‘Hobbit’ FX wiz Joe Letteri on Gollum, the Goblin King and Azog

Jan. 16, 2013 | 2:57 p.m.
hobbitauj keyart Hobbit FX wiz Joe Letteri on Gollum, the Goblin King and Azog

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" -- the first film in Peter Jackson's trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien's book "The Hobbit" -- opened in theaters Dec. 14. Here's a look at the film's images. (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins, left, and Graham McTavish as Dwalin in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin and Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Director Peter Jackson, left, and Martin Freeman on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as the wizard Gandalf the Grey in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman, left, and Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen, left, and Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Hugo Weaving as Elrond, left, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Ian McKellen as Gandalf in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Hugo Weaving, left, Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Galadriel actress Cate Blanchett, left, and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Actors and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dean O'Gorman as Fili, left, and Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dean O'Gorman, left, and Richard Armitage in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett as Galadriel in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, Christopher Lee as Saruman and Hugo Weaving as Elrond in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Elijah Wood as Frodo, left, and Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen and Hugo Weaving in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Christopher Lee as Saruman the White in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Gollum, reprised by Andy Serkis in motion capture performance, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Director Peter Jackson on the Bag End set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Ken Stott as Balin, left, John Callen as Oin, William Kircher as Bifur, Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield and Graham McTavish as Dwalin in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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John Callen, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner and Stephen Hunter in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Hunter, Adam Brown, Mark Hadlow, Jed Brophy and Peter Hambleton in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Gollum, performed by Andy Serkis, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Trolls William, Tom and Bert, performed by Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow and William Kircher, respectively, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Hunter as Bombur the dwarf, left, and Tom the troll in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Cate Blanchett and Ian McKellen in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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Dwarfs and stone giants in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

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The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The visual effects world has never been the glamorous side of Hollywood, but the artists at Weta Digital charged with creating the grotesque Goblin King in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” surely have the best claim to hard labor in this year’s Oscar race.

In order to craft the character’s uniquely bloated and beastly look, the team at Weta examined medical journal images of herpes, boils, gangrene, tumors and rashes. They worked overtime to make the Goblin King’s bulbous neck goiter jiggle just so, and to conserve the subtleties of an alternately comic and menacing motion-capture performance delivered by Australian actor Barry Humphries (better known — minus goiter, plus purple wig — as Dame Edna).

“He’s a giant, evil goblin,” said Weta visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. “It was all about making him as disgusting as possible, and fine tuning the performance to give you the sense of the weight, the massiveness of him.”

The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

The Great Goblin, performed by Barry Humphries, in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

All that time toiling in boils paid off –Weta collected an Academy Award nomination for its work on “The Hobbit,”  the only film in the category to have all its visual effects created by one shop.

Here’s a video look at Weta’s work on the Goblin King:

Weta, “Hobbit” director Peter Jackson’s company, also worked on nominees “The Avengers” (with Industrial Light & Magic) and “Prometheus” (with MCP), becoming the first visual effects company to receive three Oscar nominations since ILM did so in 1991.

But it was “The Hobbit” in particular that presented the New Zealand-based shop with a unique array of challenges, from one CG character’s lengthy, theater-like dialogue scene to Jackson’s controversial decision to shoot at 48 frames per second.

Perhaps the most beloved digital character since he helped inaugurate the art form in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, Gollum (Andy Serkis) appears for a critical, nine-minute sequence opposite Hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) in “The Hobbit.”

‘The Hobbit’ collected: Complete coverage

For what fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book will recall as the “riddle scene,” Weta needed their A-list creature to retain his signature icky charm, with updates to account for Jackson’s choice of sharper resolution format and other advances in technology. To that end, Weta’s designers added dirt, peach fuzz and skin defects to Gollum’s face to make him more richly detailed, and reconstructed his large, expressive eyes and facial muscles.

They tweaked the performance in other ways, too –in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, when Gollum quavered back and forth to his alter ego, Sméagol, Weta demonstrated the transition visually by dilating the character’s pupils; in “The Hobbit,” they added a physical spasm.

“It was really unusual to be able to do a character piece like that, a nine-minute dialogue scene between a CG character and a very good actor,” Letteri said. “There’s a level of detail that’s beyond what we were able to do 10 years ago.”

Here’s a look at Weta’s work on Gollum:

It was relatively late in the planning of “The Hobbit” that Jackson decided to make Azog, the 7-foot tall pale orc who goes up against the heroic dwarf Thorin Oakenshield, a digital character, which meant Weta had to rely on techniques it had adopted over the years on such films as “Avatar” and “King Kong” to quickly animate muscular New Zealand actor Manu Bennett’s performance.

This video shows Weta’s work on Azog:

While sharing his company’s efforts with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ visual effects branch, Letteri said he fielded questions about how  Jackson’s decision to shoot the film at 48 frames per second affected Weta’s workload.

“You’re definitely taking cinema into a new realm,” Letteri said. “As far as the VFX branch of the academy goes, they appreciated the work and effort that goes into that. The work we have to do to get there is the same, we just have to do more of it.”

– Rebecca Keegan

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


21 Responses to ‘Hobbit’ FX wiz Joe Letteri on Gollum, the Goblin King and Azog

  1. Denis says:

    Azog looked bad-ass, but they should have used prostetics/ make up, not CGI li, like the uruk-hai in the Rings trilogy. Manu Bennett was fantastic as Crixus in the Spartacus series and it was a waste of a fantastic performance not to feature him in live action, even if the CGI was so well done. Could say the same of the misty mountain goblins. But those are my only complaints, the rest of the movie was fantastic!!

    • Thomas says:

      Yes! I don't know what they were thinking. Way too much CGI. Really hate to say it, but the CGI over load kind of killed the movie for me.

    • Clarke says:

      If they used an actor in prosthetics, it would require weeks of re-shooting to have Azog replace an entire role. Also, prosthetics aren't a perfect special effect – actor's micro mannerisms and facial expressions get lost in the layers of make up, impeding their performance. Facial capture mixed with CGI gives a better performance than prosthetics. Hence why so many big budget films are going for CGI characters rather than rubber faces.

      • Me, and me... says:

        Exactly. 'Lurtz' in Fellowship of the Ring was cool, but he just got trumped by Azog. It is obvious that motion capture is a far better tool than prostetics for the orcs. Did everyone say boo to Gollum? No, they exepted the fact that he is a fantastical creature in a mythological world. Azog would have looked weak as an actor in prostetics… Did you see what he looked like before CG? Not good!

      • yo momma says:

        I don't see how you can honestly compare gollum and azog in terms of motion capture perofrmance and rendering. they way those bodyies work are completely different.

    • Tim says:

      I don't know how you or anyone could even say that about this movie!! I mean… WHAT??? I am one that is usually anti-CGI. I agree it pulls you away from the realism of a movie, BUT in this movie PURE GENIUS!!! The scene with Gollum had me completely mesmerized!! I was in awe watching the uncanny real life facial features of Gollum in every single expression!! Unbelievably real!! Then the orcs, did you notice the muscle and body movement??!! AMAZING PERFECTION!! I myself for once saw no CGI in these characters. We are in a whole new world of realism, and this movie was undeniable living proof of that!!!!!

  2. nathan says:

    Have to agree Azog lacked design and was too simple in his form and that arm – hmm. I prefer the actor version in all honesty – the guy in the mocap suit should have had makeup applied and played the role on set.

  3. Aarathorn says:

    Azog was amazing in my opinion.. But Goblin King? That guy was like a disney-villian from Shrek or something… also the goblins??? The goblins of Moria were amazing, but these? that's my only complaint to this movie… the rest was 10+

  4. Dan says:

    I think the bigger problem with Azog was that he appeared to be speaking very articulated "High" Orcish. It's like he wanted to make sure anyone that is listening could be able to understand him. I know Tolkien was a linguist and perhaps he had actually come up with an Orcish language, but nobody really speaks like that unless they are struggling to be understood.

  5. Chazz says:

    Does anyone know if the 48 fps 3-D feature of The Hobbit an Unexpected Journey is going to available on the Blu-Ray theatrical release or the extended edition?
    I've checked on the Amazon DVD/Blu-Ray new releases and haven't been able to find out anything on it. Any information would be appreciated. Thanks.

    • Moon says:

      There won't be 48fps 3D blu-ray. The blu-ray standard does not support the format. Even if it did, no player or TV currently ready play it/display it.

      • strife says:

        OMG U PPL are stupid 48 fps is what they SHOT IT IN!!! when u view it on blue ray you WILL notice the 48 frames! idiots.

  6. Dorothy says:

    Maybe I'm just easy to please, but I was impressed with Azog. Cocky, menacing, even with a disability!

  7. Dane says:

    In my opinion, all three of these characters were absolutely fantastic. In my opinion, Azog is a great in-between for the elves and the orcs, and he had a sort of muscular grace to him, while most of the other orcs were simply lumbering or skittering uglies (which is in line with the smaller orcs' nature).

    A lot of people seem to be criticizing Azog's character for being too heavy on the CGI, but with the technology these days, it's much more fluid than it used to be, and it allows them to create more believable large characters with much greater ease, and Azog's larger size definitely helped him to stand out in a uniquely orcish way while still having his own look. The "ugly brute" look was already used so many times in Lord of the Rings, it's really cool to see a character that embodies a hint of that elvish ancestry in a very orcish way.

  8. Anarane says:

    Azog ruined it. The CGI while people make a point in saying it allowed more facial expression was way too much. He looked too symmetrical and perfect. His scars were all perfectly done up and it was frustrating. To top it all off a lot of this crap wasn't in the book. -_- Azog didn't even need to be in this with all of the badassery that happens in the Silmarilion and even some of the shit that goes down in the Hobbit.

  9. Bruce says:

    I think all the CGI looked great aside from Azog. Would have looked much better in prosthetics.

  10. Mike says:

    What kind of animal head is on top of the Great Goblin's Staff. Is it a Ram's head?

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