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Talking Benedict Cumberbatch, Dragon Secrets and More with the Oscar-Nominated Sound Editors of 'Smaug'

Thompson on Hollywood By Bill Desowitz | http://billdesowitz.com February 5, 2014 at 2:53PM

In returning to Middle-Earth for the second "Hobbit" adventure, "The Desolation of Smaug," Oscar-nominated sound editors Brent Burge and Chris Ward were given a gift with the very hot Benedict Cumberbatch. But when he was first announced, they were apprehensive that his overexposure on "Sherlock" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" might make his voice too familiar. But that all changed when he showed up and got down on his hands and knees, played around with his voice, and became the dragon.
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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

In returning to Middle-Earth for the second "Hobbit" adventure, "The Desolation of Smaug," Oscar-nominated sound editors Brent Burge and Chris Ward were given a gift with the very hot Benedict Cumberbatch. But when he was first announced, they were apprehensive that his overexposure on "Sherlock" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" might make his voice too familiar. But that all changed when he showed up and got down on his hands and knees, played around with his voice, and became the dragon.

Cumberbatch doing Smaug mo-cap
Cumberbatch doing Smaug mo-cap

"It was an opportunity to experiment with Benedict," offers Ward. "Early on, during the first 'Hobbit' film, we made some recordings about what the quality of the dragon's voice might be like. You could almost say it was like an audition. We had some very good results with some new miking arrangements that we'd been thinking about. Obviously with Gollum, Kong, and now Smaug, these digital characters seem to pop up in Peter Jackson's films, and it's important to him that these are living and breathing creatures, so we experimented a bit. 

"But when it came time to do the actual voice, Benedict came in for two days and we built a platform in the ADR stage so that he was above everyone, even though he was on his hands and knees, because he wanted to basically play the lizard. Then he would thrust his neck out and that physically changed the delivery of the sound. I believe that through the process it became more reptilian because early on he was playing with snake-like tongue movements and using sibilance a lot. It was a total physical performance."

In fact, going off a list of "dragonisms" recommended by sound designer David Farmer, Cumberbatch came up with a range of appropriate sounds to enhance the performance. These included snoring, waking to different breaths, licking his lips with glee at the thought of devouring Martin Freeman's Bilbo, as well as an assortment of humming sounds and other musings.

This article is related to: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Sound, Immersed In Movies, Oscars, Thompson on Hollywood, Awards, Awards Season Roundup, Peter Jackson


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.