The Hobbit’s Smaug is “the grand-daddy” of dragons

Weta’s Daniel Falconer talks Smaug and why Peter Jackson “gets what epic means”

Smaug-the-DragonThe Hobbit: There And Back Again is just a few short months away, which means we don’t have too long to wait before we see the terrible glory of Smaug back on the big screen.

SciFiNow spoke to Daniel Falconer, Weta Workshop designer and author of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon about the process of creating “the grand-daddy” of fantasy dragons, what exactly Benedict Cumberbatch brought to the role, and why Peter Jackson understands exactly what is required from a fantasy epic.

Dragons seem to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days; what sets Smaug apart?

I think Smaug is special because, at least as far as western dragons go, he really is the archetype upon which all modern fantasy dragons are based. It was something everyone at Weta was very mindful of when the first forays into designing him were being made. He had a lot to live up to.  There have been many great dragons on our screens over the years, but I personally always felt that many of them owed a lot to what Tolkien imbued in Smaug.  Those qualities have influenced the evolution of most western dragons since. Smaug is an object of awe and dread. He is ruthless and cruel, cunning and proud, avaricious and predatory, but his power and savage beauty are also attractive.

I think we are drawn to Dragons because throughout our histories and fantasies we have tended to ascribe great power to them.  Something actor Benedict Cumberbatch said when I interviewed him for the book really struck a chord with me when he observed that Smaug’s allure is actually seductive. The sheer power and superiority he exudes over everything else in his world is seductive, but it is also corrupting. So, I think part of Smaug’s specialness and why we were all so looking forward to seeing him on the big screen has to do with several decades’ worth of build-up. We have seen so many wonderful dragons, but this guy is the grand-daddy of western fantasy wyrms.

What were the pressures of bringing such a popular creature to life?

With great expectation comes great pressure. If there was one common factor I found in talking to everyone associated with creating Smaug for the screen, it was an eagerness to live up to the vision conjured by Tolkien’s characterization. This dragon had to be truly jaw-dropping in every way.

That was the artistic pressure at work, the striving for excellence that,  on a project involving hundreds of people, is infectious and has a way of yielding something greater than the sum of its parts. But there was also the technical pressure. I’m a writer and designer, so I’m no expert when it comes to technology of special effects, but I learned a lot as I was researching and writing this book, talking to my colleagues at Weta Digital, Weta Workshop and Park Road Post.

Peter Jackson imagined Smaug on a truly colossal scale. If he were a living, physical being he could waddle out to the airport and stretch out his wings to shade a 747 jumbo-jet under each one with room to spare, but the camera also had to be able to get very close to him, zooming in on his bus-sized head or just his eye and still read detail and complexity. That meant sculpting and painting in all that minute detail that makes a digital creature feel real, down to the last tiny scale, on something with a vast surface area. Every scale was created by hand. How much would be texture mapped and how much would be sculpted into the model itself? Was it even possible in the limited time frame of movie production? And would such an information-heavy model be unwieldy to animate and render?

These were the kind of technical challenges that smarter people that I had to answer, but it was great fun hearing their stories and sharing them in the book. Hopefully it will give the reader an even greater appreciation for what was achieved on screen.

One of the big questions before the film’s release was “Just how big is Smaug going to be?” What was the process of deciding how giant a giant dragon would be?

In order to be imposing enough, Smaug had to be a certain size, so I think we were all imaging a very large creature, but I am not sure any of us quite imagined him as vast as Peter Jackson and I know I was a little shocked when he started talking about making the dragon so huge. But then that’s part of Peter’s genius as a director and filmmaker, I think. He truly gets what epic means and is very good at using it to great effect in his films. I just loved the reveal we had in the film when Bilbo witnessed Smaug’s head rising out of the gold over here, while seemingly half a mile away over there some other part of the Dragon was stirring as well, and there is that quaiver in Martin Freeman’s delivery when he says, ‘Truly, oh Smaug, the tales fall utterly short…’ Bilbo is flattering him, playing to his pride, but he’s also genuinely blown away, as anyone in that situation would be!

The question then became, how big can Smaug be before he doesn’t work in a given shot. Again, peter being very visual, had a firm idea of how he wanted to shoot Smaug and Bilbo, so in the end the question of scale was driven entirely by the director’s vision.

smaug2
Just how much of Benedict Cumberbatch is in Smaug?

As I learned doing the interviews for the book, performance capture was a fabulous tool through which Benedict could create not just the voice of Smaug, but also create an entire body performance, like a kind of extremely minimalist one-man stage show! Initially trepidatious about it, he said he ultimately found the experience very freeing. The entire motion-capture stage performance was captured and recorded for reference purposes and then the animators rolled up their sleeves and got to work, taking cues from what Benedict had done as well as applying their own exceptional talents and experience to create a very polished and dynamic performance in the final creature.

Obviously there are certain physical limitations to what a person can do in terms of approximating a reptilian style of movement, so while Benedict could pose magnificently, sometimes doing so might affect his vocal delivery simply because humans have a different physiology. For that reason he provided both movement and also straight dialogue with facial capture sessions, but in the end the animators also had to look beyond Benedict and apply what could be learned from observing crocodiles, bats, eagles, snakes, komodo dragons and other animals from which Dragons like Smaug have borrowed anatomical features. They choreographed a rich, character-filled and nuanced animated characterization that I think felt very believable and real by combining inspiration gleaned from many sources.

Does the casting of an actor make any difference on the design itself, or is it purely the vocal and facial performance?

Smaug’s design had begun long before casting was confirmed, and given how inhuman the character is, I am not sure that Benedict’s physicality or features influenced the design as much as Andy Serkis’s affected the look of Gollum, for example, who was redesigned to look more like him after the first of The Lord of the Rings movies was released. Fortunately in Gollum’s case the audience gained only the briefest and dimmest glimpse of the creature prior to the redesign, so most would never notice the difference, and the new version was a definite improvement.

What is the hardest part of bringing personality to a monster?

Benedict speaks in our book about what measure of humanity he brought to the role of Smaug and of how aware he was of striking a balance between making him dimensional and believable, while not humanizing him too much. Smaug is a monster, after all. He is a cruel, evil creature, and he operates on scale of mass destruction and terror that we mere mortals could never match before the advent of modern weapons, but despite all this, he also has very basic human weaknesses. He is subject to flattery and in his pride and self-assuredness he elects not to destroy Bilbo at once, which he could have done, easily, but instead chooses to play with him like a cat with a mouse, and mentally dissect him. In so doing he completely underestimates the hobbit and makes himself vulnerable to manipulation and defeat, because while he couldn’t hope to match him strength for strength, Bilbo turns out to be a closer match for Smaug in wits.

smaug1You’ve worked on several projects with Weta, but is there something special about working on a Peter Jackson movie?

I count myself very fortunate to work at Weta Workshop and to have been part of so many of what I would consider legacy projects, the kind that aren’t forgotten about a week after they hit cinemas. It is a tremendous honour to be part of such a great team of creative minds and contribute in some small way to the collective vision this fellowship of artists produces together. It is an even greater honour to also now be entrusted with recording and sharing their behind the scenes stories in the Hobbit Chronicles books that I have been compiling and writing. Peter makes such visually rich movies that there is a near endless supply of imagery and material to share with those who want to go deeper. We are now four books into our Chronicles series and there’s no shortage of material.  We’re at no risk of padding out the content. Quite the reverse, in fact, I wish we had more pages to jam in more stuff!

Smaug aside, do you have a favourite creature from Middle Earth?

I am a total Smaug nerd, I am not ashamed to confess. I can’t wait to pick up the toy when it comes out, but I think one of my favourite Middle-earth creatures has always been Treebeard. There’s something so cool about a giant walking, talking tree-man, which teeters on the edge of preposterous and yet somehow works. I was thrilled to have been involved in helping craft his appearance for The Lord of the Rings and was so pleased with how he turned out. Maybe it’s the Jim Henson fan in me, as Treebeard and the Ents are probably the most Muppety of characters in the films, and I mean that only in a good way, but there is also the symbology of the forest rising up to reclaim itself from industrial forces that tickles me and my idealistic eco sensibilities. I’m an Ent fan.

The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug is available on 3D, Blu-ray and DVD from 7th April. Daniel Falconer, designer at Weta Workshop and author of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon, a companion book to The Hobbit Chronicles series