The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug: Cast And Crew Q&A

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, the second in The Hobbit trilogy, and continuing on where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey left off.

Following Bilbo Baggins and his group of thirteen Dwarves and the Wizard Gandalf, led by Thorin, as they continue their epic quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain and the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor.

Filmed in 3D, at 48 FPS (frames per second), the film is set to not only wow audiences with its epic story, but is at the cusp of a change in the way films may be presented in the near future. 3D has already improved in leaps and bounds to become a viable addition to both the enjoyment of film and it’s box-office takings, both at the cinema and in the home market, and providing the viewer with a smoother and clearer portrayal of that image maybe be the next leap.

SAMDB was able to secure some Q&A’s with both the principle cast, director and some of the crew of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, provided courtesy of Warner Bros.

hobbitdesolationofsmaug2

Q&A With Richard Armitage (Thorin), Evangline Lilly (Tauriel), Luke Evans (Bard), Benedict Cumberbatch (Smaug), Dean O’Gorman (Fili), Aidan Turner (Kili), Philippa Boyens (Screenplay) and Peter Jackson (Screenplay/Director/Producer

QUESTION: Benedict, can you talk about playing Smaug and the experience of traveling to New Zealand to work with Peter Jackson on this film?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:  Yes, I did go to New Zealand.  It was hugely, hugely helpful.  I started off with Peter, Fran [Walsh] and Philippa, just the three of them and me, which was a privilege in itself, because of how large everything else is on this film, to have their sole attention.  And we were in the mo-cap [motion capture] stage, so it began as a physicalization, face and body work, and voice–the whole thing.

I discovered him via my dad, who read me the book when I was either six or seven.  I’ve really got to ring him; I keep saying this.  [Laughs]  But I was young.  I was younger than eight when I went to school, so it was a bedtime treat at home.  So, that was my first bit of research, and then I went to the Reptile House at London Zoo and had a look there.  It’s so beautifully written in the book and it’s so well-illustrated in countless editions of the book.  And then, with Peter’s input and our rehearsals and just playing like a kid, really, in this incredible freeing volume, as they call the mo-cap stage, meant that we could kind of go anywhere with it.  So it was very, very helpful.

QUESTION: Did you get to mix it up with Martin and the cast while you were there?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:  I, sadly, met hardly any of the cast.  I crossed over with people as they were coming back, but I didn’t spend any sort of live time with Martin, which was sad.  But, no, it was fun.  We know each other quite well, so we kind of second guessed, in a way, with our performances to some degree, I gues

QUESTION:  If it’s Andy Serkis as Gollum, it’s easier to understand how he would do a motion capture performance for that, but how do you do a motion capture of this gargantuan creature?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:  Well, it’s obviously more abstract.  It’s only going to be an impression of something that’s a serpentine reptile that can breathe fire and fly.  And because I’m a limited biped mammal, I’m sorry about that, but Peter knew that when I auditioned, so we worked with my sort of negatives and tried to turn them into positives.  But one of the ways I did it was trying to squeeze my legs together just for to get the feeling of an elongated body crawling on the floor with my elbows and using my hands as claws and sort of over-articulating my neck and shoulder, to the delight of any physio who was unlucky enough to try and heal me afterwards.  And, yeah, just throwing myself at it with a kind of kid-like imagination and their brilliant expert guidance.

It was a really fun way to work.  And Andy came down to start on second unit.  I said, ‘God, I wish you’d been there.’  Because, you know, he’s the don.  He’s the originator and master of that art form, giving it its proper title.

And we just laughed after a while, because we both realized that he’s only done biped mammals.  No one’s really tried a serpent before, so I don’t think it would have been much help at all.  [Laughs]

QUESTION:  Peter, what were the challenges of making the film with so many spectacular visual effects, where not all the effects are there for the actors to see?

PETER JACKSON:  Well, any time we were on a green screen stage with bits of set and a lot of green screen, I would try to bring in the conceptual artwork that Alan Lee or John Howe or one of the Weta Workshop guys had done.  So I was able to at least let the guys know what was going to be back in the green screen behind them.  Not all the time, because sometimes I didn’t even know myself when we were shooting it.  And some of those things you figure out later on.

The other guys can answer, but, ultimately, it’s the power of the imagination.  It’s a suspension of disbelief, really.  Just as the audience, we’re asking you to believe in a world in which Elves and Dwarves and Dragons and Orcs exist.  When you’re on the stage, you have to also be in that same mind frame.  You are in that world, whether it’s green or whatever, if there’s a tennis ball that’s supposed to be Smaug, it’s the same thing, really.

QUESTION:  Evangeline, your character is a warrior.  Did you train to shoot bows and arrows, and what did you think when you saw yourself on screen for the first time with this fiery red hair and pointy ears?

EVANGELINE LILLY:  Yeah, I went through five different types of training.  I did weapons training, stunt training, movement training, dialect training and language training.  And in the weapons training, there were two different weapons.  I had double daggers and a bow and arrow.  [Laughs]  Believe it or not, I used to teach archery to little kids.

PETER JACKSON:  Oh yeah?  I didn’t know that.

EVANGELINE LILLY:  Yeah, Peter didn’t know that either.  At a kids’ camp when I was a teenager, I used to teach archery.  But I’m not a good marksman.

PETER JACKSON:  Don’t say that.  Just stop at the first bit

EVANGELINE LILLY:  Okay, okay.  [Laughs]  And I think that one of the great gifts of CGI and working in the imagination is that you can imagine that you’re much more talented than you really are.  [Laughs]  If you can imagine it, then it can appear as so, with Peter Jackson’s magic CGI brush.

And then, in terms of seeing myself for the first time as an Elf, it was a double-edged sword, because I’m a real Tolkien geek and I had dreamed about being an Elf since I was a little girl, so there was an incredible amount of satisfaction and dream-realization of that, when I first got to see myself as an Elf.  But I’m also, unfortunately, an actor, which means that I’m very self-critical, and it’s very hard for me to ever give myself, in anything that I do, the stamp of approval without having the appendix that says all the things I did wrong and what didn’t work.  But just the ears and the wig and the actual visual was very, very exciting.

PETER JACKSON:  I’ve said this to Evangeline, but I have spent more time in her company when she’s wearing the wig and the ears and I look here and find it a bit strange. Because, obviously, I’m much more used to hearing her voice, looking around and seeing the red wig and the ears.  That’s actually one of the strange things, because the actors walk on the set ready to shoot.  And they go home at the end of the day and I’m just not used to any of this stuff, to see them as humans.  [Laughs]  It’s rather disturbing.

QUESTION:  Luke, you also spent a lot of time in the movie with a bow and arrow over your shoulder.  How many kids have you taught archery to?

LUKE EVANS:  None.  Thankfully.

EVANGELINE LILLY:  But he’s much better than me.

LUKE EVANS:  Well, the longbow, it’s two meters-ten in height.  It’s different to your bow and arrow, but mine was very, very big.  So it was learning how to pull the arrow differently than you would have the normal bow and arrow, because it was a longbow.  But, no, I never taught any children, thankfully.

QUESTION:  Peter, I wanted to ask you about making three movies instead of two.  Did that allow you to make the second chapter more action-packed and what character benefited the most from that decision?

PETER JACKSON:  It’s an interesting question.  I don’t think any character really benefited from that decision.  We didn’t really change a lot.  We made that decision after we had shot most of the film.  It was a decision based on what we had shot.  We just thought we were going to have to somehow cut a lot of this stuff out, or we could reshape it.

Look, what it does is it allows you to let the characters drive the story, because in a novel, the writer of the novel is often the person who narrates the story, who takes you on the journey, and Tolkien’s voice is obviously fantastic at doing that.  You feel like he’s right beside you telling you a bedtime story.  But in the movie, you don’t want me on screen talking about what’s happening.  So, the discipline on a film is you have to have the story told through the dialog of the characters, through the actions of the characters.

We ended up wanting to explore some of the character depth that we had done onThe Lord of the Rings films.  I was also acutely aware that, ultimately, when this cycle of releasing a movie each year is done, you’re going to end up with six films,The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being the beginning andThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King being the end, and I did want to have a unity.  We wanted it to feel like it was the same filmmakers, basically, going through the story.

People always ask about Evangeline’s character, Tauriel, and why we felt the need to create her.  But inThe Hobbit novel, they are captured by the Elves and they escape in the barrels.  It’s a memorable part of the book, but the Elvenking is not even named.  He doesn’t have a name.  And it was only later on that Tolkien decided that he should be Thranduil.  He also decided that he had a son whenThe Lord of the Rings was written 18 or 19 years later.  He created the character of the son of the King, so you’ve got material there.

But you can’t have a scene in a film that’s a memorable scene and not have just one person as the Elf.  We wanted three Elven characters who were all different.  That’s the thing, too, is to create characters that have conflict with each other, and have different agendas.  Thranduil, Legolas and Tauriel are all on different flight paths, which makes for a much more interesting way for Philippa, Fran and I to write the narrative through their eyes.

QUESTION:  For Luke, playing Bard, you got to use a bit of your Welsh accent. What else about him did you identify with?  And what was the most fun for you in playing him?

LUKE EVANS:  Well, having my own accent was very special and that was a lovely gift that Peter, Fran and Philippa gave to me; the first time I’ve ever used my own accent in a movie, and probably the last.  [Laughs]  But it was very nice because it freed up my own exploration of the character.  His heritage and personality are very much part of Bard.  It did do something very different to the character, for myself.  My performance was different because of the fact that I was speaking with my own accent and I was Welsh.  And part of the other people in Lake-town, some of them are Welsh as well, and I had an affinity with them because we all had then an ancestry, so it all sort of paid off.

It’s difficult to talk about everything about the role, because we have another film that’s coming out next year, and we all play a very big part in the next film as well.  But it was a lot of fun.  As you can see, I’m often either being chased or chasing.  The Master of Lake-town is trying to lock me up.  Something’s always happening in Bard’s life.  And he knows Lake-town like the back of his hand.  I actually did know Lake-town like the back of my hand, because Pete used to get me running all over it on a daily basis, either on the roofs or through the streets.  That was very fun, and it was a fantastic set to work on.  It was just so expansive and real.  You could keep walking and walking and turning corners and you’d never come to the end of it, which is brilliant.  It was really great.

QUESTION:  Evangeline, I read that you had just had a baby and were ready to retire when this project came around and changed your life.  Can you tell us about that?

EVANGELINE LILLY:  Retirement, yeah.  I had retired into what I thought would be a life of quiet motherhood and writing and didn’t really plan on taking any more acting gigs.  It had been about at least five years since I had taken a meeting or engaged in a new project.  I was sort of off the grid, so to speak.  I was so far off the grid that when Pete, Fran and Philippa were trying to get in touch with me about this role, they couldn’t reach me. And somebody on their production team just coincidentally used to work with my partner, so he got a text message one day saying, ‘Peter Jackson’s trying to reach Evangeline.  Do you think she might be able to pick up the phone, please?’

So they did eventually get in touch.  And, of course, becauseThe Hobbit was my favorite book as a little girl and the Silvan elves were my favorite characters in the book, and it would be a dream come true to play one, I jumped at the opportunity.  I picked up the phone very quickly.

And then they said, ‘Your character’s not in the book.’  And I took great pause as a great fan of Tolkien.  I kind of gulped and went:  ‘What?  Everyone’s going to hate me.’  And it didn’t take long for them to completely convince me that it was the right thing to do, and it was a good idea.

PHILIPPA BOYENS:  Evangeline is not joking; she is a huge Tolkien fan.  She was concerned and we understood that.  But we did explain the idea of the feminine energy that was lacking. Because Professor Tolkien actually wrote fantastic female characters.  He just didn’t write one forThe Hobbit.  And she understood that immediately.  And she was very brave.  She said yes, for which we are very grateful.

EVANGELINE LILLY:  Well, I think, in his defense, Tolkien was writing in 1937.  The world is a different place today, and I keep repeatedly telling people that in this day and age to put nine hours of cinema entertainment in the theaters for young girls to go and watch and not have one female character, is subliminally telling them, ‘You don’t count.  You’re not important, and you’re not pivotal to story.’  And I think that they were very brave and very right in saying, ‘We won’t do that to the young female audience who come and watch our films.’

And not just the young female audience.  Even for a woman of my own age, I think it’s time that we stop making stories that are only about men, especially only about heroic men.  And I love that they made Tauriel a hero.

PETER JACKSON:  Here, here.

PHILIPPA BOYENS:  Oh, women are huge fans of these films.  It’s wonderful.  Right fromThe Lord of the Rings films, there was an immediate engagement with women.  There’s this notion that it’s a genre for boys–dungeons and dragons or something like that.  But I’m living proof that that’s not true.  I’ve always loved these stories.  I think they spoke to me; the characters of the Hobbits especially speak to me, Frodo and Bilbo, of course.

And when you meet these young women and you understand that passion for the storytelling that they’ve received that is going to create a new generation of young female writers.  I think we’re starting to see that now coming through and the way that fantasy is being used.  One of the things that women, I think, especially enjoy or relate to is that Professor Tolkien attempted to make these stories real, that they feel real, like a history.  They read like a history.  This existed; this was true.  And Pete is, I think, a genius at making these films feel real.  Even though you have a giant, fire-breathing Dragon, he’s a real character, a real being.

QUESTION:  Richard, I wanted to ask you about the barrel sequence down the river, which I think is one of the highlights of the film.  Can you tell us what that was like to film and do you feel like it was worth it now that you’ve seen the finished product?

RICHARD ARMITAGE:  I think the most dangerous part of filming the barrel sequence was when we were in these little, cut-offFlintstones-style barrels, which were powered by our feet.  It was like dodge-ems, and we were bumping into each other.  But, yeah, it came together in quite a few different places on the Pelorus River, which is an extremely fast-flowing river with a current.  It’s the end of the sequence, and we were racing each other to get to the water.

PETER JACKSON:  Doesn’t Thorin say, ‘We’ve got to get out of these barrels because there isn’t any current, therefore we’ve lost the current?’  [Laughs]

RICHARD ARMITAGE:  That’s true.  [Laughs]  We went into a sound stage where Pete had built a kind of water course powered by two V8 engines.  And it was like being at a theme park for two weeks.  They were dumping tons of water on us and trying to get us to go under the water.  But I think Martin had the most difficult role in that because he wasn’t in a barrel and there was an underwater camera and he would swap out with the stunt guy.  It got quite hair-raising.  But I think it was worth it.

PETER JACKSON:  We had these big V8 water jet things that we had built in a circle.  It was like a theme park.  I mean, we were worried because we thought how fast can we actually wind the engine up, and we’d better be careful because it’s going to be unpredictable.  And it was.  We had stunt guys doing it round and round and testing it and everything else.  But these are actors, they’re a little bit fragile.  [Laughs]  But by the end of the first day, the guys were just yelling, ‘Faster, faster!  Get it faster, faster, faster.’  And we had the thing going maximum pretty quickly.

DEAN O’GORMAN:  Just amazing.  So challenging.

PETER JACKSON:  Just to talk about the barrels, one of the things that doesn’t really get referenced in the barrels is the fact that we also did another shoot on a different river in New Zealand, the Aratiatia River in the North Island.  It’s like a gorge or a rocky canyon that stretches about a mile.  Right at the head of the canyon, there’s a big dam.  And four times a day, they open up the sluice gates and just let this enormous torrent of water out, and they let it out for ten minutes and then they close the gates again.  So, we got a lot of the really hair-raising barrel stuff in the Aratiatia.

It would be too dangerous to put a stunt guy down.  I mean, we didn’t even dare putting anyone in the barrels.  We sent the barrels down completely empty and we put the digital Dwarves in later.  But some of the more dramatic footage was shot there, and it was great because we could set up the cameras when it was dry in between the dumps.  We’d set up about six cameras right down the length of the gorge, and then we were there for about three days and four times a day on the dot, these things would open for ten minutes.  And we had a team up at the top throwing the barrels in.  You didn’t know what was going to happen to them; you just filmed them on the way down.  And we had a team at the bottom recovering the barrels.  We lost three of them.  I mean, to this day we don’t know where three of those barrels have gone [laughs].

QUESTION:  Benedict, you and Martin Freeman are Sherlock and Watson, and now you’re Bilbo and Smaug.  What’s your vision on what the third collaboration that you and Martin will do?  A buddy cop comedy?  A love story?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:  No, I mean, the weird thing about it is all that chemistry.  It was very peculiar acting by proxy with him.  There’s no joke to come out of that.  There’s no way I could say what it’s like there on the set of 221B Baker Street.  It’s very light and very brilliant.  And he’s a bit of an inspiration to be around.  So that was the biggest con really of what was otherwise a pro.  I mean, hearing all of these stories of the live action perils and the amount of work that all these people put in; I did my job in about eight days.  I feel like I’m the cheat at the table, really.

PHILIPPA BOYENS:  But what a job you did.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:  Oh, thank you.  But, yeah, Martin and I will probably have some kind of an outing in the future with something else.  Who knows.

QUESTION:  Peter, given the fact that you’re working on three films simultaneously, how do you distinguish each film aesthetically or narratively as you’re making them?

PETER JACKSON:  This is a story that’s charted at the beginning and we shot it in chronological order, to some degree.  So it is actually interesting because by the time we were done with pickups, I was getting in my groove.  [Laughs]  It was interesting to get completely into the narrative in the story, because as a filmmaker you’re almost getting swept along with the characters, so now the filmmaker’s on the same journey as the Dwarves over that period of time.

But the good thing with the middle film is that you don’t have to set things up.  You can just drop into the story.  Because, again, as much as the romance of the cinema and the big screen and the 3D and everything else is, unfortunately, the ultimate life of these movies is going to be on Blu-ray or download, hopefully for years to come.  So that’s where they are going to find their final resting place, as it were.

So you’re telling a continuous story.  It’s three movies, but it’s telling one narrative arc and you’re trying to make each film work individually.  And this is the middle; this is where you just pick up, and park your foot on the gas, basically.

QUESTION:  Because this is the middle film and has such a heart-stopping cliffhanger because we’ll have to wait a year to see what happens, was it a challenge for you to figure out where you were going to end this film?

PETER JACKSON:  It was.  We did talk about it.  I mean, there was certainly discussion about it.  But, hey, it was an opportunity.  It’s very rare that you get to do films back-to-back, whether it’s two or three films back-to-back.  And to actually be able to just end on a cliffhanger and think, ‘Well, I do know what happens in the film.’  [Laughs]  And you will see that in a year’s time.  I would have been, what, about 17 or 18 years old, and rememberThe Empire Strikes Back had a big cliffhanger ending, and it was like three years before the next one came out.  I mean, we’re being pretty generous with one year.  [Laughs]

QUESTION:  Benedict, what do you like about working with Martin Freeman?

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH:  Martin is very smart.  He’s really good company.  He’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever met and he’s a craftsman.  He works incredibly hard and creates authentic characters and moments and drama and he’s an inspiration to work opposite.  And I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Martin.

PETER JACKSON:  The one thing about Martin that I think is amazing as a director is that he gives you choices.  He’s just exploring the whole time.  He’s not saying, ‘Okay, I think that one was perfect.  I don’t need to go any more than that.’  On the next take, he’s coming up with a different approach to it, and sometimes a radically different approach.  Martin, playing the younger Bilbo, coincidentally is exactly the same style actor as Ian Holm.

QUESTION:  Evangeline, as a Tolkien fan, have you found that his work has inspired your writing that you’ve been working on, and has your experience working on books of your own informed your acting in a significant way, and particularly in this role?

EVANGELINE LILLY:  I think Tolkien definitely inspires me as a writer and inspired me probably towards writing, because a good story impacts your life, and I think somewhere deep down inside, one of the great motivations to write is to have an impact and to say something.  And then, recently, I’ve been doing a lot more studying of writing.  Much like acting, I’m not formally trained in writing, and writing, I think, is a bit more of a structured, specific craft.

So, I have been doing my homework.  I’ve been studying.  And as I study and learn about story structure and about what it takes to develop a story that will have an impact, that will resonate with an audience, the more it starts to impact my choices as an actress.

Before I would read a script and instinctively know if I wanted to do the job, if that story was resonating and might feel impactful or say something to the world.  Now I’m able to sort of make a cerebral choice.  I can actually break it down and say, ‘Well what’s missing is X, Y and zed, and if only they had added these six elements, then the script would have come to a place where I would be willing to do it.’  We all know by gut instinct because we’ve been telling stories since the beginning of time, and we all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t; I’m now starting to intellectually understand that.

hobbitdesolationofsmaug3

Q&A With Joe Letteri (Senior Visual Effects Supervisor)

QUESTION:  Can you talk about the scope of the visual effects in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”?  Was your approach different in any ways from the first film?

JOE LETTERI:  The approach was slightly different because in the first film, we were focused on introducing a lot of the characters: Gollum, the Goblin King, introducing Azog as the villain of the piece.  Plus we had to figure out how to do digital versions of the Dwarves.  We also had a couple of big environment pieces, such as inside the Goblin caverns and so forth.

On the second film, it was more about a couple of the big action set pieces, especially the barrel chase down the sluice, and the scene between Bilbo and Smaug at the end of the film.  It’s a one-on-one dialogue scene similar to what we had with Gollum on the first film, but there’s also a big action scene as well.  Those two scenes and the Spiders in Mirkwood were the three set pieces that we were looking forward to when we started our work.

QUESTION:  How did the sequence with the Spiders come together, and what were the challenges you faced in bringing it to life?

JOE LETTERI:  The Spiders were really Interesting because we were trying play with them spatially. Everything that happens with them takes place up in the canopy of the forest, in the treetops. That was Peter [Jackson]’s idea.  These Spiders are moving from branch to branch, from limb to limb, using webs to travel through the trees, and we could really play with the three dimensionality of it because everything is happening through space.

That makes it really tricky to figure out the motion, because you’re starting with nothing, in a way.  So we’d choreograph the Spiders in space to get the action we wanted towards camera, and then figure out how to move trees, branches, limbs and webs around to be where their feet connected to get the proper action.

QUESTION:  Were you also integrating live action shots of actors against a green screen?

JOE LETTERI:  Exactly.  A lot of live action on green screen, and some digital double-shots, such as when we have to move characters like Bilbo through the canopy as well.

QUESTION:  What was your process for creating the barrel chase, considering all the different shooting locations, practical and digital elements, and given that the entire sequence takes place on water?

JOE LETTERI:  There were some waterways and rapids here in New Zealand that we immediately thought we could use not only reference, but as shooting locations.  Then we had to work out the logistics of putting people in barrels for the close-up shots.  For the more dangerous rapids, how do you weigh down the barrels and get them to move correctly so that we can put the Dwarves in later digitally?  How do you build a waterway for the close-up shots that’s going to tie all this in together?

The way we started is by picking a couple of the locations that we knew would be good for the live action waterways.  We got geographic data for those and built them digitally in small pieces.  We started prevising [previsualization] the whole scene and laying out what the action needed to be from the escape from the cellars all the way down to the lake, and coming up with gags and things that might be happening along the way.  Then we put all those pieces together.

We figured out how much of the river sequence we could use from the live action photography, and then, for anything that we couldn’t get, we started to build geometry digitally to fit into that. We took bits of what the riverbed would look like, as if it were real, and tried to lay it into sections where the action needed to be.  It’s an ongoing process because as the animation gets refined and the action changes, we’re constantly having to go in and reconfigure the waterway and rebuild all of it.

Technically, what’s really hard about the sequence is the water simulations.  We’re dealing with tons and tons of water that we’re pushing down these rapids and floating barrels through it, so you have a lot of animation on top of the water, and it has to all work in the right way.

QUESTION:  How much of the finished sequence will be digital versus live action?

JOE LETTERI:  Pretty much all the shots are visual effects.  Even if there’s live action, we have to extend the background or change it a little bit so it fits in with the Elf kingdom–adding trees to the riverbanks and so forth–so that all these different locations that we used feel like it’s connected.

I don’t think there are any shots in that sequence that we didn’t touch, but as with all these sequences, there’s a variation. Some of the shots involved just putting a couple of characters in barrels, because on the rapids, things are happening really fast.  In other shots, we’re moving characters in the foreground. Then there are shots where we’re creating everything that you see in the frame.

QUESTION:  Moving onto Smaug, how long does something like that take, and what are the challenges of bringing this Dragon to life?

JOE LETTERI:  The biggest challenge was his dialogue, coming up with a good characterization for the way he speaks.  We had that in mind when we designed him for the first film, but we hadn’t done any dialogue tests at that point.  We just needed him for that last shot where his eye gets revealed.

The first thing we did was animation tests with some of Benedict Cumberbatch’s lines to make sure that the design we had for Smaug would still hold up when he was speaking.  You wanted the shape of a Dragon head, but in its own unique design.  So, he needed to look like a Dragon, but he also needed to talk and to talk with personality.

That was the main thing we were after.  How do you get that sense of his personality through his dialogue?  Because most of it is in his face.  With many characters, their body language gives away a lot of what they’re doing.  But not with him.  His body is so big that a lot of it is just in his face, head and neck.  So we spent a lot of time just trying to refine his personality.

QUESTION:  Did Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance provide you with some inspiration in that effort to bring personality into Smaug’s face?

JOE LETTERI:  A bit, yes.  We did a test early on with his original dialogue where we had him on the motion capture stage having free rein to perform the character physically.  We looked at what he was doing and it gave us some ideas.  But he is a fully animated character, not mo-cap.

All of his dialogue was ultimately re-recorded, and he was in a booth for that.  Of course we looked at that as well and took some clues from it, but mostly it was in the delivery itself.  Then we took our own cues as to what to do to make him work as a Dragon.

QUESTION:  How did you work with the designers to create Smaug’s physical appearance?

JOE LETTERI:  We have an understanding of what the Dragon is supposed to look like, such as what kind of skin he’s supposed to have, but we really have to break it down even more than at the sculptural or the design stage.  We have to get very specific about details like the size of the scales around the eyes and how they blend into the skin and the eyelids, because if he’s got to blink or squint his eyes, the size of the scales have to be such that they will support the level of animation that we need.  You might see in the design that he’s got these great big scales and they look cool and scary, but then you realize that area needs to be more flexible than would have been allowed for.  So we have to go back and redesign it.

We’re always making those kinds of changes with performance in mind.  That’s always the main thing.  Can he perform what we need him to perform?  Then we try to take all the other ideas and fit them in so that they work within the constraints of the performance.

For example, one of the big things that Peter wanted was to show that Smaug is old.  He’s been in Erebor for a long time.  When you see him up close, he is really battle-scarred.  We don’t know where that’s come from–battles with other Dragons or in his attacks.  That’s all lost in history, but you need to see that in his face.  So we gave him lots of detail to evoke his history.

QUESTION:  What is it like collaborating with Peter?  How does he inspire you, and what level of trust do you have in each other after working together for such a long time?

JOE LETTERI:  The great thing about Peter is he is always full of ideas, but he still leaves room for everyone else to try and show him new things.  He’s always willing to be amazed if you can show him something better than what he was originally thinking.

He’s not proprietary about things in that way.  It’s a really great way to work, because you know you’ve got what you need.  He tells you, ‘This will work.’  So you’ve got a starting point, and we can all get on the same page with it, but if, in the course of doing that, you think, ‘Maybe if we did this it would look even cooler,’ he’s completely open to working with those ideas.

For example, he’ll give us the sequence for the cut and there’ll be a lot of gaps in it.  We’ll take a pass the first time around and put in the effects and the animation before we even talk to him about it, because we have a pretty good idea of what we think is going to work in the style of what we need for the characters and for the story.  It allows us all to jump into the story that much faster.

QUESTION:  Can you talk about the process of creating the characters of the skin-changer Beorn, and the Orcs Azog and Bolg?

JOE LETTERI:  Beorn exists in two forms: his human form and his bear form.  The idea there was to take the design of his human form, some of the styling that was done in his facial hair and his eyes, and try to carry that through into his bear form so that you understand that it’s the same character.

We started off with a real bear just for simplicity’s sake, but immediately started putting some of Beorn’s human features into the face and altering it so that it didn’t look like a bear.  We wanted to give him a little bit more of a mythical animal look, and show the age, fight and determination in him, because he’s the last of the skin-changers.  He’s the last of his kind.  So a lot of effort went into translating the personality and the look between the human and the bear.

With Azog, we had introduced him in the first film, so he didn’t actually undergo a whole lot of changes.  We’ve done a little bit of refinement to the skin quality and texture because in the first film, we saw him mostly at night, and we knew that in this film we’d see him in some daylight shots.  So we spent a little time with him.

Bolg is the new one.  He’s got a pretty unique design.  He’s Azog’s son, so we started off trying to make him look a little bit like Azog, to give him a family resemblance.  But Peter really wanted him to be this kind of freakish warrior.  He is so battle-scarred that the armor is basically pounded into his skin.  You see bits of his helmet have become straps nailed into his skull, and his body armor has just been embedded in his skin.  It was a lot of conceptualizing to try to figure out how to make that work believably, especially the body armor.  It has to look like it can take a blow, but still give him the freedom of movement that he needs, because he’s pretty physical.  He’s fighting all the time.  It was a pretty unique character design.

QUESTION: Do you have a favorite sequence, character or element that you created for this movie that you’re particularly proud of or that you especially enjoyed working on?

JOE LETTERI:  It’s hard to narrow it down.  The work that the water simulation team is doing is pretty outstanding.  Like I said, that level of richness, detail and accuracy is really nice to see.  But from a movie point of view, watching a character like Smaug, because of his personality and his dynamics, is always a lot of fun.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug opens worldwide 13 December 2013

By Andrew Germishuys

Founder of SAMDB, Andrew has worked full time in the film industry since the early 2000's. He has trained as an actor, completing his LAMDA Gold Medal, and attending many courses in Cape Town acting studios, with masterclasses with some of the international industries top directors, producers and filmmakers. Working as an actor and armourer in the film and television industry have given Andrew a great balance of skills across the board when it comes to the entertainment industry. Catch him on Twitter: twitter.com/andrewgerm_za Instagram: instagram.com/andrewgerm_za IMDb: www.imdb.com/name/nm5390453/

Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: