Interview: Weta VFX Wizard Joe Letteri On Gollum, Smaug & The Goblin King

‘We gave him a few more teeth and put more hair on his head, and it just didn’t look like him anymore.’

This week we had the honour of interviewing visual effects pioneer Joe Letteri while he was in London for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Having joined Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital company for work on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, namely the revolutionary approach to Gollum, Letteri was appointed Weta Director in 2007.

To date, Letteri has won four Oscars for his incredible work on Avatar, King Kong, The Two Towers and The Return of the King. He has his work cut out with Jackson’s return to Middle Earth, designing more of Tolkien’s creations for the new Hobbit trilogy.

Christa Ktorides, fresh from tackling the Dwarves, sat down with Letteri to talk about the ‘new’ Gollum, the Goblin King and the challenges of fantastical characters.

You’re one of the people responsible for the wonderful Gollum. How has the technology changed since The Two Towers?
It’s changed in a couple of aspects. One is how we create the performance, and the other is how we bring that performance to the screen. So when we did The Two Towers Andy Serkis was hired just for his voice, and we thought we’d record his performance in a booth. It didn’t work out that way - Andy got into a suit and jumped into the scene with the actors, and that was great because it really gave the scenes energy. So we saw all that and thought, how do we take advantage of this? He had to go back and shoot all his scenes later. At the time we thought wouldn’t it be great if we could capture all his scenes? After ten years of working with performance capture - from Gollum to King Kong, to the Na’vi in Avatar to Tintin to Rise of the Planet of the Apes - we really learned a lot. So this time around we could put Andy in a motion capture suit in the live setting and record him as it’s filming. So that’s the performance you now see. Also on top of that, we also learned more how to bring that performance to the screen. People often mistake performance capture with the character performance - it’s just recording the performance, we still have to create the character, and that performance serves as the basis for it. We’ve learned what makes eyes look real, skin look real, seeing the muscles move under the skin. All this kind of detail, in a physical sense gives you an idea that there is a real presence the other side of the camera.

Gollum’s about 60 years younger in The Hobbit - did his look change?
We tried that. We gave him a few more teeth and put more hair on his head, and it just didn’t look like him anymore. So no, we went back to the way he looked before. It’s just that there’s so much more detail now, the perception is of more reality than ten years ago.

You’ve worked on realistic and fantastical creatures - what’s more difficult?
Creating one from scratch is always a little bit harder as you don’t know if you’ve got it right. You’re always questioning it. If you’ve got something side by side, you can look at all the pointers to see if you need to do more work. If you’re making something up, Gollum is a good example, exactly how big should those eyes should be, and making small changes in proportion to get the look right. You need something that’s both menacing and can be softened for the performance. You question yourself until you get tired of it!

What was the biggest challenge working on The Hobbit?
I would have to say the Goblin King, because proportionately he was so different to anything human. He had that big goitre and that mass of flesh everywhere; just the way that moved relative to what a human could perform, we really had to massage that action to get the weight and believability while keeping those big theatrical gestures. He’s got arms that weigh hundreds of pounds each! Making sure it looks both fluid and massive is a fine line you’re trying to maintain.

What’s an average day like when you’re filming the movies?
When we’re filming we actually have a team on-set that have to deal with the day-to-day aspect of it. Consulting with Peter and the rest of the crew, where the green screen needs to go, a lot of measuring, and photographing. A lot of what we do happens on the computer.

You worked on Jurassic Park twenty years ago - did you anticipate that you would be doing what you can do now?
Jurassic Park was the first sense that we could look at doing photo-real creatures on the screen, even though our knowledge at the time was in its infancy. At the time we weren’t thinking photo-real characters, no-one was thinking about that as there were no scripts or stories that hinted at that. For me, the first hint at that actually came with the chance to put Gollum on screen. Now it’s great to have the opportunity to come back and apply everything we now know.

What should we be looking forward to in the next films?
The next film will feature Smaug and I think he will be a central part of the story, but we’re just getting started with him, and we don’t have much more than what you see on screen in this film!