THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
Into The Woodland Realm
The forest of Mirkwood is a complex environment in the film, which created a
practical concerns for the production. To bring cinematic reality to this
memorable passage from
the book required a set that would both evoke danger and decay while also
extensive action sequences and visual effects. Previsualization (Previs)
supervisor Christian Rivers
worked with Jackson to fully develop the sequence long before shooting to help
lay the foundation
and technical requirements for the sets that would need to be built.
The enormous, toxic forest was realized with 32 giant, craggy trees carved
out of polystyrene
that stood over 30 feet high and could be rearranged to create different
environments. The trees
were then covered with latex bark, and each element of the forest, including
fungi, limbs and
assorted debris, was painted with a bright, multi-colored palette to enhance the
of the forest, though it does not appear that bright on film. When the Mirkwood
desaturated in post-production, it creates a paling effect on Bilbo and the
Dwarves, as if the forest
itself were draining their energy. But on set, Jackson jokes, "It was almost
like we were back in 1967
The Giant Spiders stalking the Company through the trees are CGI creations
by Weta Digital. "Peter wanted all the action to be set in the canopy, with
Spiders using webs to
travel from limb to limb through the treetops," Joe Letteri relates. "With
through space, we could really play with the three-dimensionality of it, but
needed to choreograph
the Spiders precisely and figure out where their feet needed to be to get the
action we wanted
As the actors learned, however, the giant webs in which the Spiders encase
would be accomplished practically. "They wrapped this webbing around you like
plastic wrap, and
once you were in there, you had to stay that way," remembers Dean O'Gorman, who
plays Fili. "It
was quite funny because you couldn't see anything, but you could maybe feel a
bit of an elbow or
leg. As we waited, you'd hear the collective groaning of the Dwarves. Then, when
action, we could rip it all off, which was quite satisfying."
To give the actors something to fight against on set, stunt coordinator Glenn
dressed his stunt performers as "Kermits"--so-named because of their head-to-toe
which would be replaced by Spiders later on. "You can't swing a weapon through
space, pull your
blow physically, and make it look like you've made contact," Boswell comments.
"So we'd give the
actors targets to hit in the form of green pads and green sticks with which they
could make contact."
The forest theme continues in Thranduil's fortress in Mirkwood, a complex
system carved out of a mountain, with massive tree roots and water from the
river running through
it. "The main design is reminiscent of the art nouveau elements we used at
Rivendell, but in a much
more confined environment," Hennah says. "The Wood-elves come from the forest
found a safe place that they can defend inside this mountain, but they've
brought the forest in with
them, so all the pillars are carved like trees. It's not just a flat-bottomed
cave; it has ravines,
walkways and big limestone bridges that run through the middle of it."
Its vast breadth demanded that it be created almost entirely in CG, with a
practical sets being built, including Thranduil's imposing throne room, the
Elves' wine cellar, and the
cells where the Dwarves are locked up.
Their barrel escape down a log flume and into the river rapids below
represented one of the
filmmaking team's greatest challenges. "Shooting on water is difficult at the
best of times," Jackson
notes, "but for the barrel sequence, as we devised it, we didn't require a calm
actors inside barrels, with the lids off, going down the most massive, deadly
rapids you could
imagine. So what we came up with was not one solution but a sum total of several
To enable Jackson to work with the actors in a controlled, safe, interior
environment, the art
department, special effects and stunt teams worked together to build an indoor
river that Jackson
describes as "like a log ride at a theme park." The kidney-shaped whirlpool set
was constructed to
be wide enough at its narrowest point to fit two barrels through, with special
Steve Ingram and his team installing powerful 500hp water jets to circulate the
thousand cubic feet of water. To ensure the safety of the cast, Boswell and the
stunt team plunged
into dive tanks to engineer the buoyancy of the barrels using inflated tubes and
ballast with steel
For sweeping exteriors shots on somewhat calm waters, the company next moved
Pelorus River. Though visually dramatic, the river courses along a narrow gorge,
virtually inaccessible to filmmaking equipment. The solution was to extend 300
feet of scaffolding
from the parking lot all the way across the river, suspended above the water.
Jared Connon recalls, "We had our two-ton TechnoCrane out on a rocky point, Jet
Skis in the river,
stunt rigs everywhere and special effects creating a small waterfall." Just as
filming wrapped, a heavy
rain blew in, nearly flooding out the entire operation.
Jackson also wanted to capture imagery of the barrels caught in violent,
raging rapids, which
was a near impossible proposition in New Zealand. But the director's own
memories provided the
answer--the Aratiatia Dam located near Lake Taupo--which he'd visited with his
parents as a child.
"Below the dam is this rocky gully with about a mile of twists and turns,"
Jackson details. "Most of
the time it's dry, but every three or four hours when the enormous gates of this
dam open, it
becomes the most horrific, turbulent run of water that you could ever imagine."
The filmmakers knew they couldn't put people in barrels caught in these
rapids, but could
instead use digital doubles for the roughest segments of the barrel ride. The
whole sequence was
planned in previs, meticulously breaking down the different elements that would
make up each shot.
Christian Rivers and a splinter unit from Weta Digital traveled to the Aratiatia
Dam to gather as
much footage of the dam's release as possible, syncing closely with the
operating the dam. With cameras positioned at strategic locations along the
carefully weighted barrels--some with GoPro digital cameras installed to capture
thrown into the rapids for the roughly 10 minutes of release. "Then the gates
would close, the
barrels would be retrieved, and we could go have a cup of tea," Jackson recalls
with a smile.
Letteri estimates that the artists at Weta Digital treated virtually every
frame of the sequence
in one way or another, whether in providing environments, digital characters or
"For us, it was like the three hardest things to achieve from a visual effects
together in one place," he relates. "We were constantly rebuilding and
reconfiguring the waterway
as the animation was further refined. Technically, what's really challenging is
because we're pushing tons of water down these rapids, while integrating the
barrels and animations
in just the right way."
"By creating this mix of live action with the actors and the digital water, I
will get a real sense of being in those barrels in that terrifying stretch of
river," Jackson says.
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