Weta's Joe Letteri Talks Animating the Smaug Dragon for 'The Hobbit'

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by Bill Desowitz
December 13, 2013 2:20 PM
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Peter Jackson's well-received second "Hobbit" movie, "The Desolation of Smaug," not only moves along more swiftly and assuredly, but it also contains a greater variety of VFX (spiders, bear, shadowy Necromancer, and a rollicking barrel chase down a river). The high-frame rate is also improved with a more filmic look applied during post. But, of course, the centerpiece for Weta Digital is Smaug (voiced with menace and charm by Benedict Cumberbatch), the best CG-animated dragon ever created and sure to make a great impression at the Academy bakeoff.

Like the riveting encounter between Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and Gollum in the cave, his dance with Smaug in the treasure chamber is a tricky test of courage and craftiness (it's probably no coincidence that Jackson reversed roles for "Sherlock's" co-stars). But Smaug is keyframed rather than performance-captured because the differences between human and dragon were too great and, besides, the ubiquitous Cumberbatch was only available for his voice work during post.

Cumberbatch doing mo-cap as Smaug

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?" 

So they looked at the Gollum encounter as a reference point with Bilbo engaging Smaug to keep the situation and himself alive, 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. Cumberbatch did an initial mo-cap session purely for reference, but there were several challenges, given the dragon's immense size.

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