Holiday Movie Guide

Creating The Hobbit

TFK talks to the visual effects expert behind The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 14, 2012
COURTESY WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT, INC.

Bilbo Baggins (played by Martin Freeman) leaves home for an adventure in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in theaters December 14

Before he wrote the Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the fantasy children’s book The Hobbit. The well-loved tale finally hits the big screen on December 14 in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three films based on the book (Rated PG-13). Martin Freeman stars as Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who leads a quiet life until he joins a wizard and 13 dwarves on a quest to reclaim their home from a dragon. "Bilbo finds things within himself—bravery, ability—that he didn't know he had," says Freeman.

Thanks to visual effects, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appears much taller than the hobbit Bilbo in a scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

COURTESY WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT, INC.
With the help of visual effects, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) appears much taller than the hobbit Bilbo in a scene from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Along the way, Bilbo also finds an unusual gold ring—and meets the cave-dwelling creature Gollum (Andy Serkis), with whom Bilbo plays a game of riddles to win his way out of the cave. “It’s one of the most iconic scenes of the story,” Freeman says. “It’s one of the most enjoyable scenes in the film.” It’s also one of the most technologically advanced scenes in the movie. To find out more, TFK spoke to visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who has won Academy Awards for his work on Avatar, King Kong and The Lord of the Rings films. He spilled some of The Hobbit’s filmmaking tricks to TFK.

TFK:

What does the visual effects supervisor do, and what are you responsible for, in a movie like The Hobbit?

LETTERI:

In a movie like The Hobbit, what I have to do is create anything that doesn’t exist in the real world. So if you can’t make an actor do it or build a set or find a location, if it needs to just be completely virtual, then it’s up to me to create it.

TFK:

One of the first scenes filmed for the movie was Bilbo’s scene with Gollum, who first appeared in The Lord of the Rings films. How have the changes in technology since those movies came out 10 years ago helped improve the look of the character?

LETTERI:

When we started doing Gollum on Lord of the Rings with Andy [Serkis], people looked at animated characters almost like a cartoon, so the idea was he would only record his voice, and you would go in and animate Gollum similar to the way cartoons have been animated. But we came up with the idea of trying to use motion capture, which was still very experimental in those days. We wanted to see if we could record Andy’s motion [to capture] the body language that goes along with the performance, because that’s really a part of how we relate to each other. That’s why your mom is always telling you to stand up straight because that actually does affect how people perceive you. So we took that idea and made it work on Gollum. So 10 years later, we have been working on [motion capture technology] with different characters, like King Kong or Tin-Tin, and we thought that if we could really do this right, it would be great to just record Andy’s movements right on set, right as he’s performing. So it’s Gollum and Bilbo and what you see is exactly what Andy’s performing and what Peter [Jackson] is directing. So that was the big breakthrough for us on this film.

TFK:

One of the other things you deal with is perspective, like making Gandalf seem much taller than the dwarves. That was handled a little differently for this movie, right?

Academy Award-winning visual effects expert Joe Letteri at his office in New Zealand, where The Hobbit was filmed.

NICK PERRY—AP
Academy Award-winning visual effects expert Joe Letteri at his office in New Zealand, where The Hobbit trilogy is being filmed.

LETTERI:

It was because [we shot in stereo]. If you’re not shooting in stereo, you can use perspective tricks, like if you stand in front of the Statue of Liberty and make it look like it’s standing in your hand [for a photo]. We have to do that with every frame to make a trick like that work. When you have two cameras side-by-side shooting in stereo, it works for one but not the other, so you can’t do it that way anymore. So what we have to do is have one camera control the other one, so it’s almost like a robotic arm that the second camera is on. One camera makes it move so that it maintains the proper perspective for all the elements.

TFK:

What was your favorite new character to work on in The Hobbit?

LETTERI:

I like the goblin king just because he was so disgusting, and it’s always fun to make disgusting characters. But I also liked [the orc] Azog just because he’s a very powerful, compelling character and he had a really good performance as [the dwarf king] Thorin’s nemesis.

TFK:

One of my favorite parts was the scene with the giant eagles, which looked so real on a massive scale. What kind of research of real animals goes into creating something like that?

LETTERI:

We studied eagles, a lot of reference photography of eagles and any other raptor-like birds that we could find. We wanted them to look really majestic, but the scale is the trick there, to make them look like real eagles. You know how big their feathers are relative to their wings, bodies and neck, so when you are seeing them flying, they look like real eagles, but big. But when you see them up close—when you see the dwarves or Bilbo riding on their backs—the feathers would be way too big, bigger than Bilbo’s body, so there is a balancing act to come up with a design.

TFK:

What was the most complex scene to create in The Unexpected Journey?

LETTERI:

That would be the goblin cavern because there’s no ground plane. Normally you have a bit of ground and some sky, or you have some architecture but there’s a floor there. But here, there’s just all this scaffolding and walkways going through space and they would go up and down and over each other and across, so everything was just kind of out in space, very three-dimensional. And then on top of that, we had to populate it with thousands of goblins, who are just running and crawling all over the place and chasing the dwarves throughout the whole thing, so it was a fairly complex scene. It took over a year to do that.

Gandalf and the elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in a scene from The Unexpected Journey.

COURTESY WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT, INC.
Gandalf and the elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in a scene from The Unexpected Journey.

TFK:

The Hobbit will be in three parts, so your work isn’t done. What is it about Tolkien’s stories that drive you to work several years and countless hours on these films?

LETTERI:

There are two things. There’s the fantasy aspect of it. He was one of the first authors to really put down in story form for a modern audience like us a lot of the old myths and legends: orcs and goblins and dwarves and wizards and trolls and elves. Those are just fantastic creatures and fantastic worlds to revisit, and he’s put it all together for us in this one world of Middle-earth. Basically, it’s just a feast to go in and work with that.

Then, on top of it, there are some really compelling characters that I think really get brought out in the films. I think this is one of the things that [director] Peter Jackson is so excellent at. He can tell this big, vast, complicated story where you are traveling on this journey all through Middle-earth, but it still comes down to something very simple and something we all know, which is about a hobbit, who has never left his home and has always been afraid of what’s out there in the big world, deciding to give it a try. He does it to help these dwarves who don’t have a home. So the one thing he’s always had is the one thing they’ve never had, and they are both trying to help each other find the missing piece, and that’s really what friendship is.

TFK:

Why should kids go see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey?

LETTERI:

It is a journey through an amazing landscape populated by really unique characters. There’s something there for everyone and, in the end, it is a heroic tale and that’s something that’s always worth watching.


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