"How do you create that intimacy without a large head and seeming over articulated? How do you keep it in frame but always aware of the size and threat? We spent most of our time developing the nuances of personality that are essential in pulling off a suspenseful and engaging encounter.
"The skin was interesting because you wanted him to be this tough dragon and we looked at lizard and reptile references and made him out of scales. But we had to make the scales big because most of the time he performs far away and you had to read the scales. We kept playing with size, especially around the head because you didn't want the scales to be too fine around the lips where it almost looked like skin."
But it couldn't be too big either to impede articulation of the mouth. They used a combination of Maya for modeling, Mari for texture painting, their proprietary tissue software for muscle simulations, and RenderMan for rendering.
The layering of scales went through several iterations led by textures supervisor/creative art director Gino Acevedo to get the proper detail and flexing and bending. Then they developed an aging process of cracking the scales, putting scars in and removing the scales. And aging layers of dead, flaky skin. Layers and layers of detail.
Turns out you don't get a full view of Smaug too often because he's in the dark treasure chamber. "We had the whole question of how you light him underground with no natural light sources. So they played with hidden ambient lights. We never get a good look at him until he flies away and shakes off the molten gold."
The eyes were important, particularly in retaining the glow ascribed by Tolkien. Although real creatures obviously don't have glowing eyes they came up with a natural-looking eye with a highlight. "When he's angry you can play up the flaring -- that sense of a furnace."