It’s a widely accepted opinion that “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” improved upon the first installment, and that had a little something to do Smaug, the legendary dragon brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch and the effects team at Weta Workshop.
As “The Desolation of Smaug” heads into its second weekend in theaters — and perhaps as people go to see it for the second time — we’re still marveling at how Smaug lived up to expectations. That’s why we wanted to get on the phone with Joe Letteri, senior visual effects supervisor for “The Hobbit” movies, to find out how the big-screen Smaug came to be and share some things you may not know about the great and powerful dragon.
Smaug Wasn’t Just Another CG Character
The creatures of “The Lord of the Rings” and Gollum in particular as largely credited as being huge steps toward for computer-animated characters, and for good reason. Weta is particularly good at the process at this point, having created many of the most celebrated CG creatures like Caesar from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the Na’vi from “Avatar,” but all of those creations, no matter how alien, all had human-like arms and legs. A dragon would be more difficult.
“We have created a lot of CGI characters before, and they have tended to be by and large human-type characters, like Gollum or Azog or the Goblin King in the first ‘Hobbit,’” Letteri said. “With Smaug, we had to create a character that was a dragon, so the first thing that we had to look at was his size and how you take a character that’s that enormous — he’s twice as long and twice as wide as a 747. He’s still needs to have this moments with Bilbo that are dialogue scenes because we were trying to create a character not a monster.”
Smaug Lost Two Legs
And it’s because of Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s widely known that the “Sherlock” actor performed motion capture for Smaug in addition to voicing the character, but the way Cumberbatch moved as the legendary dragon made Weta rethink his design.
“Originally, the dragon we envisioned was bigger. The idea was to get the fear through his bulk. In fact, if you go back and look at the first film and the scenes that he was in, he was actually a four-legged dragon because we just had him stomping through Erebor in all of those flashback scenes,” Letteri said. “But we realized that once you saw him performing — we especially got this from watching Benedict perform. He got down on the grown and starting slithering around like the way Tolkien described Smaug in the books, which is as a big worm. Once we saw Benedict doing all of that, we realized you can’t have him be this four-legged creature with wings on him back, he needs to be two legs and his wings need to be his arms properly, as you would expect a creature to be like a bat or a bird.”
Smaug Has Something In Common With Gollum
Gollum was appeared more menacing while hiding in the shadows during “The Fellowship of the Ring” than he did in “The Two Towers,” when he took on more of a human look. The transformation of Gollum happened for reasons similar to why Smaug changed.
“Like Gollum in ‘Fellowship of the Ring,’ you were just getting a glimpse of him. You wanted this scary-looking figure. The design telegraphed that,” Letteri said. “That’s what Smaug was in ‘The Hobbit.’ He was meant to be big. He was frightening. He was scary. But once he needed to perform, we really had to reconceptualize the design to make sure that the performance was the key driving factor in how he looked.”
He Breathes A ‘Fuel-Based’ Fire
In “The Desolation of Smaug,” the dragon breaths fire in a way that is unlike what we see in traditional versions of the monster. Smaug’s flame builds up inside him before shooting out at a pack of thieving dwarves. This, like every detail about Smaug, was carefully planned by Weta. The effects company even imagined an anatomy for Smaug that explained how he did it.
“Rather than just pushing fire out, we had this idea that it was almost like a fuel-based fire. What he actually does, there’s this organ in his throat that actually throws the fuel out, and that’s what gets ignited,” Letteri said. “Once we had that working, we knew that we could get the volume of fire that we wanted. Then we wanted something that said, ‘Well, this volume of fire, you can’t just turned it on and off instantly. There needs to be a precursor. There needs to be a lighting to it.’ ”
Smaug Is A Mixed Breed
While Smaug doesn’t look that different from dragons that we’ve seen in many different stories in all sorts of media, there is still something distinctive about him. That’s because Letteri and the team at Weta wanted to pull inspiration from many sources, ranging from mythology to biology.
“[Smaug] is sort of a mix of the classic European dragon, which is a little bit larger and bulkier, and the Asian dragon, which is longer and leaner,” Letteri said. “Then we went to specific animal references for details like bats for how his wings are structured and how they would fold and alligators for some of the strength and head, especially around the eyes, and other kinds of lizards for scale detail because he was so big that we needed a mix of details all throughout his body and especially in his face.”
“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is in theaters now.