The Desolation Of Smaug: Creating the ultimate movie dragon

"They don’t mess around down there, those Weta digital boys...” reckons Martin Freeman, who goes toe-to-claw with the titular dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug ’s most thrilling sequence. “Smaug is brilliantly rendered,” he adds. “The combination of the voice and the look works fantastically.”

The sequel’s MVP, Smaug, was the character that everyone was looking forward to meeting from the moment that the film was greenlit. His creation is documented in new book, Smaug: Unleashing The Dragon , and we had Gino Acevedo, Weta Digital’s Creative Art Director and Textures Supervisor, talk us through how they built the mighty firebreather from concept drawing to millions of digital scales.

“The Textures Department do all of the fine details like the scars and the colouration. On the team we had John Howe [ legendary Middle-earth illustrator ] who’s been chasing this dragon for longer than anybody. I’m a bit of a fanboy, so being able to work so closely with him was amazing: we called ourselves ‘Team Smaug’.

“John said that he really didn’t want to overdesign it. The whole design process was very true to [ Tolkien’s ] books.”

“Nobody does it better than Mother Nature, so references were based on real creatures: lizards, alligators, crocodiles and snakes, plus a lot of different creatures for colouration. Sequence Supervisor Eric Saindon even found a red cowboy boot that had exactly the kind of buffed specularity – not too shiny, but not too dull.

“Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting didn’t influence the design, but it was really interesting with his voice – and they captured some of his movements in Smaug’s animation: you can tell that he’s really into it.”

“A lot of things have to be worked out logically, like, ‘how is this creature going to move?’ ‘Can his arms bend correctly?’ ‘Will his wings work?’ When he came to us the first time, Smaug had four legs, and then finally Peter [ Jackson ] just said, ‘Hmm, I wonder what he’d look like with two legs?’ And as always, Peter knows best, and he looked great. That redesign really made him feel more animal-like, and a lot more powerful. In the first film when he was rendered, he’s obviously a four-legged beast, and so for the extended DVD, we went back in and fixed him with the two legs.”

“It all starts out with a pencil and a bit of paper, the old traditional way. And once something finally starts to get locked down, it goes through what we call the ‘noodling’ stage, where it gets picked apart. Then, finally, it gets handed over to us at Weta Digital for 3D modelling and texturing.

“We took those interpretations and added more details on top of that. We really wanted to have the feel of the scales and the skin to be very realistic, but very natural, so we didn’t want to just multiply everything in a computer. My team are still going through a bit of therapy after hand-drawing over a million scales...”

“In some of the first renders that we ever did of Smaug he was quite vibrant – a brilliant red – and Peter saw those and said, ‘Nah, he looks too much like a fresh baby dragon, he needs to look ancient.’ And that’s where Peter started bringing in some of the details. He said, ‘What about some scars, like maybe at one time he had battled another dragon from a long time ago?’

“A lot of tears were shed on this project because we spent all this time on all this detail, and then we saw the finished shots... and it was really dark in his cave!

“Obviously there’s going to be lots of fire in There And Back Again . So I think there’s going to be some really beautiful shots of Smaug in there. Just to be able to see the glow from the fire and the reflection on his skin... I’m really, really looking forward to that.”

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray. Images and concept designs extracted from Smaug: Unleashing The Dragon by Daniel Falconer, published by HarperCollins. The Hobbit: There And Back Again opens 12 December 2014.

Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.