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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 | 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.
Cumberbatch Smaug

Then the sound team worked out a way of wheeling in microphones so they were always equidistant from Cumberbatch's mouth. "Wherever he moved, he had the freedom to be the dragon," Ward continues. "And he was able to deliver this performance during what was a couple of difficult days for him. Peter wanted Smaug to be really frightening so we adjusted our sounds for that."

According to Burge, Smaug's voice is unmistakably Cumberbatch's but has been cleverly disguised. "Dave Farmer actually worked out a method of adjusting the voice subtly and then adding elements behind the voice to burn it into the creature's world," Burge explains. "Once the voice was there, it was put into this enormous reverb to create the size and then he added a couple of layers behind the voice until it was no longer Benedict but this dragon."

Since "Kong," they've provided the actor with the ability to hear the real-time process in their work while recording. Thus, they have really good isolation in the headphones and can hear the result, which gives them the ability to tailor their delivery.

And like the previous cave encounter between Bilbo and Gollum, this one takes place in quiet ambient space for showcasing both Bilbo and Smaug. "You've got a conversation that can happen, and nothing can fight against it, and that was a real gift for us from the filmmakers and from Tolkien," Burge adds. 

Only with much more control since Freeman and Cumberbatch performed separately. "One of the contrasts, we wanted to have was with the treasure movement and what that movement sounded like," Ward says. "Smaug would be sliding through the coins and into the treasure whereas Bilbo's movement of course was much lighter."

Cumberbatch also voiced the villainous Necromancer/Sauron who attacks Ian McKellen's Gandalf. Turns out that the actor has an extraordinary gift that would impress the great Sherlock Holmes: the ability to talk backwards."Benedict has one of the most unique vocal boxes that I've ever come across," Ward admits. "He learned all of the Black Speech [The Dark Tongue of Mordor] forwards and delivered that perfectly and then he would do it backwards and he had the ability of flipping it and then blending it to really mess it up. Once again, he didn't go over the top. It was a performance with a little bit of flavor behind it."

Indeed, as we shall witness, Sauron is an evolving being who grows in strength in "The Hobbit" finale, "There and Back Again" (December 17), taking us full circle back to "The Lord of the Rings."

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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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.