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Daniel Falconer on 'Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon'

Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon
Weta

1. How did Weta Workshop originally get involved with The Hobbit film and designing Smaug?

Sister companies Weta Workshop and Weta Digital share a long history of working on Director Peter Jackson’s projects together. Together, both companies provided design and physical and digital effects services on The Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit. Smaug the Dragon was undoubtedly the most exciting opportunity for the artistic and technical crew of the companies to push their creative skills to new levels, being such an impressive and memorable element in the story of The Hobbit. Working together with the Director and Concept Art Directors John Howe and Alan Lee, Weta Workshop provided initial designs and Weta Digital stepped in to take Smaug through from broad concepts to a refined and finished design that was realized on screen with vivid reality.

2. Could you go into a bit of the work computer wise and design wise that goes into creating something so great as Smaug the Magnificent?

Smaug presented significant artistic and technical challenges. Everyone working on Smaug was eager to make him something very special. The character had so much build up in the films and book that his final appearance had to be truly awe-inspiring. Peter Jackson had imagined a Dragon so huge that if he were real he would be able to fit a 747 jumbo-jet under each wing with room to spare, but with a level of detail that would hold up when the camera was in tight close-up as well, so that meant creating a huge digital model with an insane level of detail and all the care and attention that Weta’s artists always put into their work. Every scale was hand painted, and there was something in the range of a million of them on him. On his belly were countless tiny coins and gem stones that had caught between his scales. Another challenge was of course to make a giant crocodilian monster into a character with an emotional range and personality. Crocodiles and other reptiles don’t have expressions. They can’t articulate speech, but Smaug had to exhibit their typically draconic characteristics and still be able to act. These were just some of the technical and artistic challenges that faced the collective of creative folk tasked with breathing life into this fantasy being, a process that took years.

3. Did you get to interact with Peter Jackson or other parts of his team?

Peter Jackson was intimately involved in every aspect of the Dragon’s creation, so there were regular design and progress reviews in which the tiniest of details would be debated--like scale or horn placement, wing membrane translucency, the line of a scar or key things like eye size and lip mobility. Would Smaug have four limbs or six? Peter is a Director who has a keen interest in all aspects of the films and their design, so his reaction and feedback was critical. In researching the book Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon I was very fortunate to have access to all members of the team, who are my colleagues and friends. I am a writer, but also a designer and part of the Weta Workshop design team, so I had the benefit of being embedded in the process from the very beginning. There are even a few of my own concept art submissions in the first chapter of the book.

4. What would you like to share with us personally about the book,"Smaug Unleashing the Dragon"?

The key thing that distinguishes the Weta books is, I feel, the fact that our wonderful partnership with HarperCollins Publishers permits us to generate these books from within the creative engines of Weta, here in New Zealand. I work at ground zero for the films. Within a two-minute drive or a short walk are the soundstages, motion-capture facilities and all the people involved in making these films. If I need to speak to the designer responsible for a particular weapon, suit of armour or creature, I get up from my desk and cross the room to their cubicle. In a few cases I am that designer. I am surrounded everyday by the activity of filmmaking and the products of our enterprise, so I feel like I am ideally placed to be able to tell the behind the scenes stories of these films.

Add to that, I am a self-confessed Tolkien nerd. I love Middle-earth and am excited every morning by the prospect of going to work there each day. I feel incredibly thankful for the chance to be involved and to have been entrusted to tell these stories in our books.

5. What other films have the Weta Workshop been involved with?

Weta Workshop offers design and physical effects services, including special make-up and prosthetics effects, props, armour and weapon-making, specialty costumes, miniatures and even vehicle construction. We have a collectibles arm producing fine art collectibles and replicas for fans to buy, a publishing division, IP development and we produce all kinds of non-film industry things as well, like public art sculpture, for example. We have our own store and miniature museum that offers tours guided by Weta crew. If it’s creatively challenging and fun, we’re generally interested. Weta Digital is an undisputed world leader in digital effects. Between both companies there is a long history of legacy projects, most notably among them Peter Jackson Middle-earth adaptations: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but also Avatar, King Kong, The first two Chronicles of Narnia films, District 9, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Avengers, Elysium, Prometheus and many others. Weta Workshop has also produced its own children’s television series; The WotWots and Jane and the Dragon.

6. This is a wild card question. What from the book would you like to tell us about?

Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon is what we are calling a Chronicle Companion book. It is intended to be a companion to our Chronicles series of large coffee table books dedicated to documenting and sharing different aspects of the process of creating The Hobbit films. Currently there are three such books out with a fourth a month away from release: The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, Chronicles: Cloaks & Daggers. Originally we had hoped to include much of content of the Smaug book in one of the other volumes, but work on the Dragon was progressing right up until the last minute and our publishing deadlines for a book synchronized with the film’s release were too tight. What came out of that was the notion of a companion book, slightly smaller and more affordable, dedicated entirely to the Dragon himself, which worked out very well because we were able to include a much more detailed look into the processes of making the Dragon than we could possibly have included, if we had to squeeze it into another book with everything else from that movie. If it is well received, I hope we can do more companion books of this sort to stand alongside our main Chronicles series, where specific subjects demand dedicated coverage.

7. Cool to have Benedict Cumberbatch to write the forward of the book. Thoughts on that?

Benedict Cumberbatch was amazing. I confess to being quite nervous when I interviewed him, being a fan of his work on these films and others, but he quickly put me at ease and what ensued was the most enjoyable hour of dialogue between us in which we talked about Smaug as well as Benedict’s work voicing the Necromancer, whom we will see more of in the final installment of The Hobbit, and other stuff. He was insightful, eloquent and very personable, which was even more impressive because our interview was conducted at the end of a long day of shooting. It was so kind of him to agree to provide a foreword for us and I was very pleased with how it turned out.

8. What are you all up to next projects wise and book wise and anything you can share about the next Hobbit film?

I dare not say anything about the third film of The Hobbit, other than to say it is shaping up to be an incredible and epic conclusion to the trilogy. The recently revealed title The Battle of the Five Armies should give some clue as to its contents, and once again we are spoiled for amazing content to include in our future books. The first book connected with this film will release in December and be titled The Hobbit, The Battle of the Five Armies, Chronicles: Art & Design. I am working on that title right now. In the meantime, if readers are interested in learning about the costumes, props and set dressing of the first two films, in June we will be releasing The Hobbit, The Desolation of Smaug, Chronicles: Cloaks & Daggers. Autographed copies can be pre-ordered from Weta’s website: http://www.wetanz.com/shop/