Returning to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit
However, the highlight of The Hobbit occurs when Bilbo meets Gollum in a cave and accidentally gains possession of the precious ring. In fact, they shot the Gollum scene first for an entire week, which Jackson says was like being at the bottom of a mountain looking up into the clouds -- the beginning of a long journey. "It was a great way for Martin [Freeman] to find the character of Bilbo right at the outset in this Riddles in the Dark scene," Jackson explains. "And he had Andy Serkis coming at him with full energy. I felt sorry for Martin -- he had to stand his own against Andy. But I'll tell you what: it was good. And what I did to help Martin is that I staged the scene, which is around nine minutes long -- the longest scene I've ever done -- as one continuous performance. Fortunately, with the Red Epic cameras we had 20-minute capacity on the cards, so I was able to run the whole scene continuously from different angles, which allowed us to cut them together. I just let Andy and Martin go for it and Martin spent that whole week exploring. By the end of that scene, Martin knew who Bilbo was."
The scene is really a benchmark for Weta. Gollum alone is the sum of all the advances in animation and lighting they've achieved, while the Higher Frame Rate 3-D enhances the believability of the creature. He no longer looks like a CG creation but another actor in a stirring performance."
On the surface, Gollum looks the same, which was deliberate. "We played with the idea of de-aging him 60 years earlier with more teeth and hair, but none of it seemed to feel right, so we went back to the way he was," Letteri admits. "But now he's an integration of everything we've done since Lord of the Rings and making it work for this. After Avatar, we studied more about skin, muscles, eyes, and hair, and light transport and dynamics, and simulation; and on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we figured out how to bring all of that to a live-action stage.
"And now on The Hobbit, it all comes home. You've got Andy and Martin in the very first scene that they shot with the performance capture integrated with the live-action set. It's all being recorded at a higher frame rate of 48 frames, we can recreate Gollum with now proper physiology for his muscles and bones and eyes and skin and teeth.
"We started off with Gollum and as soon as you heard Andy's voice, you were back in Middle-earth," Letteri concludes.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.