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

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 13, 2013 at 2:20PM

Peter Jackson's well-received second "Hobbit" movie, "The Desolation of Smaug," contains a greater variety of VFX. 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.
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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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
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.

This article is related to: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Immersed In Movies, VFX, Interviews , Thompson on Hollywood, Awards Season Roundup, Awards


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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.