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THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG

Into the Wild: Exploring Uncharted Territory
"I should never have left Bag End, that was my first mistake. We have a little saying in the Shire, we learn it from birth: never venture East!" -- Bilbo Baggins

"The Hobbit" Trilogy was shot concurrently over a 266-day initial block of production, with cast and crew reuniting later in the process for pickup shooting to augment "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." The production would take up all eight acres, including six soundstages, of Stone Street Studios, the production facilities in Miramar, New Zealand. Cast and crew also lit out across both islands of New Zealand to bring to vibrant life the sweeping landscapes through which the Company travels on their final push to Erebor.

"In this movie, we move into new territory in Middle-earth that we, as filmmakers, haven't actually explored before," Jackson comments. "We are dropping into an adventure that is now stepping into unchartered territory, portraying worlds that we haven't dealt with in our filmmaking in the past."

Jackson and his team's dedication to infusing Middle-earth with as much detail, unity and realism as possible bled into every aspect of the massive production, from the earliest designs to the final mix. This mandate demanded absolute harmony between each creative department, with designs evolving in ever decreasing circles of refinement in a chain of events that could take months, even years, to realize.

As with "The Lord of the Rings" Trilogy, one of the earliest starting points is the conceptual design work of renowned Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee, which proved instrumental in forming the many of the characters and the backbone for the visual landscapes of the film. "Peter's very interesting in that he describes what he sees in a similar way that Tolkien does in the book," Howe notes. "He doesn't tell us how things need to look; he tells us what emotions he wants to feel when he's looking at them. He'll say he wants it to feel creepy and eerie or enchanting and inviting. We're getting his response as a spectator, rather than incredibly precise design notes, which is really exciting, because it means that we can bring into it what we feel. It's a really fun process for all of us."

Lee adds, "John and I will come up with lots of ideas, and, invariably, Peter will come up with some exciting detail or approach that we hadn't really thought about. He has a remarkable grasp not only of the drawings we've already done, but what we could potentially dream up. He'll often refer to drawings that I can't actually remember doing," he smiles.

Production designer Dan Hennah, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," along with supervising art director / set decorator Simon Bright and set decorator Ra Vincent, oversaw an art department that worked around the clock to build detailed and fully dressed sets with a rapid turnover.

Working from a broad coalition of creative minds, Hennah and his team created a virtual miniature of Middle-earth in the form of 94 models for the entire Trilogy, built in multiples of 1:16 or 1:25 scale. Hennah then oversaw the construction of life-sized sets that would bring realism and exquisite detail to every phase of the Company's journey, from the natural textures of Beorn's home to the rickety, uneven layers of Lake-town to the mountain of gold in the depths of Erebor.

The art department enlisted a wealth of local technicians, artists and craftspeople from across New Zealand to guarantee authenticity at every level of fabrication, including sculptors, engineers, potters, model makers, weavers, plasterers, curtain makers, blacksmiths, knitters, knife makers, net makers, boat builders, furniture makers, bronze casters, a lead light maker, food stylist, jeweler and calligrapher.

For the world-renowned physical effects house Weta Workshop, under the direction of creative director and co-founder Richard Taylor, the second film in the Trilogy meant ramping up to a whole new level of design and manufacture. In addition to the prosthetic needs of Bilbo and the Dwarves established for the first film, Taylor and his team were tasked with devising armor, weapons and prosthetics for the variety of new cultures, as well as collaborating with Jackson, the design team and Weta Digital on the many digital creatures and characters that populate in the film. The Workshop evolved in the years since their critical work on "The Lord of the Rings," and now its artists sculpt using z-brush digital models on a computer rather than clay. They've also added a total of ten robots to their team.

"Even though we've been in Middle-earth for twelve years, we want to devise original ways to create memorable characters within this world so that the audience never feels like they're seeing something they've seen before," Taylor notes. "At the same time, we also need to ensure that everything fits on a design level, and Peter is the ultimate custodian of that. But I feel that he has allowed himself great freedom on 'The Hobbit' Trilogy because he has laid the groundwork of culture and design for creating a credible world, and into it he can now play a little bit more, which has been exciting for us, because it's taken the bridle off a little bit and allowed us to explore more freely."

Their creations were integral to the work of hair and make-up supervisor Peter Swords King, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." The sheer volume of the work performed by King and his team encompassed 752 wigs and 263 beards, each made to measure for the main cast and their various doubles. For the 13 Dwarves alone King's department created a total of 91 wigs.

Costume designers Bob Buck and Ann Maskrey relished dressing a new race of people in Lake-town, which Buck describes as "an eclectic mix of Eastern European, Siberian and Tibetan, with details from the East."

A total of 400 costumes were created for Lake-town alone. The costumes were designed to express how the once thriving city has hit hard times, which has rendered the clothes of its displaced, impoverished people worn and faded. Maskrey notes, "There is a lot of fur, quilting and layering. We used some Russian peasant references and looked at old sepia photos of Russian workers and Russian paintings from the late 19th century early and early 20th century."

In addition to the new cultures, the costumes of the Company of Dwarves undergoes numerous, often drastic, changes over the course of the film. "Dwarves are, in many ways, personified by their clothes, and the mad thing is that they lose them in this film, and end up in human clothes," says Bob Buck. "For an exiled people, that represents not only a major humiliation but a loss of identity, which only reinforces their determination to get to the end of their Quest and reclaim their homeland."

The same design process held true for the cultures the Company encounters as they move toward Erebor. "They are moving East, so we brought in more Eastern influences, " Hennah explains. "We're also moving into winter, so things get a little colder and a little grimmer. The tension is ramping up, and everywhere they go, there's a definite threat. This gives everything a colder feel, with an infusion of wet when they reach Lake-town. In Erebor, there are huge halls of cold marble. Obviously, there's a little warm center there, and it's gets warmer very quickly when the Dragon wakes up," he jokes.

Winter encroaching and the dark forces growing in Middle-earth inform the distinct visual feel of the second film, captured by director of photography Andrew Lesnie. "This world is so deep, so rich in texture and history, that it provides wonderful opportunities for creative expression, especially as the characters move into parts unknown," Lesnie says.

Continuing the techniques of the first film, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" was shot in 3D on state-of-the-art Red Epic digital cameras shooting at 48 frames-per-second (fps). Compact and mobile, the cameras easily handled dolly, crane and handheld shooting while recording far more information than film cameras. The camera department ultimately had 48 Red Epic cameras on hand and 24 3D rigs from the 3D firm 3ality to give Jackson limitless possibilities.

"I love composing shots with the depth you get in 3D, and how objects move in relation to each other," Jackson comments. "I'm shooting the movie as I would normally shoot it, but being able to realize that extra dimension is an added bonus. I wanted to make the audience feel that they could step into this world and be part of it."

Lesnie and his team had to get creative to achieve the precise lighting a given shot demanded. Innovations included the "Colosseum rig," devised by Lesnie's team, which could create predawn shade and night time ambience under any conditions by way of a series of sails made from light-colored shade-cloth that could be deployed in any configuration over a 328 square-foot area. To simulate moonlight, aerodynamic rigs containing 288 four-foot Kino fluro tubes were suspended over the set. Lightweight and DMX-controlled, this configuration facilitated Lesnie's ability to select as many tubes as required to achieve the ideal light conditions. "Both creations were instrumental in allowing us to successfully work the labyrinth sets of Lake-town," says Lesnie.

When the production left Stone Street Studios for nine weeks of location shooting, two independent units hit the road--Jackson's main unit and Andy Serkis' second unit--braving capricious weather conditions and coordinating with GPS to navigate the numerous remote filming locations.

In seeking out diverse and striking vistas to capture the full range of Jackson's Middle-earth, the filmmaker put the location team to the test with the Rock and Pillar Range, which provides the backdrop for the Dale Hills at the foot of the Lonely Mountain. Mid-way through the day's shooting, a storm rolled in and an early evacuation was required before flying conditions became impossible. At an altitude of over 4000 feet above sea level, this helicopter-access-only location necessitated what the production deemed "Operation Thunder"--a tense hour-and-a-half in which ten helicopters in rotation brought 120 crew and 15 sling loads of equipment off the mountain.

While shooting at Stone Street, editor Jabez Olssen worked on set beside the director to allow Jackson to access all the footage being shot or stored on servers. But with such an extensive location shoot, Olssen packed up his editing gear to continue this process on the road.

Armed with a portable laptop Avid media system, along with a mobile edit bay in the form of a converted camper van equipped with a full-sized Avid, Olssen and Jackson were able to edit the film no matter where the production took them. Olssen recounts, "We'd take the portable system down to a riverbank or my assistant and I would climb up a mountain and set it up wherever the crew was shooting. It's fairly unusual for an editor to actually get out on location and see the amazing environments where the film is being shot, so that was a pretty great experience."

The film's visual effects were created by the team at Weta Digital, headed by senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who received his 8th Oscar nomination for his work on the first film in "The Hobbit" Trilogy. Epic in scope, the visual effects for "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" include massive digital environments, fire and water effects, and countless digital creatures.

Visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon was on set each day to oversee and mastermind every digital component. His team conducted traditional surveys of the set, took thousands of photos for reference, collected technical camera information, and used specialized chrome ball devices to gather precise light and color readings. One of the newest developments being used on the production was the 3D Lidar scanner, a device that records data from every set and location, reaching its apex when it was used to scan one-and-a-half square miles of terrain over two days.

In creating CGI backgrounds for live action shots, the team at Weta Digital also enlisted conceptual designer Alan Lee, who would receive daily stacks of photographs showing characters or objects within a green screen environment, which he would then illustrate with intricate drawings. "You are dealing with another kind of construction, one where everyone's building, texturing and painting on computers," Lee comments. "It's a very enjoyable part of the process."

Weta Digital also utilized a technique nicknamed "Faux cap," which involved placing portable, flexible reference cameras around the on-set action to establish a quick and easy baseline for character movement.

The filmmakers also continued to pioneer the challenging camera technique of slave motion control (slave mo-con) to capture actors of similar heights in a way that highlights their characters' often great size differences. "The slave mo-con rigs allow us to operate one camera with a camera automatically following the same path on the green screen stage," Jackson describes. "The movement is coordinated precisely, except it's scaled differently to show that Gandalf or an Elf will tower over a Dwarf or a Hobbit. It's mathematically very complicated, but the effect is pretty dramatic."

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