‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug': Joe Letteri talks dragons

Dec. 30, 2013 | 2:56 p.m.
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Martin Freeman as Bilbo, from left, Jed Brophy as Nori and Richard Armitage as Thorin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (James Fisher / Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin, left, and Dean O'Gorman as Fili in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Graham McTavish as Dwalin, left, Ken Stott as Balin, Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Richard Armitage as Thorin and William Kircher as Bifur in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman, left, and John Callen in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Mark Pokorny / Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Azog, portrayed by Manu Bennett through motion-capture technology, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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William Kircher as Bifur, left, John Callen as Oin, Richard Armitage as Thorin and Ken Stott as Balin in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Stephen Fry as the Master of Lake-town, left, and Ryan Gage as Alfrid in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Peggy Nesbitt as Sigrid, Mary Nesbitt as Tilda and John Bell as Bain in a scene from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Azog, portrayed by Manu Bennett through motion-capture technology, in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Lee Pace as Thranduil in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel and Orlando Bloom as Legolas in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Ian McKellen as Gandalf in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Orlando Bloom as Legolas in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Lee Pace as Thranduil in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Luke Evans as Bard in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

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Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins in a poster for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

Peter Jackson and Joe Letteri will receive the Producers Guild of America’s Vanguard Award next month for the groundbreaking digital creations dreamed up in New Zealand’s WETA Digital. It’s an appropriate honor. Together, Jackson and Letteri have conjured all manner of creations — Letteri won Oscars for his work on two films in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and on the writer-director’s remake of “King Kong” (though Andy Serkis’ vivid performance-capture turns as Gollum and the lovelorn giant ape were certainly central to those victories).

The duo might be in contention for Academy Awards once more for Jackson’s latest fantasy adventure, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” The movie is brimming with technological marvels — the spiders of Mirkwood, the dynamic barrel chase scene — but perhaps none are quite so marvelous as the vividly rendered dragon Smaug played via motion-capture technology by Benedict Cumberbatch.

A team of 12 artists worked solely on bringing Smaug to life on the big screen, using Cumberbatch’s physical movements and facial expressions as a model for the great, grand beast that threatens Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and their band of adventurers as they seek to reclaim the treasure of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor under the Lonely Mountain.

Approaching “The Desolation of Smaug,” the second installment in Jackson’s planned “Hobbit” trilogy, the filmmaker said the responsibility of doing justice to J.R.R. Tolkien’s dragon weighed heavily on his shoulders.

“There is something where you keep hearing all this expectation, ‘I want to see Smaug, I want to see Smaug,’… Those things are a bit of a pressure,” Jackson told Hero Complex in an interview earlier this month. “Ultimately, people won’t remember how many teeth he’s got, they won’t remember what color he is, how big he is — they’ll remember his character, his personality. We really focused a lot of attention on that.”

Joe Letteri. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Joe Letteri (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

In a separate interview, Letteri echoed those sentiments: “What we were trying to do is really come up with a personality,” he said. “It was interesting watching what Benedict did with it and how he started to move. We started to just think about ideas of what Smaug would be.”

Read what else he had to say in the interview below.

Hero Complex: How did you first approach developing the personality for Smaug?

Joe Letteri: Really what started to happen was, you have this situation where Bilbo’s in there, Smaug wakes up, he knows there’s somebody in there trying to rob from him, why doesn’t he just eat him? You really kind of get into the drama of the scene. He’s hungry, but he’s also a little bit lonely. It’s that playing for time that Bilbo does that really was the heart of the scene. That’s the way Tolkien wrote it. He writes this old style politeness, that even if you were enemies you were still courteous to each other. We played off of that idea, that he’s going to allow time to figure out who he is. As soon as Bilbo says his name, Smaug is [surprised], ‘Oh, you know my name?’ There’s kind of a vanity moment. We tried to build up those moments to keep him hooked. Yes, he’s a big, scary dragon, but there’s also vanity in there that keeps him curious about this little creature that seems to know who he is. Those are the moments we’d look for. Then we’d look for things like tilting the chin a certain way or getting his eye looking a certain way just to enhance the personality in those moments. Everything else worked out from there.

HC: Did Benedict Cumberbatch record his performance-capture sessions before you went in to animate the scene?

JL: They were before and during. So what we did, that first session happened in Wellington before we started animating the scene. So we took that dialogue and we started playing with these different ways we might animate Smaug. The one [in the film] is ultimately the one we settled on but we tried other things. Is he bigger and just more ferocious the whole way? We played with a lot of different kinds of body language, and we presented these different [options] to Peter. He picked the same one [we had], so we knew we were in the same direction. Once we had worked on it for a while, Peter saw what was going on. They went in and re-voiced some of the dialogue, wrote a few different lines, so Benedict did a couple of other sessions. Toward the later sessions he was actually able to see what we were doing with the animation and kind of have that in his head as well, so we were able to get this feedback loop going because it happened over a period of several months.

HC: What about the physical environment that surrounds Smaug? How difficult was that to create digitally?

Benedict Cumberbatch breathes life into J.R.R. Tolkien's dragon in"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

Benedict Cumberbatch breathes life into J.R.R. Tolkien’s dragon in”The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” (Warner Bros.)

JL: We were really fortunate that the dwarfs built this treasure hold that was big enough for a dragon to move in (laughs). That made our life easier, somewhat. We actually pre-vised the animation. We had pieces of Erebor, the columns and the stairways and the bits that were there. We worked out the animation blocking between Smaug and Bilbo and started dressing in the architecture around them. So we kind of designed the architecture around what the action needed to be to allow him room to move or also to have places for Bilbo to hide or for Smaug to pause, to rest his arms and things like that, so you had nice character moments that we could work out throughout the whole thing. Then there was the gold coins, that’s kind of the heart of the matter is the treasure. We had over 1 billion gold coins in there that we’re simulating, the technology behind that was something we had to develop as we went. We started off small. He moves his head a little bit, you have a few hundred thousand coins moving. That’s not too bad. He moves his whole body, now we’re moving a few million coins, that’s pretty good. Now he’s going to explode through the whole thing? Well, that’s a billion coins. We’ll get it going and we’ll come back in a week and see how it goes. It was that kind of evolution to get the technology working.

It was tremendously difficult because that whole space is huge. That whole Erebor space, they calculate that it’s about the size of Monaco. It’s actually really big in there. You have all this light coming in from unspecified directions because it’s in the round, so you have this artistic, cinematic lighting and you’ve got millions and millions of reflective surfaces. You’ve got the firelight, you’ve got all this other interaction happening, so just computing all that lighting took a tremendous amount of time as well — not even computing it. The hard part is for the artists to be able to move a light and wait for all that stuff to re-compute to see if it looks good or not is the thing that takes the time.

HC: How does Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot the movies at the higher 48 frames per second impact the work you do?

JL: In two ways. It just means we’re doing twice as many frames so it’s just a lot more work is what it comes down to. But where we can actually take advantage of it creatively is in animation because rather than having 24 frames a second, we have 48 frames a second, so you can do more subtle animation. You can fine-tune lip dialogue and eye movements. You can just get a little quicker smaller responses than you might be able to do with 24 frames. Like on the first movie we were able to use that a lot for Gollum, on this film we were able to use that a lot for Smaug. You’re only seeing half as many frames when you see it projected at 24, so all the work that we do is there, you’re just not seeing it all. It just gets dropped when you go to 24 frames.

Benedict Cumberbatch's memorable dragon was a highlight of Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." (Warner Bros.)

Benedict Cumberbatch’s memorable dragon was a highlight of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” (Warner Bros.)

HC: Does that mean you’d really rather people see it in 48?

JL: It’s where we put all the effort, so if people are so inclined.… I mean, I understand that a lot of people are just more used to 24 frames. There are a lot of people who want to watch the movie in 2-D rather than stereo. That’s fine. They have the options for all of those. But if people really want to see the full detail and the full subtlety of motion that you can achieve, the detail that you can see with 48 frames, they have that choice as well.

– Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex

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