Weta Magic
The Lord of the Rings trilogy wasn’t just a worldwide phenomenon that launched director Peter Jackson into superstardom, but it also revealed New Zealand’s own Weta Digital and Weta Workshop to be one of the best visual and special effects companies in the entire world. After winning several Academy Awards for their work on Jackson’s earlier films, it was a no brainer that they would be back for The Hobbit as well.

Of course, with new projects comes new challenges, and The Hobbit presents a big one for digital effects. Because the director made the decision to film at 48 frames per second – double the standard 24 frames per second – the folks at Weta Digital literally had to do twice as much work…and that’s not even mentioning the decision to make the movie in 3D instead of 2D.

“Strictly speaking we don't do twice as much animation, although, because the animation is being seen with more acuity we have to take things to a level that we wouldn't have to at twenty-four, but just in terms of the processing and the calculation, we're generating twice as many frames,” said Matt Aitken, a visual effects supervisor and 18 year veteran at Weta Digital. “Actually, the switch from 24 to 48 technically has much less impact on us than the switch from 2D to 3D Stereo did. Lots of techniques and shortcuts and tricks of the trade that we had been using up until that point in the 2D world quite successfully were instantly revealed for being filmed elements on cards. In 3D Stereo they just became immediately apparent that that was the trick that we were working. So we had to completely rethink the way that we did lots of the basic tools of the trade if you like.”

New issues exist on the practical side as well, but obviously they come packaged differently. Unlike The Lord of the Rings where there were a number of human-sized characters to work with, with The Hobbit Weta Workshop is having to deal with a number of much smaller characters with peculiar and challenging proportions. Richard Taylor, a supervisor with the company, spoke with us about the process of designing a proper looking dwarf, sitting us all along a long table packed with various swords, maces and other Middle Earth weaponry.

“A dwarf, as we know a dwarf from our own world, is averaging about a five-to-one head-to-body ratio,” he said. “So what we're trying to do with all endeavors, is give the impression that they have a larger head to a more truncated and stout body. And the easy way to achieve a great deal of that is through body padding, and giving them large suits that they wear under their clothing. But of course, it's one thing to increase their body, lower their waist-line, drop their knee-lines down, make them look thicker in their limbs and heavier. But, of course, it's a whole other challenge to start tackling their prosthesis, their hair, their hands, because, of course, if you increase their head in size, you in turn have to increase all the other naked parts of the body, such as their hands and their feet.”

The new film also gave the divisions a chance to improve on what they had already created for The Lord of the Rings. For example, they were able to make great strides in the development of the legendary big and hairy hobbit feet. While they were working around the actors bare feet while making the first three movies, this time around they were able to make use of a product on the open market: ninja shoes. “[They] that suddenly came on the market a couple of years ago, with a very beautifully formed instep-supporting foot and open top and I think they were developed for running. We utilize those inside our silicone prosthetics.”

The real key to the company’s progress is to keep looking forward and finding new ways to build and approach new material. “We can never rest on our laurels,” Aitken said. “And I think you can see that in the history of the work that we show. And it's going to be really great with Gollum, because with Gollum we got an opportunity to look at the development that we've done over the last ten years. Here's the same character, but under the hood we're approaching him in quite different ways.”

Stay tuned here on Cinema Blend for even more about my trip to the set of The Hobbit and, as always, you can see more from the film in our Blend Film Database.

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