Weta's Animation Boss Talks About The CGI Of The Hobbit: Desolation Of Smaug

As animation supervisor at Weta Digital, Dave Clayton knows a thing or two about creating virtual worlds. To celebrate the launch of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug on DVD and Blu-ray, we had a quick chat with Dave about some of the work he's done with Weta.

Dave is the animation boss at Weta, so he's responsible for the end product that the studio puts out -- he's the one that had the final say in bringing Smaug to life for the new Hobbit movie, and for all the orcs and goblins and other creatures that have been an integral part of the world of the Lord of the Rings movies. Here's Dave on how Weta works, how The Hobbit compares to previous projects, and how much power all that rendering takes.

As Animation Supervisor on The Hobbit and other titles at WETA, you've overseen a lot of large CGI projects. Was creating the background (and foreground) world of the Hobbit movies the largest project you've been involved in?

Yes, definitely, the scope and variety of the creatures and characters in Middle-Earth makes the Hobbit films the largest and most challenging to date! But that range has also made it a very cool project to animate on.

So far we've brought to life motion capture-based creatures like goblins, orcs, trolls and Gollum, as well as keyframed creatures like wargs, eagles, spiders and Smaug.

How involved was the process of digitising Benedict Cumberbatch's facial expressions and motions into the model of Smaug? Is that a process WETA has a lot of prior experience with?

Weta Digital has a lot of experience in channelling live action performances into digital characters. In the example of Andy Serkis to Gollum, they share similar facial structures, so the transfer was more straightforward.

With Benedict's face to Smaug, however, the facial structures are (of course) very different. So we used Benedict's expressions and performance as more of a leading-off point.

We had more capacity to creatively design Smaug's visual presence, all the while using his amazing vocal performance as a beacon. We keyframed all of Smaug's facial and body animation, rather than using data directly from a motion capture shoot.

Can you give us an idea of some of the software and hardware that WETA is working with? How long does it take to render a frame of a complex Hobbit CGI scene, and how does that compare to previous projects?

A decade ago for Return of the King, WETA's renderwall had about 2,300 CPU cores and 5 terabytes of ram. To render everything for Desolation of Smaug, though -- we relied on 50,000 CPU cores and 170 terabytes of ram! That equates to about 30,000 of your average laptops.

As digital effects go, how does The Hobbit compare to other big movies? Is there anything novel or unique about the work that was done? One particular shot from the barrels sequence apparently came from a GoPro, for example, which was quite out of the ordinary. Is there anything equal to that on the CGI side of things?

Something that we've been refining for the Hobbit films has been our virtual camera pipeline. It allows Peter Jackson to use our motion capture stage to shoot his own camera work on pre-existing animation.

So we develop some quite high resolution animation of, for example, Smaug thrashing around in the forges, by iterating with Peter and getting the action locked down to what he wants.

We then play back that piece of animation in the virtual set, and Peter can shoot as much coverage as he wants with the lenses and angles of his choice. He then edits the shots together and hands them back to us, and since we already have the animation ready to go -- we can take the shots through to final production really efficiently.

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is now out on Blu-ray and DVD.

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