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Interview: Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

'Ten years on, we now know so much more about how to make a character look more real ...'

By James Rocchi Dec 13, 2012 5:19PM

After working on the "Lord of the Rings" films, visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri moved onto "Avatar" -- which, to his regret, meant he couldn't work as much as he wanted to when Guillermo del Toro was to direct "The Hobbit." When scheduling meant Peter Jackson was taking over -- and that Letteri could work on "The Hobbit" -- the four-time Academy Award winner stepped up to the plate with vigor.  We spoke with Letteri about the complex machinations of simple scenes, the pleasure of small things and how effects have changed since "Lord of the Rings" ...


MSN Movies: You've worked on "The Lord of the Rings" films, and there are two distinct phases in this. One was knowing you'd be making these films, "The Hobbit" films, and two is knowing that Mr. Jackson would be on board not just a producer but as a director. When that change happened, was that exciting? Was that like back on the saddle again riding alongside Mr. Jackson?


Joe Letteri: Well, it was exciting, but we're also excited to have a chance to work with Guillermo del Toro. We were all looking forward to that. And Guillermo was involved with the pre-production. We were trying to help him out as much as possible, but really we were all pretty much involved with "Avatar" at the time that Guillermo was mostly working with Richard and Peter and everyone to kind of develop the concept. So by the time we were ready to go full on, it was at the same point where Guillermo said he had to walk away, so for us we were in a way relieved as well as excited that Peter came onboard because we knew we'd have to hit the ground running. And having Peter back on as director just gave us all a short hand. We knew exactly what to do.


BING: Joe Letteri l Guillermo del Toro

And Mr. del Toro is certainly no slouch -- anyone who's seen his films knows that. If there was one possible trade up it's getting Mr. Jackson back. When you know you're going back to the world of Middle Earth, I have to ask as a cast member, somebody who cares about his work, are you more excited about the chance to do new things or the chance to do things you've done before but better? The technologies, you're maybe getting some of the rough edges off in "Lord of the Rings" and use them better here. Was that appealing?


Yeah, yeah. I have to say both sides are (appealing) because people ask me, "Do you ever want to go back and look at old films again that you've done and redo them?" I'm not really inclined to do that, but you have a film like this where you've got Gollum. Ten years on, we now know so much more about how to make a character look more real and how to really get more of the performance that the actors giving us to come through. So it was great to be able to start with Gollum and to be able to revisit him for this film.


Is it ironic that ten years of increases in computing power can lead to an increase in dramatic power and a performance like Mr. Serkis'?


No, it actually makes complete sense if you look at what we're doing to kind of analyze and adapt and translate the performance to the screen. That's what we need.


Little things in film like that beautiful flying dragon kite in the dwarven city, these films are so full of spectacle. What's one little thing where you look at it and go we got that right?


Probably one of the little things I would say the moth. I just like the way it just kind of alights and kind of flies off and carries the message over the audience's head.


High frame rate, 48 frames per second, is that daunting in that you've really got to do the sets and the makeup superbly because of the high resolution? But is it also exciting because you get to put people in a world they've never been in before?


It's more exciting than daunting because for us, we know what to do work-wise. There's just more that has to be done. But it's not different than what we already do. So we can just focus on really that extra bit of detail that's going to bring you that clarity, that vision when you see it onscreen.


Can I put forward a compliment that despite being a fully-grown man of reasonable intelligence who's watched making-of material, I still can't figure out how you make Martin Freeman look like a hobbit next to Ian McKellen? How do you do that?


Well there's a couple of ways. The old way's the forced perspective trick where bring Ian McKellen closer to the camera and Martin's farther away. That's how we did it in "Lord of the Rings." But of course that was only one camera, so it worked. When you're doing it with stereo 3D cameras, that no longer works so well. So what we actually had to do was work out the math to make that relationship hold between the two of them -- have them both on separate stages, synchronize and control the cameras so they're both moving at the appropriate rate to get the scale difference, and then composite the images together later. So it was really quite easy. (Laughs)


For more on "The Hobbit," watch our two video interviews with the cast and crew: 

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