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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

The Dragon in the Mountain
In spite of the forces gathering against them, Bilbo and the Dwarves trek the Lonely Mountain to arrive at the hidden door to Erebor in the waning moments of Durin's Day. And true to the instructions on the secret map, Thorin is able to open it using his father's key. Boyens feels Armitage brought a "beautiful simplicity" to his performance in this sequence. She reflects, "It should be this moment of triumph for Thorin, and instead it is a moment of quiet emotion: 'I'm home, and I remember.'"

"When the door opens and Thorin first breathes in the air trapped within this sealed mountain, his childhood, the Kingdom of Erebor, all of it comes back," Armitage attests. "It's a great moment for Thorin, and I felt his joy. But in that stale air is the scent of the Dragon, Smaug, who decimated his people, the smell of burnt stone, and the memories of those who perished there; it's the smell of death."

A dangerous sentinel may watch over the Dwarven treasure still, threatening to rain fire and destruction on any soul brave enough or crazy enough to attempt to claim it. This virtual suicide mission is what Bilbo has been brought on this Quest to do. "In this movie, we come to understand why they need a burglar because it's really about what they want him to steal," Jackson notes. "It's the Arkenstone--a mystic rock the Dwarves uncovered deep inside the Lonely Mountain. The Arkenstone doesn't have any real power, but it is of particular importance to Thorin."

"The Dwarves know how dangerous Bilbo's job is going to be, with the Dragon very likely still alive," says Ken Stott, who play Balin. "To Balin's mind, there would be no shame in turning back, but Bilbo goes through with it because he promised he would, and that takes a very special kind of courage."

Venturing down into the chambers of Erebor, Bilbo discovers that within mountains of gold and treasure, a Dragon sleeps still. "One thing that defines Smaug from other Dragons, apart from his size, is this personality that Tolkien created," Jackson says. "He's not just a Dragon who can talk and wants to eat people, he is psychotic and very, very intelligent."

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the iconic role of Smaug the Terrible. Even at his audition, the filmmakers were stunned by the clarity of the actor's embodiment of the Dragon. "In the book, Tolkien created a magnificent dramatization of the character," Walsh says. "He's archetypal, a beautiful character to be given to adapt in a screenplay, and then to have Benedict do such extraordinary things with his voice, we knew we had found our Smaug. He knew absolutely who Smaug was and how to play him, and it totally matched our vision of the character."

The British actor has vivid memories of the creature from when his father read The Hobbit to him as a child. "My dad is an extraordinary actor, so he brought to life for me this already extraordinary world of Hobbits and Dragons," Cumberbatch remembers. "It was a very rich way to be introduced to such an incredible book. So, when you can go home and say to your dad, 'I'm playing Smaug, and I've got you to thank for it,' it's a very satisfying day in an actor's life. He played Smaug as this amazing gravelly, growling creature, so I basically ripped off my dad for my performance," he adds with a smile.

Freeman was happy to have his friend and co-star on the acclaimed BBC series "Sherlock" playing his nemesis in the film. "We both auditioned around the same time in London while were shooting the first series of 'Sherlock,'" Freeman recalls. "He was delighted to do it, and I thought it would be wonderful. Ben's a really good actor. He's brilliant physically, and fantastic vocally as well."

Dialect coach McPherson worked with Cumberbatch to perfect his vocal performance and was impressed with the actor's commitment. "He would physically explore every moment, and work with the different qualities of sound until he found exactly who Smaug was at that moment," McPherson says. "That was an extraordinary creative process to witness. I know Smaug causes a lot of terror and heartbreak, but he has brought me nothing but pleasure."

The physical manifestation of Smaug is being brought to life by the artists at Weta Digital, but it was all hands on deck among the film's conceptual artists, as well as designers at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital. "There is a huge amount of anticipation for this character, which is a double-edged sword because if we don't deliver on Smaug, we're in big trouble," Jackson admits. "I certainly didn't go into the meetings with a vision of him in my mind. The only thing I knew from the very beginning is that I wanted him to be huge--way bigger than you would ever imagine-- because in addition to his intelligence and cunning, I wanted his size alone to be terrifying for this little Hobbit."

Jackson and his team established a sense of Smaug's sheer size in the first film, for which the director's mandate was for his head to be "the size of a bus." This mere glimpse of the creature set the standard for when he comes center stage in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." "We have a lot of incredible artists that worked on Smaug, and you want to give parameters but also a certain degree of freedom to just go for it," Jackson notes. "That's what I love, because it gives me a chance to then look at many different designs and start to piece the character together."

Renowned Tolkien illustrator John Howe has spent the last few decades illustrating the characters of Middle-earth but let his imagination run wild in his initial designs. "Tolkien doesn't really tell us much about the Dragon, but then he is the master of evocation rather than exhaustive description," Howe explains. "In a nutshell, we know that Smaug is large, reddish-gold, has wings and breathes fire. It was very exciting to then develop life-like energy into his structure, and then, once those shapes and silhouettes are in place, you can work on the details, like how the claws look up close."

At Weta Digital, the Dragon was built layer by layer, from the shape of his skeleton to the way he moves to the texture of his skin, the latter refined by textures supervisor / creative art director Gino Acevedo, whose department worked on Smaug for over two and a half years. "Because he is such an enormous character, there's a lot of skin to cover," Acevedo notes.

Building a digital Dragon with the awesome physical presence and personality Jackson envisioned required the animators to incorporate not only the design work, but also Cumberbatch's performance. To bring a sense of the Dragon's movement to his vocalizations, the actor recorded his dialogue in full mo-cap gear on a stage, guided by motion capture supervisor Dejan Momcilovic. While the character is not being created through performance capture data, Cumberbatch's sessions provided a reference for the animators.

"Obviously, a Dragon's face is very different from a human face, but we took a lot of Benedict's ideas from his performance and incorporated them into Smaug's personality," Letteri explains. "We also worked with all the design ideas but have to make sure that he can perform the way we need him to perform on screen. That meant breaking it down even further because we had to be very specific about details, such as the size of the scales around his eyes and how they blend into the texture of the skin and the eyelids."

Each of Smaug's scales was digitally hand-painted to better represent imperfections and flaws and reflect his age and history. Letteri notes, "When you see him up close, you need to see in his face that he's covered in scars, whether from battles with other Dragons or from his various attacks."

Smaug reveals himself to Bilbo in all his glory when the Dragon immediately senses that after long, sleepy years, he's no longer alone. "He's a predator," Cumberbatch describes. "His senses are highly attuned, and the minute he has an intruder, he's intrigued. There's an element of game-playing he does with Bilbo, which is beautiful because he's trying to use human logic to draw him out and get information about who he is."

Freeman relished every moment of the encounter between the massive Dragon and the much smaller Hobbit. "Rather like the Gollum and Bilbo stuff in the book, which is lovely, Smaug and Bilbo is pretty legendary stuff as well," Freeman reflects. "It is that battle of wits, though it is less about the wit for Bilbo and more about trying to stay alive. He's not feeling very witty, but he does what he needs to do, at great expense."

Over the course of their game of cat-and-mouse, all of Bilbo's loyalty and newfound courage is put to the test by the psychopathic Smaug. "No matter how smart you are, Smaug is smarter," Jackson reveals. "You can't spin a line on him because he will see through it straight-away. He can be charming on one level, but then you feel the edge beneath the charm. There are moments when he can barely hold in his psychotic rage, which makes him unpredictable and scary. That was the fun and joy of writing this character, and Benedict plays that to the hilt."

Amid his vast empire of gold, Smaug becomes enraged at the thought of losing even a single piece of it. "And that reveals his level of greed," Cumberbatch states. "Smaug is the ultimate symbol of the corruption of power. He's a sleepy serpent on top of his pile of gold. It brings him nothing but a damp, dank retirement, no joy or humor. He's vainglorious and proud of his own power and wealth, but it has essentially ruined him."

For Jackson, this fateful encounter represents a turning point in the story that only heightens his anticipation for the Trilogy's grand finale. "That's the fun of charting a singular journey with these characters, who are tested and must confront so many pressures and influences across three films," Jackson states. "The dynamics of the story are beginning to steer them, not just in terms of what happens to them, but in what it does to them. That ability to shape these characters' paths across three films, and to push the narrative constantly forward through each of them, is the real privilege of making 'The Hobbit' Trilogy."

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