end, it’s about hav­ing a good story and cre­at­ing things that the au­di­ence wants to see. It’s not all about the ef­fects, but what the di­rec­tor wants to put on the screen. We’re just get­ting started on the third movie, and Peter con­tin­ues to sur­prise us with new things.” Warner Bros.’ The Hob­bit: The Deso­la­tion of Smaug is cur­rently play­ing in the­aters around the world. The movie made $73.6 mil­lion dur­ing its first weekend at the U.S. box of­fice.

Dragon Builders: A team of 12 Weta artists worked solely on bring­ing Smaug to an­i­mated life, us­ing voice ac­tor Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch’s phys­i­cal move­ments and fa­cial ex­pres­sions as a model for the ter­ri­fy­ing crea­ture.

Peter Jack­son on set A River Runs Through It: Be­sides cre­at­ing Smaug, the sec­ond chap­ter of The Hob­bit de­manded nu­mer­ous in­stances of dig­i­tal wiz­ardry, in­clud­ing dif­fi­cult se­quences fea­tur­ing Ozag the vi­cious Orc, and the white-knuckle es­cape scene with

Elvish Spo­ken Here: The new fe­male El­ven war­rior char­ac­ter Tau­riel (por­trayed by Evan­ge­line Lilly) shares a piv­otal mo­ment with Le­go­las (Or­lando Bloom).

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