By Geoff Boucher
Updated February 13, 2013 at 01:52 PM EST
The Hobbit Oscars

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a tale of two risky quests. The first quest is the one on the screen, which sends Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and 12 compact compatriots off toward Lonely Mountain. The second is the filmmaking odyssey for the cast and crew led by director Peter Jackson, who won fame and glory in Middle-earth with the Lord of the Rings trilogy but found a different combination of challenges in adapting this earlier Tolkien epic.

A key figure in Jackson’s odyssey is senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, the director of Weta Digital and a four-time Oscar winner (Avatar, King Kong, and the second and third Lord of the Rings films) who may add a fifth thanks to his latest Middle-earth nomination (which he shares with Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White). EW caught up with Letteri to talk about the changing face of digital effects and its unexpected journey toward the spiritual center of acting craft. Also, check out a new sizzle reel of The Hobbit, a film that racked up $956 million in worldwide box office, which among Tolkien adaptations bows only to Return of the King, the 2003 finale of the first trilogy that took in $1.1 billion and won the Oscar for Best Picture.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first Lord of the Rings film opened a little more than 11 years ago but it’s amazing how far digital effects have leaped in that span. For you, when you look back at your path, what do you see that’s unexpected?

JOE LETTERI: The nature of it, the true nature of the work. We’re just in the early days of understanding what facial expression means of how people relate to each other. I know people focus on the technology, like the motion capture, but really when you look at a lot of this and you try to tease out what the meaning is, you figure out that it comes down to trying to understand expression and the way people relate to each other. That’s drama, that’s the heart of what actors do. We work with actors to distill that and to bring it to these new characters. With Hobbit we had a chance to do it with six characters with speaking lines — there was over 20 minutes of dialogue for these characters.

As you’re saying that it makes me think about the way visual effects are most often summarized as spectacle but this is about nuance. There are the visual effects that make you lean back but these are the ones that make you lean forward…

Yeah, that’s really true. It’s an intriguing challenge and the lessons we learned from Gollum is you want to work with the actors to do this. I know a lot of actors are sort of afraid of that process but if they can get an understanding of what they are doing as stripping away everything from the performance except the performance itself, [they can view the] challenge as the engagement of an audience without being seen. We give them this one amazing advantage in that we can create a character around that performance that is unlike anything that’s ever been put on film before, and so they have this ability both emotionally and visually to engage audiences in new ways that intrigue them. Anytime you present something familiar in a new form, people get interested in it. When you first see a character like Gollum, you hear the voice, you understand there’s a human element to all of it, but you’re seeing that’s he’s not human looking yet it looks like he was there when the camera was rolling. That gives your mind an incredible focus and allows you to free up or, well, it’s not even freeing up so much as it is what you said before, it allows the movie to draw you in at heightened level because there’s nothing ordinary about it.

Earlier you mentioned you were “Middle-earthed out” — back when you finished up the first trilogy I know there was such a sense of finish-line relief. You didn’t know then that you were only at the halfway mark of your Tolkien marathon.

No, not at all, I had no clue at the time. None of us thought there would be more. Especially since The Hobbit is a prequel story to the one that we had told and none of us even thought about coming back to tell the smaller story. And it turns out that we haven’t — we did come back to tell the bigger version of the smaller story.

It is bigger, but it’s also crowded. The number of characters who need to be introduced is a challenge just on its own…

It became part of one of the really bigger challenges — you’ve got 13 dwarves to keep track of and you have all of these interwoven storylines — and how do you [handle the needs of that and still] make it compelling so that every new scene is something audiences want to watch. We’re making two more Hobbit films and that obviously is the challenge that continues as we get into the second part of the story. This next one centers around the story of Smaug and we’re just getting into working with him and acknowledging him as a character. In the first film you just got fleeting glimpses of him.

You were talking before about a sort of digital distillation of performance. Do you think the work of Andy Serkis as Gollum and as Caesar [in Rise of the Planet of the Apes] has crystallized that possibility for true students of acting craft? I ask because Smaug is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, a bright talent on the rise and one of the smartest actors I’ve ever met.

He’s a tremendous talent, and yes, I would say that is what we’re seeing as we go forward. There is this unfamiliarity and this “What is this thing?” but once they actually see what’s going on, there’s a shift we see. They are acting without costume and on a very minimal set — it’s like workshop acting — and when they know that we can take that and turn it into a creature that no one has ever seen before but still hold on to the performance that they are conveying, they warm up to it. They can shed things that they’ve never shed before. There’s no hair and makeup, they are not limited by the way they look, and they are the focus of the whole team. Everyone is working to capture their performance as authentically as possible and then amplify it by changing the “reality” it exists within.

The reality you drop them into, Middle-earth, has become a powerfully distinctive landscape in the mind of moviegoers. But there’s still terrain left to visit. Is that fun for your team to think about?

The book is a journey and we have a few more places in Middle-earth to travel through and because we’re getting away from familiar territory now — we’ve seen Rivendell, we’ve seen Bag-End — now we’re going into places where we have some creative license to create new places straight out of the book and do everything we can to make those pages come to life in a way that matches expectations but is also not predictable or derivative.

When you look around at the other movies this year, is there something out there that you’ve circled in your mind as being especially intriguing as far as the visual effects? Is there a movie that someone else is doing that you really want to take a look at to see how they handled a particular challenge?

There are a lot of movies out there that are looking great and they are being really well done, but as far as the technical or the techniques? No, I don’t there’s anything. We’ve been able to crack a lot of what’s been done before like with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. We’ve gone and done lots of very realistic creatures and we’ve had chances to do big explosions and big landscapes. And in fact if you look at the Oscar nominations this year, out of five nominations we did work on three of them. In addition to Hobbit, we did some of the work on Avengers and also on Prometheus. So if you go in and look at some of the creature work like the Engineer in Prometheus and the aliens at the end, those are our creations, so we’re getting the creature/character work that we like to do but also handling the things that go around it like the big water simulations and pyrotechnics and forests and landscapes. We like to stay ahead of the curve.

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