‘The Hobbit’s’ Joe Letteri is in a world of his own visual effects

A look at the visual effects in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

Early in his career, senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri blew up a planet for 1991’s “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.” The four-time Oscar winner has since made up for that wanton destruction by creating worlds as well, most recently for Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.” For the second installation of the trilogy based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, for which Letteri was again nominated, he and a visual effects team of about 1,000 people at Weta Digital produced everything from giant spiders to the shape-shifting bear Beorn to the avaricious dragon Smaug.

How did you create Smaug?

Tolkien always used the word “worm” to describe him. So Peter took that idea and said, “OK, maybe rather than just pounding around like you would expect a big dragon to do, he’s actually going to be slithering through the gold, almost like he’s luxuriating in the gold.” But the [dragon] talking with [the hobbit] Bilbo for me was the key to it, because it really comes down to performance and personality. So when you have a dragon who’s been asleep for like 200 years, he wakes up. He knows there’s someone trying to steal his gold. So he’s hungry, he’s angry, but he’s also lonely. And Bilbo starts engaging him. And what we had to do then is figure out how do you actually make that dialogue feel intimate when it needs to be? Because the dragon’s got a head that’s the size of a bus. He’s about twice as long and twice as wide as a 747. So it’s all heads and hands that telegraph his body language for most of the dialogue scenes.

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Is making something big harder than making something small?

There are more considerations that you have. For example, he’s a big reptile, so he’s covered in scales. But if you make all his scales small like you would expect on a lizard, when he goes far back, they disappear. If you have the big ones and you go back into a close-up, those are the size of dinner plates. So now you start to subdivide those, so that you see detail when you’re close in, but when you’re far away you see bigger structure.

Smaug is sitting on what must be the largest pile of treasure ever.

That treasure chamber is so vast. There were over a billion coins in there that we were simulating. The biggest new technologies were the simulations that we used for the water and for the coins. When the dragon moves, it just takes days to see how the coins are going to react. If he moves too fast, the coins will just “explode,” because they’re going faster than they physically could. So then we have to catch that and say, “OK, he’s moving too fast. We have to slow down this animation here or the coins aren’t going to do the right thing.” But that changes his performance. That changes the blocking. That changes the camera move. And then we have to come up with something that looks good and run the simulation again.... As we got better at it and refined it, we figured out better ways to control it to make the animation work within the right dynamic range that it needed to.

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It’s funny that you obey the laws of physics in an imaginary world.

You have to, because that’s the only thing that makes it believable.

Which of the other landscapes did you create?

Well, when we start off, you’re flying over the mountains. You see the title shot. That’s kind of real. A lot of the rest of it is pretty much digitally enhanced from there on out. And we still use a lot of the New Zealand landscape, but what we do is we send teams out there to photograph the landscape, and we also survey it. So we have essentially 3-D information of the landscape that coincides with the photography that we’re using. So we can put the two together, and then we can say, “I want this particular bit of mountain range that we had from the South Island to be off in the distance behind Beorn’s house.” So we basically chop up New Zealand and then reconfigure it the way we want it for the shots.

Do you ever wish that Middle-earth existed and that you could step into the world you’ve created?

Well, it does for some of us. I step into it a lot. I pretty much have lived there!