Joe Letteri interview: Gollum, effects technology and more

As An Unexpected Journey opens in the UK, Nick met with visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri to talk about The Hobbit trilogy...

You may not be familiar with the name of Joe Letteri, but you’ll certainly be familiar with his work. A four times Academy Award winner, he was the senior visual effects supervisor on the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, King Kong, Avatar, and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, and is currently working on both Man Of Steel and The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, due out next year.

More recently, of course, Letteri’s been deeply involved with An Unexpected Journey, out this week. We caught up with him to talk about Gollum, technology, and more…

What advantages in technology have the last 10 years given you since the original trilogy?

Well Gollum’s probably a good example, looking at 10 years ago. The advances in performance capture mean the kind of detail you can not only capture from a performance like the one Andy Serkis gives us, but you can now translate it directly to the screen. It’s much more detailed in a character like Gollum now, than you would have had 10 years ago – skin detail, eye detail, the way the muscles work, the way that gravity is working, it all adds up to just more believability and a presence when you’re watching a movie. You really feel like you’re there with those characters. You can get more textural detail in the skin, more lighting detail in the eyes, more detail in how the muscles move under the skin – every little bit of him has been improved to a better fidelity to what you’d see if he were real.

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There seems to be a lot more CGI in The Hobbit compared to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. What were the benefits of switching to this from the previous physical and tactile world?

Well one of the reasons for going more CG on this as opposed to less on the original Lord Of The Rings was for example in the use of models and miniatures – we went more CG this time, and in fact we didn’t use any models or miniatures [NB: I had no idea about this, and was a little taken aback. The CG on the Goblin Town in particular is incredible, and I was convinced we were seeing miniatures again, blended with CG] was dictated by the fact we were shooting in High Frame Rate, and it was easier for shot composition and shot design, editorial choices and the ability to experiment after the fact and try out new ideas in shots. If everything’s in the computer and digital you have more creative freedom. 

So all the wide shots of the sets were CG? Including all the stuff under the mountains such as the Goblin Town?

Goblin Town is a good example – we built a bit of that set, for any close-up shots of the dwarves and dialogue, right around the King’s throne for example, but then we would create the whole thing anyway as there some shots that were all CG, and the whole cavern around them was all CG.

What were the biggest challenges of working within the 48fps HFR?

Well the biggest challenge for us was that we had to produce twice as many frames of film – there’s a lot more rendering that had to be done. Some types of work that had to be done by hand, such as paint touch-ups or painting out a wire rig, meant twice as much hand work. But there were some advantages in things like animation – you could get sharper movement than you could before, and it really helped with things like eye blinks, quick movements around the mouth, dialogue. We used it creatively, but really it was there to help with the presence in 3D.

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Did you have a favourite creature you created this time round?

Still Gollum. I think he is just really enjoyable to watch. And I did like the Goblin King, and I did like Azog, I think he came across really well, and if Gollum wasn’t in there I’d say those two were my favourites, but he’s just so much fun to watch.

Is there anything you wished you done better?

No, I think we got a chance to get everything in there to the best we know how. There’s still things we are still researching, but in terms of what is possible this year and in the near future we got everything in we possibly could. 

Although teased, can you tell us anything more of what we can expect from Smaug and the Necromancer?

Not really, because you’ve seen about as much of them as I have… Yeah, we’re just getting started on film two now.

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Any ideas on how the Battle of the Five Armies will work?

Not exactly, we’ve got a few ideas. We haven’t got to it yet! We don’t want to rush these things you know.

Finally, what’s your favourite of the four films so far?

Oh that’s a good question. I’d still have to say Return Of The King because it completes the arc. I really enjoy The Hobbit but we’re only beginning a new story, it’s only partially there now and we’re still waiting to see what happens.

Joe Letteri, thank you very much.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in UK cinemas on the 13th December.

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