The visual effects secrets of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

We talk to VFX supervisor Joe Letteri about bringing Gollum, Smaug and goblins to life for Peter Jackson's return to Middle-Earth

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey sees director Peter Jackson return to Middle-Earth, a decade on from shooting the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This time around, he's brought with him an arsenal of new film-making technology to realise the dwarves, goblins and dragons that populate JRR Tolkien's fantasy land – 48fps High Frame Rate cameras, new performance capture technology and motion-controlled 3D camera rigs.

Using all this tech to conjure up the world of Middle-Earth is VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, whose resume spans everything from Jurassic Park to Avatar. Stuff sat down with him to discuss his return to Tolkien's world, how shooting in 3D presented its own Hobbit-specific challenges – and how he's bringing Smaug the dragon to life for the second instalment in the trilogy.

A new perspective

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Ten years on from Lord of the Rings, there have been huge advances in visual effects technology. What was the highlight of returning to Middle-Earth armed with all this new kit?

We really wanted to cut loose and do things better than we could have done before – with Gollum, especially, we were looking forward to being able to do the motion capture on-set with Andy Serkis. That was our goal ever since we did The Lord of the Rings. Even before we knew that we were going to do motion capture as a technique, we thought, "Isn't that the ideal way to do it?" So it was great to finally be able to do that on The Hobbit with the new rig – and with the 48fps. That's the one area that creatively really helped us, because we can get much finer animation detail.

The Lord of the Rings was famous for its use of forced perspective shots – but that doesn't work when you're shooting in 3D. How did you get around that problem?

We actually had to shoot with two cameras instead of one – and we had to keep both cameras moving in sync. So one camera was the master and one was the slave; the slave camera would be scaled according to the perspective change required.

For example, when we're following Gandalf through Bag End, he's actually on a greenscreen stage that's separate from the Bag End stage where the dwarves are; everything is scaled by 30 per cent. Peter and the camera operators see a real-time composite in their monitors, so that they can follow the action and put the two together. They've got earpieces in so that Ian McKellen can hear all the dwarves and vice versa, and they can all hear Peter's direction.

Through Peter's direction and the dialogue, everyone's working off each other's cues and rehearsing it so that it all weaves together. We were actually able to shoot that in four takes – the rehearsals went really well – but it still took us a year to put that shot together afterwards!

More after the break...

Here be dragons

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What about shooting in 48fps HFR – what challenges did that present?

It means twice as much work overall in terms of rendering! But creatively it didn't offer challenges so much as it offered opportunities, especially with animation. I think you really see that with Gollum, where you've got fast dialogue and fast, fleeting facial expressions – you can capture a lot more of the subtlety at 48fps than you can at 24fps.

Most performance capture work has been used to realise humanoid characters like Gollum and King Kong – but for the next film you'll be using performance capture to create the decidedly non-humanoid Smaug the dragon. How does that work, exactly?

What we're doing with a character like Smaug is to really interpret the gestures as opposed to looking for the literal performance. So it's halfway between an animated character and a performance capture.

Really, we could've done Smaug in the traditional way – just ask Benedict Cumberbatch to come into a voice booth and record his dialogue, and do everything entirely with keyframe animation. But when we record what Benedict's body is doing, it frees him up to give us some idea of the physicality and intimate the poses, so that what he's got on his mind can come through in how he's performing it – and we'll take that and extend it into what we do with the dragon.

Never look back

Having returned to the world of Middle-Earth for The Hobbit, are you tempted to revisit the earlier films and tweak the stuff that doesn't match up, like Gollum in The Fellowship of the Ring?

I don't think so – it's not something that Peter's ever indicated that he was interested in doing, and for my mind I'm happy to just have the film be finished as a film. We were lucky to be able to come back and do Gollum now with what we know ten years later – we have the best of both worlds, we can do that in new scenes. But even if that hadn't been the case, I'm inclined to say a film exists in and of its time – and if you want to see something new, go and make a new film.

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