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

"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 Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

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."

Speaking of furnace, you see the fire building inside Smaug. This telegraphs a buildup process and not something that erupts instantaneously. A large volume of fire can't be turned on and off. Fire was done with Weta's in-house fluid solver, Synapse, which was also useful for Gandolf's encounter with the Necromancer (a volumetric shadow effect that bursts into a flaming eye), as well as for the water in the barrel sequence.

"It was interesting tying it all together because the book had huge gaps where Gandolf would disappear. They make a joke about it here. But in fact what Peter and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] did was show where he was going and use that as a prequel to 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy."

And what a cliffhanger with Smaug that climaxes in the finale, "There and Back Again" (December 17, 2014).

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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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.