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.
"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.
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.”