Ring Master: Matt Aitken talks about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Trevor Hogg chats with Matt Aitken about a shape-shifter, Elves who live underground, and the awakening of a dragon named Smaug….

Matt Aitken
“We grew fast at the beginning of Weta Digital and by that stage there wasn’t the expertise within the country to grow the company as fast as we had to,” explains Weta Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Aitken who was one of the native New Zealanders working for the company during the production of The Lord of the Ringstrilogy.  “But since the time of Rings we have been actively working recruiting local graduates.  We have our own in-house training program and the percentage of the crew that is Kiwi is growing all of the time.”  The opportunity to pursue visual effects as a career enabled the Oscar nominee to merge his different interests.  “I pursued Mathematics as my first degree and have always been interested in technology and early computer programming when I was in high school.  At the same time I was making movies in my spare time, and studied Fine Arts in high school and Art History in college.  Computer Graphics for film brought everything together for me in way that was incredibly exciting; I’ve found that to be grounding.  The last piece of production code I wrote was the foliage system for the Ent characters in the second Lord of the Rings [2002] film.  I’ve moved on but that knowledge informs everything we do here day-to-day.  For all of the artistry that we do here there is a technological input into it.  I find it incredibly useful.” Aitken worked as a Digital Model Supervisor for the initial visit to Middle-earth by filmmaker Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures).  “I remember a watershed moment for us was Dwarrowdelf and the environment around Balin’s tomb which was inside the mountain for the first Lord of the Rings film; it was the first entirely digital environment that we had created for a film.”

“I’m certainly an avid fan of The Hobbit and reread it to my daughter as preparation for working on this trilogy,” states Matt Aitken who served as a visual effects supervisor on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.  “Tolkien wrote The Hobbit initially as a story for his own daughter when she was quite young.  By the time he came to write The Lord of the Rings his children were older and he himself had developed.  Definitely The Lord of the Rings is for a more mature audience.  But then my understanding was that he was working on a revised version of The Hobbit for an adult audience.”  Details were also expanded by the creator of the fantasy tale in regards to the Necromancer who is briefly mentioned in The Hobbit.  “All of the backstory of when Gandalf goes off and leaves the company of Bilbo and the dwarfs; in the original book we never get to see where he goes but that was all fleshed out by Tolkien in the appendixes in order to connect it to the work he had done with The Lord of the Rings.  It was great source material for the version of The Hobbit that Peter wanted to make.”

 Assisting Peter Jackson in bringing the story which features a wizard, a hobbit, a company of dwarves, stolen treasure, and a greedy talking dragon to the big screen is Weta Digital which like with The Lord of the Rings is responsible for the visual effects for the trilogy.  “The only other case I can think of where a single visual effects house does all of the work on the show is ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] with the Star Wars movies,” notes Matt Aitken.  “Between these shows we do work on other projects. In 2013 we worked on Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, The Wolverine and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  Peter originally set-up Weta Digital to be available to him as a local, responsive and focused facility for the work he wanted to do.” Aitken adds, “We’ve worked with Peter on so many projects now that lot of it can go unspoken.  The workflow is well established.  We have daily reviews.  Peter has always pushed us to the highest level of quality and never for us to rest on our laurels and rely on past techniques to get us through.”

Overseeing The Hobbittrilogy are the Weta Digital duo of Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri (Avatar) and Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Saindon (Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer) who selected the different visual effects supervisors responsible for the various sequences.  “It’s a complex thing because a lot of that stuff was determined back in the day when The Hobbit was going to be two films,” explains Matt Aitken.  “We had a map of the broad expanse of the visual effects work and things were divided up to balance the workload.  When it went to being three films and some of the material that was in the latter part of film one became the first half of film two.  The work I was initially assigned at the end of film one which was the shape-changer Beorn and the sequences with Thranduil, the Elf King and his kingdom.   I had already done some work setting them up before the material went from being in film one to film two so I carried on.”

“When Bilbo first sees Beorn he’s in his bear form chasing and harassing him and the dwarves but also protecting them from the Orcs,” states Matt Aitken.  “We do have one shot where Beorn walks into the house and Biblo sees him in his human form.   Typically werewolf transformations have been done in cinema as sequences where you stop the action of the film.  We didn’t feel like showing that again but still had to make the point that the guy you see is the bear in the human form.  It was a lot of creature rigging to make a version that could blend all the way from the bear to the human form.  That’s not just his shape but also includes everything like the fur has to be able to shrink away, the human hair grow out, and his eyes had to go from the bear to humans eyes.  Once we had all of that encapsulated into a creature rig that supported the transformation and a digital puppet which had a slider control with one end being the bear and the other end being the human, we gave those to our animation team.  They spent a lot of time refining the performance aspect and split up the parts of his body that transform so it’s not like an overall bear through to human transformation.  Parts of him go at different times so there’s a beat where Beorn lifts his head up to the sky and roars.  When Beorn drops his head back down he has transformed from the bear head to human head.  It’s carefully nuanced through the time of the transformation.  Once that performance was down we were able to apply the animation to the creature rig and the shot fell into place.  It helped that we were staging in an entirely digital environment.  We had initially had thought that we would judiciously place trees and bushes to glimpse the transformation but then at a certain point the animation was being reviewed with Peter and he said, ‘Lets stripe all of the foliage away.  Keep a couple of trees but lets see it clearly all the way through.  We’ll figure out what parts aren’t working we can add a bush or tree there.’  We worked out the animation and got to a point where he was happy with it.  We didn’t add anything back in.”

“The Woodland Elves have their underground kingdom and it’s the part of Mirkwood that is insulated from this disease that turned the beautiful greenwood into a twisted corrupted, and unpleasant place,” remarks Matt Aitken when discussing the creation of Thranduil’s Realm.  “The elves had their lighting sources which are these amber oil filled lanterns which cast a nice warm flickering glow around the place but we had to augment it with a broader and more natural light to be able to read the expanse of the space.  The part of the realm where Thandruil has his throne is huge; it’s several hundred metres long.  The balance we tried to strike there was to have a sense of daylight filtering in without ever seeing the source of that daylight.  We never revealed places were the walls of the realm were open and exposed to the outside areas.  We never saw direct daylight or foliage.  We played it as if it was tucked around corners and further away.  It was a soft wash of light that played down from above and enabled us to reveal the expanse of the realm but still keep that being of being underground and away from the outside.  In a way it’s safe.  The Orcs are prowling outside and it was important that the place felt secure.”  A lot of water exists in Thranduil’s Realm.  “There were many custom water simulations we had to run for that environment from the current that is cascading underneath the bridge when the elves march the dwarves into the kingdom at the start to the streams that exist all the way through the environment.  It was important because Peter wanted to establish that there was water around so it wasn’t odd that this was an avenue of escape.  It’s the way the company escapes from the kingdom by jumping into the barrels and riding that river out of the kingdom.  That’s why he felt it was important to establish that there was water around the outside but also running through the kingdom.  It’s nice.  It provides you with a nice visual detail.  There are sound cues you can work off of.”

“There are sets that are extended but they’re often minimal,” reveals Matt Aitken.    “The throne area set consisted of a floor, a low wall and the throne itself.  The cells that the dwarves are locked up in there are practical sets for those but that’s within the vicinity of the cells themselves and everything beyond that is an entirely digital build.” The amount of green screen required is not a major topic of discussion.  “Dan Hennah [The Warrior's Way], who is the production designer on The Hobbit, and I have worked together on projects that predate The Lord of the Rings with Peter.  We have a workflow that has been established over the nearly 20 years we have worked with each other on sets.  We don’t need to do a lot of discussing about it which is a wonderful thing.  Dan builds the stuff that people lean up against or touch.  Everything else hands off to green screen.”  World building requires an intricate design process in order to make the environments believable.  “Getting a lot of detail into the geometry and textures so that it feels like it’s got all of the natural complexities of the real world,” observes Matt Aitken.  “You can’t shortcut that stuff.  Making sure that if you want a surface to look like rough rock then it has to have a lot of fine level sharp edge rocky detail.  You reference nature.  We have a huge library of photographs that the crew has taken of nature from all around the world.”

Peter was keen to make Smaug huge and he’s twice the size of a 747 jumbo jet,” states Matt Aitken.  “Peter had a lot of fun revealing that scale in the film.  We had to build a creature that worked to sell the sense of that scale.  How his muscles were built, the scale of all of the surface details, and the way he moved.  Smaug couldn’t move like a puppy he had to lumber.  We drive the skins of our creatures by simulated biomechanical musculature and skeleton rigs.  The animators will key frame animate the skeleton and the movement of the skeleton will drive the simulation of the muscles.  The muscles will flex and bulge according to what the skeleton is doing and get the secondary dynamics in the movement of the skin.  What we found with a creature the size of Smaug it wasn’t enough to do it that way.  We had to show the muscles firing before the creature started to move so you would see the muscles in his legs bulge.  Then that bulging and tension translated itself into a moving form of the creature as he drove himself forward.”  Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) was filmed while delivering the voiceover for Smaug.  “We also had him on the motion-capture stage doing some performance tests but we never used any of that directly.  We used it as visual reference to inform the character.”

The biggest creative challenge for Matt Aitken was the process of finding the look of Beorn the creature.  “We have Beorn in the human form played Mikael Persbrandt [In a Better World] so we took a strong lead from that,” remarks Matt Aitken.  “We went through a long process designing Beorn the creature.  We started off with some concept art that had come out of the design team at Weta Workshop under Richard Taylor.  There were a couple of key images there that Peter responded really well to so we worked out a digital version of that creature.  We could tell that Peter was less than a hundred per cent enthusiastic about it; he felt that there was more we could do.  Our typical response there is to go nature and to do an extensive amount of research in terms of large grizzly bears which are terrifying creatures.  What Peter was looking for was a scary creature especially when you see Beorn chasing the company into his house; he had to be genuinely terrifying.  We got a lot of great reference from grizzly bears and worked a lot of detail into the creature making him more natural.  But he wasn’t quite monstrous enough.  John Howe at that point did for us a sketch of where we could take our natural bear into a slightly more monstrous form; that involved giving him a bit more of a hump, shortening his nose, making the button at the end of his nose a bit smaller, making his teeth more pronounced, making his fur darker and more massive and mangy, and making his eyes more manic.  We did that third revision on the creature and that’s one which ended up in the movie.”

“All of the CG work that we do in 3D stereo is straightforward but where it gets complex is when you’re making sure that your compositing of live-action plates is clean,” states Matt Aitken.  “There’s a lot of extra detail that we had to do around that.  With the 48 frame rate we need to have a larger render wall to account for the extra processing.  The animators need to spend more time with key frame animation; they had to work to a higher degree of fidelity so that when they’re doing key frame animation there are twice as many keys to set.  We certainly have our process in place but it does take longer which means the crew has to be bigger.  We had over a thousand people here working on The Desolation of Smaug so that’s a good size crew.”  Aitken remarks, “The crew did a fantastic job across the board.  We had one sequence which came in toward the end of production; it occurs between the Bilbo and Smaug scene and the forges where the big battle where the dwarves and Bilbo take Smaug on.   They’re tiptoeing around inside Erebor.  Smaug pops up and they play cat and mouse with him eventually leading him into what is the Forges Sequence.  We had to get that right the first time.  There are some beautiful shots and great digital lighting.  Most of those shots are entirely digital and I was pleased on how that stuff came together in short space of time.”  The final instalment of the trilogy arrives with The Hobbit: There and Back Again(2014).  “There’s going to be a battle.  That’s not too much of a surprise for people.  It’ll be spectacular.  Film one was the set-up, getting to know the characters and everyone up and on the way.   Film two was the consolidation of all of that and getting to know what drives Thorin for the quest of his homeland and what drives Bilbo.   Film three is going to be the payoff for all of that.”


Production stills © 2013 New Line Productions, Inc. Courtesy of New Line Productions.

Many thanks to Matt Aitken for taking the time for this interview.

To learn more make sure to visit the official websites for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Weta Digital as well read our filmmaker profile on Peter Jackson.


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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