The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Mon 14th Jan 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

14 January 2013, by Paul Hellard

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was always going to be a milestone movie. If not for anything else but the fact it was to be the first fully digital 3D stereo movie shown at 48 frames per second in a cinema. Watching the full 48fps HFR 3D screening through the near three hours of episodic battles, fights and escapes was a pleasure and I admit wanted to see more as the end credits rolled. The VFX Supervisor on An Unexpected Journey, Eric Saindon has been working at Weta Digital, by his reckoning, for about 14 years, working on the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar, and a string of immensely VFX-heavy cinema releases. Saindon and the Weta crew are now looking down the days to an Academy Award for VFX.


"Just getting back and involved with Gollum again was an amazing experience for me,” says Saindon. “Working with Peter Jackson directly and the talented crew was real fun." From the quiet Hobbiton Shire, Bilbo Baggins is unceremoniously dragged along into signing into a mercenary troupe of Dwarves, on an Unexpected Adventure to the Lonely Mountain, just as the title suggests. The quest for the younger, more reluctant Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman, is to assist the Dwarves in helping Thorin reclaim their stolen mountain home from a dragon named Smaug.

As the Lord of the Rings adaption closed production nearly a decade ago, it netted 17 Oscar wins and countless million box office dollars. Since then, the technology has grown out of sight. Gollum has been completely remade, yet there is even more of Andy Serkis inside the part. “On the first film, Andy was brought on more as just a voice talent for Gollum," explains Eric Saindon in Wellington. "But then, Peter said Andy really was Gollum, and he took the character over very early on. Now we have the technology to capture the real interaction on set, and we did this very early on in the shoot. And this time, every bit of movement Gollum made, was Andy.


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"Our creature system after the creation of the faces in Avatar has come a long way. We no longer do the traditional skinning of a creature. We now create bones, muscles, fatty layers, and then we put the skin on top of that, and it all acts as it should." Additionally, Saindon adds that the 48-frame per second (HFR) allowed them to get even more detail into the character's performance as well as in the animations. All of the MoCap at Weta for The Hobbit was done at 60fps, which is the limit of human perception, so Saindon feels that 48fps is the optimum rate. The added possibility of cranking higher or lower frame rates depending on the action tempo brings in added complexity as well.


Data wrangling and keeping track of cameras and lenses is just a part of the modern digital production. "We did full LIDAR scans of every single set we shot on," says Saindon, "so we could always go back and know the proportions, scale, camera lens and lighting, etc." The unplanned dinner party at the Baggins household is a cramped affair and there are clearly far too many characters in the one room after a while [imagine the smell!].


Here is where multiple sets were used for the one sequence. Ian McKellen playing the giant Gandalf character played inside a set which is green screened, about 30% smaller and filled with tiny LEDs on sticks to signify the Dwarves he talks to. Meanwhile, the Dwarves are within earshot with Gandalf in a larger identical set, at full scale. These were combined to create the 3D space for the sequence. “Peter’s big concept for this was to shoot the sections months apart one following the other, after we’d tracked the first plate,” explains Saindon. Alex Funke, head of the miniatures department at Weta Digital had an idea to shoot the scene through two Coopers, which are the motion control rigs. Jackson could use one of the cameras freely, wherever he wanted to move it. And that camera was driving another camera in the green screen set where Ian [McKellen] was. This data was being used in a real-time composite and the information was put back on Peter’s camera so he could see the two sets combined together even as he was moving the camera around. “This took a while to set up but it allowed Peter to direct the two groups together in different scaled sets, and still see exactly what he wants. Ian [McKellen] has incredible muscle memory to ensure where he needs to be at a certain time. He rehearsed several times in the full sized set, looking above the Dwarves’ heads. So when it came to rolling cameras, he knew where everything was.”

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Rock Monsters

There are many scenes in The Hobbit that are classic fantasy travelogue. Walking along a snowy rock ledge, the Dwarf troupe are surprised when a couple of bits of the mountain come to life and fight like tantrum-throwing children. These Rock Monsters were all key-frame animation. Christian Rivers, the Previz supervisor and his team helped to create that scene and all the very dynamic camera moves that are involved. Previz mapped everything to do with interaction of rocks and Dwarves, either from above to monsters falling against the cliff face. There was so many layers of animated collisions in the scene, it had to be tracked and animated before the live action was shot.

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Weta had their digital shampoo out for this feature, because moving individual hairs around, point by point, was found to not be a very intuitive way to style hair. It was decided that the hair would be tackled not so much by a technical standpoint, but instead the hair modelers were tasked with taking the challenge as though the hair was completely real. All of it. And it wasn’t real. The Hair system was called Barbershop, and it plugs into Maya and RenderMan. It was written over the last several years by Alasdair Coull and a team of five other programmers, with input from Marco Revelant and our modeling departments, initially for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Barbershop includes tools to prim and shave, comb and brush digital hair, just like a common barbershop toolkit.

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Goblin cavern

Looking rather like a cross between a Brueghel painting and some Escher architecture, the Goblin cavern sequence smoulders with activity. The Goblin Cavern sequence involves several levels of fragile wooden slat walkways strung across the void of a massive fiery cavern. Straight after Avatar wrapped, the VFX crew started to meet with Peter Jackson because they all knew it was going to be a big one. “Very early on we started to rough together the environment for this,” explains Saindon. “The storyboard seemed fairly simple. We wanted to come in, do some travel, get introduced to the King and take in the immensity of the Goblin cavern. This sequence was easily a year and half of work to decide what we wanted to see, and 90% of the goblins were motion capture from Terry Notary and his team. He was the performance supervisor here at Weta and we several iterations of a performance Terry did and of other stunt guys that Terry trained, to create the Goblins.”


[Spoiler Alert]

Well, the Dwarves, Gandalf and Baggins don't quite get there. They meet and fight, meet and fight, and meet and fight several bands of uglies, and at the end of the movie, they are still a few miles short of their quest with the said Smaug. I should have been upset, but the action in this near three hour snippet of 'Bagginses' had me wanting more.



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