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Weta Breathes Fire into the Menacing Dragon of 'The Hobbit'

Weta Digital's Joe Letteri discusses the new creature work in the second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, highlighted by the eponymous dragon.

Peter Jackson's second Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug, certainly contains a greater variety of VFX (including several creatures, a theme park-like barrel flume chase and a virtual Laketown). The high-frame rate is also improved as well with a more filmic look applied during post. But, of course, the centerpiece for Weta Digital is the eponymous dragon (voiced with menace and charm by Benedict Cumberbatch), arguably the best CG-animated dragon ever created. And that's sure to make a great impression at the Academy bakeoff on Jan. 16.

But rather than applying its signature performance capture method, Weta keyframed Smaug (using Maya, Mari, their proprietary tissue solver for muscle simulations and RenderMan). That's because there were too many differences between dragons and humans to craft a believable performance, so the busy Cumberbatch came in for one mocap session for reference only and then did his voice work after the shoot.

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?"

But Weta looked at the previous cave encounter between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gollum (Andy Serkis) as a guide for Bilbo's meeting with Smaug in the treasure chamber, 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. But there were a number of challenges, given the dragon's immense size and his dark surroundings.

"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," Letteri continues.

"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. 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, then aging layers of dead, flaky skin. There were 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 developed for the first Hobbit film and was also useful for Gandalf's encounter with the Necromancer (also voiced by Cumberbatch) as well as the water in the barrel sequence.

"We start off with the idea that he's a shadow so we created this volumetric shadow effect," Letteri recounts. "We put negative light opposite the camera and cast black god rays out to get the shadowy presence. As that advances with Gandalf, we added smoke so he had a real three-dimensional presence in space. From the smoke then you can have him step into it in his flaming armor and that becomes the flaming eye."

In the flume chase, the dwarves hide in wine barrels and float down a river to elude the pursuing Orcs, with the elves Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) coming to their rescue with their great archery skills. This sequence was accomplished through a combination of practical and CG water (shot in a river or in a water tank). They also used empty barrels in conjunction with full CG shots of the water and digital dwarves. All the waterfall shots were CG and the fighting was all-digital (such as Legolas riding atop the two dwarves and flinging arrows at Orcs), with the exception of some live-action close-ups of the two actors.

For the spiders that Bilbo encounters, Weta wanted to take advantage of 3-D, and so Jackson designed the fight so that it occurred in the canopy up in the trees. They flow through the trees and in stereo they could play with the space all around. "The most important thing was making them translucent," Letteri suggests. "Because the forest was so dark, we wanted the light to pass through their legs and have the subsurface scattering in their abdomens. We wanted a better way to integrate and not have so many dark shapes. The rest of it was about their ability to move up and down."

The handling of their dialog was a consideration as well. Mental dialog was deemed too strange so they played with lip movement to make it seem like they were conversing in unison. No lip sync looked odd and making the lips move independently of dialog looked odd as well. They found a happy medium between the two.

Then there's the bear that emerges from skin changer Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt). Jackson wanted a sense of majesty and extra ferociousness, almost like a mountain lion with agility and quickness. There was also a lot of detail that went into the aging: the scars, the density of the fur and the fur being ripped out from fighting. The transformation was done mostly in camera and in silhouette.

But with a suspenseful cliffhanger, this journey about greed concludes with next year's finale, There And Back Again, an unofficial bridge to Tolken's darker and more ambitious work.

"It was interesting tying it all together because the book had huge gaps where Gandalf would disappear," Letteri remarks. "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."

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld and the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com). He's also a contributor to Thompson on Hollywood and Animation Scoop at Indiewire. Desowitz is additionally the author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), currently available in a Kindle version with expanded Skyfall chapter.

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