Filed in: Awards, Contender Portfolios, Featured, Film, Visual FX
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Contender – Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 18, 2012 | By

Joe Letteri (Photo by Andrew Gorrie).

The first installment of the prequel trilogy to Lord of the Rings, a reworked telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, now features material from the appendices found in “The Lord of the Rings” book trilogy, (which is filled with encyclopedic background information on Middle Earth), which expands the story and scope of the visual effects work.

As with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are now epic battles, massed troops of dwarves, elves, Orcs and such, and of course, the sweeping vistas, forests and misty mountains of Middle Earth.

And even though Joe Letteri was presiding over all that terrain while supervising visual effects work from director Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital shop in New Zealand, the payoff in the work still seems to come back to specific performances and specific characters – digital characters that become increasingly believable with each breakthrough in motion capture technology.

Andy Sirkis reprises his role as Gollum in The Hobbit.

Letteri was there for character breakthroughs such as Gollum in the earlier The Two Towers and Return of the King as well as Jackson’s King Kong remake, and the character of Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, all of them performed by Andy Sirkis. He also put in some time with Avatar, which boasted its own digital character breakthroughs.

But Letteri maintains they’ve come a long way since Gollum first peeked out of the darkness of the mines of Moria. Harkening back to his more recent work on Apes, Letteri says they were able to figure out how to bring motion-capture to the stage. “It was like a homecoming,” he says of Sirkis switching from rebellious ape leader to ring-obsessed cave dweller.

Jackson, then, was able to work on stage with Sirkis in his mo-cap suit. “If you’re the director and the actor, this becomes a natural way to work,” also allowing the actor to be in the scene with the other performers, rather than isolated in front of a greenscreen.

According to Letteri, even matte painting has evolved since the The Lord of the Rings.

It wasn’t just capturing additional depths of Sirkis’ performance (or those of Barry Humphries as the Great Goblin, presiding over a cavernous kingdom while holding captured dwarves) that made these digital denizens different from their predecessors in the Lord of the Rings films. There were also advances in sub-surface scattering that allowed more complexity for translucent skin, and a translucent quality to the eyes.

What about Smaug the dragon – played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who also plays a proto-Sauron character, just glimpsed here, called “The Necromancer” – whose destructive arrival in the dwarvish kingdom sets off the film’s events? He’s only briefly shown here, but Letteri allows they do not have that much more of him right now.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), released by Warner Bros. Pictures and MGM.

And while this first film has to make do with bits of dragon tail, flame and glistening eyes, there are still plenty of sweeping vistas, sprawling, tunnel-riddled Goblin kingdoms, serene Elvish settlements, battling rock giants and more to keep audiences riveted.

And all of these items deploy advanced versions of the FX work done in the earlier Tolkien films. “Even matte painting has evolved,” Letteri says. He also mentions that with 3D being the standard for the Hobbit films, the painting itself is done on geometric forms to extend the visual stereoscopic effects.

Thinking of his own return to Middle Earth, and the technological advances in FX since then, Letteri once again uses the character of Gollum as a prism to gauge that first trilogy against the start of the new one. Gollum, he says, is actually “a completely different creature than 10 years ago” – a not entirely unexpected aspect of this journey, after all.

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