Trevor Hogg chats with Eric Saindon about the Academy Award nominated visual effects work featured in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey….
“The biggest difference is the scale of the two,” states Eric Saindon (Avatar) who was a creatures supervisor during The Lord of Rings Trilogy (2001 to 2003) and recently looked after the visual effects for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), the first of three movies based on The Hobbit; the children’s story written J.R.R. Tolkien introduced the world to Middle-earth, Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, Gollum, and the mysterious ring with the ability to make it’s wearer invisible. “13 years ago there were 35 people and for Hobbit we have 1200 people working at Weta Digital.” There is also more of a home grown presence for the special and visual effects company based Wellington, New Zealand which was co-founded by countryman and filmmaker Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures). “When I first got here there were quite a few Americans that were brought in from overseas and UK artists, but now the tide has shifted and the majority of the people at Weta are Kiwi which is great. It means we’re training people as we go and people are learning our whole process.” The amount of visual effects required increased. “On the first film [Fellowship of the Ring] we did around 250 shots and on this one we did close to 2200 shots.” Despite the extra workload the production timeline was less than the original trilogy. “Fortunately, Peter’s understanding of visual effects is more than some directors so he knows how long it takes. It doesn’t always mean that we’re going to get more time. It does allow us to go to him and say, ‘We can’t do this in this amount of time.’”
“For this movie Joe Letteri [Avatar] is the Weta Digital Senior Visual Effects Supervisor so he oversees every show that we do,” explains Eric Saindon. “For Hobbit, I was the show supervisor and did all of the on-set supervisions so I worked with Peter for all of the filming for a year and a half. I came back to Weta after that, and oversaw a bunch of sequences and tried to help look over everything from day-to-day. Dave Clayton [Eragon] was the animation supervisor and was in charge of pretty much anything that was animation. Dave worked closely with another guy Eric Reynolds [Rise of the Planet of the Apes]; the two of them split up the whole movie, and all of the motion and animation that was done for Gollum, Trolls, and Goblins. Everything we built they were in charge of. Chris White [Rise of the Planet of the Apes] was one of our other visual effects supervisors who did the Goblin Caverns Sequence, the Stone Giants and a lot of Rivendell.” The kitchen gatherings have long been replaced by a series of meetings. “We meet up everyday and go through everything that we have to show to Peter every so everyone is on top of it, and any notes that Joe or myself would have for the other supervisors we can all sit down and go through them.” A movie made by James Cameron (The Abyss) involved all four key members of the visual effects team. “Avatar  was a good learning experience for 3D and how to build these huge environments. Our pipeline came a long way because we started things like the Layout Department which helped setup these huge environments and push them through. Previously, we had nothing like that department so it was much harder to create these big environments because it was all dropped upon the TDs [technical directors] at that point. For a movie like this and for Avatar you couldn’t build a one-off environment like you could in previous movies. You had to build these huge environments that got passed to lots of different people.”
Originally, a different director was going to handle the production. “Guillermo del Toro [Pan’s Labyrinth] had some amazing and beautiful ideas,” states Eric Saindon. “Personally, I feel that they were different from the original Lord of the Rings whereas Peter was able to keep The Hobbit feeling like Lord of the Rings. When you watch all of the movies together they feel like they’re in the same realm. del Toro’s would have been interesting but I’m not sure it would have fit the same way that Peter was able to make them all flow together.” Assisting Peter Jackson in maintaining a unified look, for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, were Alan Lee and John Howe, the overall designers for The Lord of the Rings. “They designed Rivendell and all of the architecture and the environment itself; they were able to make sure we were in the same realm as the other movies. Having people, like Dan Hennah [King Kong] to do all of the production design, allowed us to create something similar with this movie. As far as assets go we referenced some of the assets from Lord of the Rings from 12 to 13 years ago. Gollum was started from the same character that he was. Gollum was reinvented for this movie by adding a lot more detail. We did try to keep him in the same realm; we wanted to make a creature that everyone knows a little bit better than we were able to 12 years ago.”
With four weeks to go a decision was made which mirrored what happened with Fellowship of the Ring. “It’s the last thing that comes through,” chuckles Eric Saindon. “It was about the same amount of time we had to do the prologue this time but with a lot more variety. There were a lot more of bigger environments and a lot more happened destruction wise. For the original prologue, I remember working on those shots and the big challenge there was we were figuring out Massive. In the prologue for Hobbit, we didn’t even think about the crowds that was the easy part.” The technological mastery has a major benefit. “It means that we have more time to put into the creative side of things. Our technology has come a long way in the last 13 years. Our creature pipeline has come a long way and our understanding how to build creatures in environments well has progressed amazingly in leaps and bounds. Not to say we’re not always changing it. Every single movie we change how we do creatures in some way or our lighting pipeline we are always trying to improve our pipeline which is what I find to be the best part about Weta. If you stop paying attention for six months you’ll completely lose your place on how we light something or how our creatures work. It’s always stepping forward and challenging our R&D guys to come up with something new and improve the way we do stuff.”
A significant innovation was developed by the R&D team. “We came up with a new hair for example on this project,” remarks Eric Saindon. “We call it Barbershop. We always hated the way you have to move pixels around to layout a hair. Grab CDs and move them around on curves to design the way the hair is done; that’s not how you do it in a salon. You would cut the hair, brush, blow dry and gel it, however you would do it in a salon and that’s how we redesigned our hair system. We gave the artists tools such as a blow dryer, gel, comb, brush, scissors and they actually grow the hair on someone or a creature.” The real time process which is simulated on the fly assisted in making the character of Gollum look younger. “We trimmed his hair down a little bit. It’s a fair number of years earlier so we did give him a little bit of a haircut to change him slightly and couple of extra teeth he didn’t have in Lord of the Rings. Other than that he’s pretty much the same character.” Another creature benefited from new hair computer software program. “The Wargs in Lord of the Rings were simple characters with limited hair. For this movie, we put individual hairs that were all dynamically solved which gave us one more step up in the process; it allowed us to put the Wargs where we wanted 12 years ago but were unable to because of technology.” The Eagles basically remained the same. “We’re solving individual feathers now instead of big broad stroke solves but in general they’re what the Eagles were in Lord of the Rings, at least in design.”
“The creatures department probably hated me after this because I was probably a little rough on them but it’s only because that’s the area I came from,” admits Eric Saindon who had to endure some disturbing medical research to produce the Goblin King. “It was unpleasant daily sessions I would have to say. It was some of the grossest stuff we have ever had to look at here. Looking at sores and you name it we had to look into it to see if it was, ‘That might be a good sore to have on his chin.’ Or, ‘This might be something disgusting on his side.’ It’s not something I would want to do again.” The character sparked a lot of discussion. “It was a little bit of back and forth. We crossed the line a few times into the realm of, ‘Nope. We definitely can’t show that.’ We crossed the line a few times and had to reel it back in and say, ‘We can’t put those moles or big pussy sores on his cheek because in a close-up you’re going to see that too close.’” The jiggle factor had to be taken into consideration. “He’s a huge guy. It’s a fine balance. It always is because you don’t want to have too much jiggle or he won’t look the scale he is. The first thing you think is, ‘Let’s put lots of jiggle on him.’ But once you put too much it doesn’t look correct either. It’s always a juggling act. It’s like dynamics on fur. Once you add too much it never looks quite right. You want people to see it but you want them to see it more subtly so you sell it without over selling it.” Peter Jackson wanted the Goblin King to have a particular physical attribute. “The goitre was a controversial point for everybody. Everyone had different opinions on it. In the end it worked well because it did what Peter wanted it. It made him this unique disgusting character but no one knew quite what it was for awhile. It went back and forth on what it was going to look like. I liked the final outcome because it fit his character.”
“We started to get an idea of that happening on-set when they no longer put anyone in for where Azog was supposed to be,” remarks Eric Saindon of the mammoth creature which went from being physical to digital late in the production. “He wasn’t quite reaching the look that Peter wanted from the prosthetics.” A variety of visual research was conducted. “We wanted something that was subsurface looking so it had that new born mouse look. Peter wanted the self-inflicted scars throughout so that you felt like Azog had given himself these scars on his face and throughout his body that went really deep. Deeper than you could go on prosthetics so it was something that you could only do in CG, getting these scars that go down to the bone. We wanted the look of the new born mouse but we didn’t want that feel for the skin; it couldn’t be a weak looking character. It had to be this tough, scary character and one of the great things for that is Manu Bennett [30 Days of Night] the actor who played Azog on-set was the most intense guy; he got so into the character that it helped bring Azog to life.” Bennett influenced the cinematic appearance of Azog. “On the original designs he had hair in fact but once Peter saw Manu in the mo-cap [motion-capture] stage, he didn’t have any hair and they liked the look of him. It made him scarier. Simple things like that added to the design and the final look of Azog.”
Turning the Trolls into stone was not a complicated issue. “We did some shaders tricks and simulations to convert them over so that was straightforward,” says Eric Saindon. “As for the Trolls themselves we did something slightly different where we had the actors on the set and a mo-cap stage off to the side so that Peter could direct both. On the mo-cap stage we had three actors playing the Trolls, and the actors on the mo-cap stage acted out the Trolls Sequence at the same time. We could send a live feed from the captured mo-cap in through Peter’s live-action camera so that he could see at the same time the Trolls in the environment with the actors. It was this simultaneous camera idea we had from Avatar where you could put a Na’vi in a live-action set as the director was filming; he could see the eye lines and the framing of the cameras. It gave Peter a lot more flexibility to setup the shots the way he wanted.” Pivotal to being able to make a CG character believable are the eyes. “If you don’t get the eyes right you’ll never sell the character because that’s where people look.” Extensive research allowed for the eyes to no longer be a sphere with a texture map on it. “We went through books and figured out the actual geometry for an eyeball.” Further innovations allowed Gollum to become more expressive. We didn’t do a lot of facial capture for Gollum in the past. It was lots of video cameras and keyframe animation. For this movie, we were able to capture everything from Andy [Serkis] so we put Andy into Gollum much more he has ever in the past.” The change in the frame rate had a significant impact in bringing out the performance of Serkis [The Prestige]. “The 48 frames a second allowed us to add more subtleties in the animation. Little twinkles of animation that you wouldn’t have seen before.”
“We’ve been a strong advocate for previs since the days of Lord of the Rings,” says Eric Saindon. “The first real previs I remember doing was Pelennor Fields working with Christian Rivers [The Lovely Bones] and it was rudimentary cubes with textures on it of Orcs. We were trying to block in camera moves and the big sweeping cameras flying over the tops of the armies.” The pre-production tool has become a big asset. “Pretty much after Avatar wrapped we went in and started building previs for the Goblin Cavern which allowed us to go back and forth to Peter to layout. ‘We know that they’re going to come in at this spot. They’ll want to travel for a little ways before we see the town and then we’re going to see this immense town underground with a throne. We’re going to come upon that and they’re going to escape a different way.’ Peter laid out the ideas for the scene in his head and then we tried to build a low resolution version that we could use simple mock ups through even before it went to the previs department. We had some idea of what it was going to be and then previs could take that and start to build upon the ideas that Peter had in his head. It allowed us to get one step closer to pulling it directly from Peter. It was a good way to work.” Numerous environmental elements needed to be created for the Goblin Cavern. “The buildings were not just wood buildings. Most people watching the movie would never catch any of that but the buildings were all individual planks and pieces of carts. They were doors to buildings. They were wagon wheels. The buildings were all made up of thousands of individual items that the goblins scavenged from everywhere. Peter wanted to get this idea out there that these were scavengers and their entire city was built up on all of these different bits. For us, one of the big challenges was to create all of these assets and put them together in such a way that looked like this immense environment without looking too cluttered.”
“3D meant everything had to be done in a correct world space,” states Eric Saindon. “We learned a lot about that on Avatar. The 48 frames allowed us to add more detail into the movie. We were able to add more animation and to get smoother transitions for everything. The 48 was a good thing for us. It added a little more paintwork but it helped us to add more detail into the movie.” The visual effects team of Eric Saindon, Joe Letteri, R. Christopher White and David Clayton have been lauded with an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects which “was a good surprise.” The dragon which is hinted at in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is featured prominently in title of the sequel The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). “Smaug is still an unknown. We’re still designing.” The pivotal antagonist is being voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness). “We use Benedict to definitely push through what he will be but until we really get into the next movie it’s hard to know how far it’ll all go.” When The Hobbit: There and Back Again (2014) is released, Weta Digital will have completed two trilogies situated in an iconic fantasy world originated by J.R.R. Tolkien. “Every inch of Middle-earth is well known to us at this point,” laughs Saindon. “Alan Lee and John Howe have all of Middle-earth and have had all of Middle-earth in their heads for years, and they’ve shared and drawn it all for us.”
Production stills and VFX images © 2012 New Line Productions, Inc. Courtesy of New Line Productions, Inc. and Weta Digital.
Many thanks to Eric Saindon for taking the time for this interview.
To learn more visit the official website for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Weta Digital, and read our Peter Jackson profile titled Cinematic Adventurer.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.