Set Visit: “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”


One film down and Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy is already a massive success with a billion dollars in box-office under its belt. Now, Warner Bros. Pictures is ready to unleash the middle chapter of the trilogy in cinemas this December – “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”.

In July last year I, and several other online journalists, went down to Wellington for a few days to visit the set of the trilogy and talk with everyone involved. We went through the various departments and conducted many interviews. I already covered much of the trilogy basics and events depicted in the first film in my extensive set report for that film’s release. Today, I’m focusing on specifics about the second film. The new locations, new characters, new creatures and new challenges for the team involved in the films.


When the studio shifted from a two-part film to a trilogy, the ‘cutoff’ line where the original first film ended – the Hobbit’s arrival in Lake-town – was shifted to partway through the second. As a result, the early parts of the movie continue the road trip feel of ‘An Unexpected Journey’. Accoring to production designer Dan Hennah: “It’s sort of the road movie thing, we’re still on the road, we’re still going somewhere, and it’s pretty big. Film two has a lot of bigger single elements than film one. But we’re not in them for any longer than we were on film one.”

The second film also sports a darker tone than the first, though that’s the nature of the story. John Callen, who plays one of the dwarves, says: “it does get darker as it goes along, but just as with Tchaikovsky there is always a ray of hope in there somewhere.”

One person whose influence will come more into the fore in the sequel is “Pacific Rim” filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. As we already know, del Toro was originally slated to direct the project and had a big hand in the film’s lengthy pre-production phase – especially during the creature and set design phases. del Toro departed the project before Jackson took over, a period of time which Jackson calls the worst in the entire production.

“The worst time was the time from the point that Guillermo couldn’t do the movie anymore to the point that we started shooting,” he says. “That was complicated by a whole dispute we had with Actors’ Equity in Australia which nearly made us take the movie and take it over to England to shoot. We came within a day or two of that decision. So it was very stressful for about six weeks, six, eight weeks.”

Jackson also had an ulcer to deal with at the time. However, things soon brightened up: “Since the day we started shooting it’s all been great. It’s actually been a huge amount of fun. So the surprise for me has been how much I’ve enjoyed it. I’m happy I’m doing it. I’m really, really pleased to be doing it. And that’s a surprise. I didn’t know how much I’d quite enjoy it till I started.”

When del Toro was onboard, “he designed a very del Toro looking type of film, which was cool, and that would have been a different movie to this and it would have been really interesting,” says Jackson. “There’s definitely an influence of him through there. But I’ve also pulled back on a lot of it to steer it more to the look that we did on the original Lord of the Rings films, too. So, you know, it’s a mixture… there’s elements of his DNA in there.”

Co-writer Fran Walsh adds: “He [del Toro] wrote the script with us, he was involved in a huge amount of design process, and he cares very much about it, so we got him as our collaborator and partner in this film.”


In terms of adapting the material, Walsh says that one of the most difficult elements to adapt from the book was that “we have got fifteen characters at any one time vying for screen time, that’s hard.” Specific characters that were also tricky to adapt were the Dragon Smaug, and Bard the Bowman as the latter is “underserved in the story … finding how to make him work within the story was a bit of a trick as well” says co-writer Philippa Boyens. To do that, they fleshed out the Lake-town sequences a lot and added some fresh character dynamics.

Of the whole “Hobbit” trilogy, Boyens claims the smoothest and easiest sequence to translate to screen was the Gollum scene in the first film. On the flip side, the elements that were changed the most often were the various character backstories, making sure to reveal just the right amount exposition and figuring out where to position the release of that information across the overall saga.

Boyens and Walsh’s single favorite character to write for was Smaug whom Walsh calls a “beautiful character to be given to adapt to a screenplay”. Boyens agrees, labelling the dragon “Wonderful. A true psychopath.” They also adjusted the dialogue during readings with the character’s voice actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, because “he has done some extraordinary stuff. We won’t tell you what it is, but I’ve never seen an actor do that before… I didn’t think it was something that someone could do” says Boyens.

Both writers came under fire from Tolkien purists for their changes to the material on the ‘Rings’ trilogy. They expect they’ll get a similar reaction here, most notably regarding the inclusion of the female Elven character Tauriel. “The lack of female characters in The Hobbit has certainly been something we have been aware of and we have wanted to address to some degree,” says Walsh.

Boyens provided a few more details about Tauriel: “She is different to Arwen and Galadriel. She’s a Silvan Elf and she’s very much got that feel, a more earthy feel. I think, given that we’ve introduced a female character, I don’t think we’ve done anything that people are going to object to too much, I don’t think. I hope.”

Yet one of the big draws was getting to write scenes that would lead to moments in the ‘Rings’ trilogy having more of an impact. Walsh says: “There’s certain things that I want to see play, like the moment when– Because Galadriel and Gandalf never have a scene, and now they do and we managed to get some stuff in there. So when she’s told that he’s fallen in Lord of the Rings, ‘Where is Gandalf? I would like to speak to him,’ it will mean so much more. When you go into Moria and you see that tomb and it’s Balin’s tomb and Ori wrote those words ‘drums in the deep’.”


New settings for the second film include three massive cities built for the production, the locations essentially getting darker and more barren as the journey progresses. A sequence not in the book but assembled from Tolkien’s other works is Gandalf’s subplot, and a further exploration of the fortress of Dol Guldur. As seen in the first film, it was designed to be a place of death – sharp angles, awkward staircases, sheer drop-offs and nasty foliage overgrowth.

A key sequence from the books that is being recreated is the attack by giant spiders in the dark forest of Mirkwood. The creatures are the offspring of the ancient creature of Shelob whom we glimpsed in “The Lord of the Rings: “The Return of the King”. Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, called filming that scene an intense day: “Because it was physically and emotionally quite draining. It was quite draining. Because for him, all this stuff was coming out of him that he had no idea was in there. Killing, a killing rage that came out of fear, and then we went into hate, which for Bilbo is a real difficult thing to handle, I think.”

The first city the dwarves arrive at is the human city of Lake-town (aka. Esgaroth), a location Hennah said was his favorite piece of design across the whole trilogy. The entire town is built on water, there are no straight lines, and boats move in and out around the setting. It’s a logistically complicated set, built upon numerous layers and full of activity, which also makes full use of 3D with its long canals.

The second is the human city of Dale, glimpsed in the opening prologue of the first film and what the designers call the biggest set of the entire trilogy. While the previous appearance was the city at its height, here it is in charred ruins following the attack by Smaug seen in ‘An Unexpected Journey’.

Hennah says: “When the dwarves come to Dale, it’s a ruined city, there’s dead bodies, or remains, mummified bodies, there’s a lot of ash, there’s a lot of burnt out windows and doors, a lot of foliage has grown up through the city. And we arrive there midwinter, so there’s a bit of snow.” As the city is the furthest East we see of Middle Earth, the design team were heavily inspired by Tibetan architecture.

That city’s close proximity to the third city – the stony halls of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, also meant that the two cities see a cross-pollination of architectural influences. This third city is the one built into the Lonely Mountain, now occupied by the dragon Smaug, and will show signs of Smaug’s residence over the years.

It’s described as a sprawling, rambling city which follows seams where the dwarves have mined. Hennah says: “The whole inside of the mountain is green marble flecked with gold and jewels and various other natural things. And the premise was that the Dwarves had gone into that mountain and stated mining and finding all this beautiful stuff. And basically as they mined, they created architecture. So every hole is somewhere that they have taken gold and jewels and minerals from.”

Both Dale and Erebor will play much bigger parts in the third film.


The actors playing the dwarves have a camaraderie with each other, mostly through taking the piss out of each other at every opportunity. Actor Jed Brophy (Nori) says: “We say things like, ‘Is that the way you’re going to do it? That’s a brave choice.’,” while Graham McTavish (Dwalin) added that another favorite insult was: “Yeah, I don’t care what the director says, I think you’re great.”

McTavish is quick to add that they all get along: “Considering what we’ve all been through, which is like some sort of bizarre, dysfunctional scout camp where you’re forced to wear strange outfits for eighteen months, we’ve all got on really, really well, actually, and have, I would say, got on better and better as the job’s gone on.”

McTavish says his costume is one of the heaviest of the dwarves, clocking in at 37 kgs (81 lbs). Things got really demanding when they had extra gear which bumped that count up to over 50 kgs (110 lbs) AND they had to run up a hill in the rain. It’s a tough job, but each of the dwarves have five ‘doubles’ on hand for different purposes and shots – scale doubles, stunt doubles, riding doubles, picture doubles (for very wide shots), and digital doubles.

One highly uncomfortable thing is a side effect of the silicon make-up each sports. When they sweat it shoots out in spurts from the weakest spot on their faces – the area around their tear ducts. Mixing with the talcum powder that’s applied before the make-up goes on, the dwarves will randomly appear to be crying milk. None of them envy the makeup artists who have to remove their sweat soaked prosthetics at the end of the day.

McTavish sports some of the most extensive prosthetics of the dwarves, whereas Aidan Turner only has a ‘nose tip’ – something that hasn’t escaped McTavish’s notice: “One of the prosthetics artists gave me one of Aidan’s tips. I have it in my pocket of my robe because I like to look at it every now and then just to remind me why I hate him so much. It’s this little thing. Yeah.”

Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield himself Richard Armitage, says: “We’ve created such a bond with each other because we’ve been together for eighteen months now and we know each other’s best points and worst points. It’s a great group of people and there are no arseholes, if you’ll excuse the expression. So it works. It ticks over really well. I don’t think we’ll get a tattoo. We’re trying to think of something else.”

Mark Hadlow, who plays Dori, says the entire experience has “actually been a bit of a cathartic one for me… I think, the second week that I was here, the earthquake happened in Christchurch where my family was. So I got to experience how these guys have become so much of an important part of what I do. We’ve become extremely close. We’ve become extremely close, we really have. And that also extends to our team.”


Times have changed since the original ‘Rings’ trilogy, though the artists at Richard Taylor’s WETA Workshop remain as much a fixture of the New Zealand filmmaking community as Jackson does. 13 years ago, WETA had around three computers in use, they now have 86. They used to hand-carve wax to imprint stamps into their leather costumes, they now use laser cut acrylic. They created around 600 design illustrations for the ‘Rings’ trilogy, as opposed to the 8,000 or so they’ve done for “The Hobbit”. They also now employ an extensive amount of 3D printing and milling.

WETA began working on this trilogy from about 2008 during the earliest stages of pre-production. Just to meet deadlines, the ‘weapons’ department alone had been running every day for over two years before we visited the set. They use elastomeric polymer, an equivalent to the hardened rubber that you see on the wheels of building scaffolds, along with low pressure injection molding technology to make many of their weapons. The bows are created in urethane so that the actors can fire them without arrows. Why urethane? Because firing a bow made out of more standard materials without an arrow “causes it to explode from the shockwave” says Taylor.

WETA also manufactures the silicon prosthetics – ears, faces, hands and feet used by the various actors. The level of repetition and sheer demand for prosthetics means that they can’t manufacture a stockpile weeks ahead of time, they have to be able to produce them with a 95-97% success rate to meet each day’s filming needs.


The dwarves did eight weeks of fitness training before filming began, even so more than a few say the most difficult scene involved running away from wargs (the latter parts of the first film) as it involved several days of flat-out running.

On the other hand, the sequence many say was a highlight was the one which they were filming when we were there – a scene involving Bilbo and the dwarves escaping from the grasp of the Woodland Elves via barrels down a rushing river. On-set, the rushing river was essentially a massive ‘flume ride’ – fake mountainous terrain built around a sizeable warm water channel that went in a loop and was being pumped to give the impression of a rushing river.

Despite their heavy costumes, the actors were having a whale of a time rushing along in the barrels like they were at a fun park, dodging imaginary arrows being shot at them by elves, and in some cases using their swords to swipe at elves on the rocks that would later be added with digital effects. Earlier in the production several of the dwarves shot parts of this sequence on the real Pelorus River.

Thorin Oakenshielf himself, actor Richard Armitage, says: “I think being choppered to the top of a mountain and running around all day in front of Mount Cook by a glacier was pretty awesome. But also being in those bloody barrels, it was like being at the fun fair for three days. In an unsinkable barrel getting dumped on with tons of water, it was just relentless, and kind of frustrating, but fun at the same time. And I was like, ‘We will never have another day like that on a film set.’ It was like being a child on a constant rollercoaster that you just didn’t get off all day. So that was pretty amazing.”

Armitage added that despite being in the water, they all got very hot because of the heated water and the physical activity of moving around so much in these barrels. There was also one functional problem: “[We were] really desperate to go to the loo. But they wouldn’t let us get out of the barrels to go to the loo, so we were trying to work out who did it in the wetsuit and who didn’t. I resisted for the sake of Wardrobe. I didn’t want them wringing out my wetsuit at the end of the night.”


Brophy, who has worked with Peter Jackson on numerous films, says of the filmmaker: “He’s a visionary, he has the vision in his head, he surrounds himself with people who are all at the top of their game who share a similar vision, and he’s always been very, very careful to make the movie that he wants to make. He never shies away from making people work really hard to get that. Yeah, I don’t see a lot of difference in the way that he works, from the very first time. He’s always been someone that– I would do anything to work with Peter, simply because he pushes you to excellence. He’s always pushing the boundaries of innovative technology and pushing the boundaries of what he can get people to do physically.”

Co-star Armitage agrees: “You just find stamina that you never thought you had. And when you work with Peter, he pushes you harder and harder and harder and you think that’s the last take and he’ll always ask you for another one … he’s detailed, and he’s succinct with his notes, and his imagination is way beyond anything that I could ever perceive … and he thinks big, which encourages you to think big and to be more.”

That has lead to the actors pushing themselves to be better than they thought they could be. Armitage adds: “I think my creative mind has been opened more on this job than anything else, so you come to work with loads of ideas in your head and he’ll listen to everything … So it has surpassed my expectations in terms of what I’m capable of. And I think it’s surpassed his expectation of what he can ask you for. So everyone is going further than they ever believed they could.

Yet he’s also a rock that even the veteran actors can go to. Sir Ian McKellen says: “He’s very much the boss. He’s not just the hired director, he’s the producer, he’s the mind behind it all and the imagination behind it all. But he’s very available as a person, so that’s a very nice combination. You know that if you talk to Peter and ask him a question, you get an answer and you know that’s the answer.”


Both the 3D and 48 frames-per-second filming technologies meant that certain tricks employed by designers and camera operators are no longer functional. At the higher frame rate, and with new shooting technology like a technocrane (which can essentially go anywhere), you can’t get away with sloppy sets or costumes anymore. Fake buildings and props look fake – so have to be built out of the real materials where possible. The old forced perspective trick also no longer works with 3D technology, while the higher frame rate eats color, especially in the red part of the spectrum. So, the actual set design we glimpsed sported almost psychedelic over saturation of colors that end up looking fairly normal once they’ve gone through the post-production process.


As we glimpse around seven or so different races on screen (humans, dwarves, elves, hobbits, orcs, goblins, etc.), each has their own specific physicality informed by their bodies and their culture. An unexpected crewman on set we met was Terry Notary, a former Cirque du Soleil performer turned movement coach who was there to teach actors and extras how to move and perform consistently.

In the films, the dwarves are led by their gut so their movements are built around a solid body core and carry weight. The Goblins lead a tortured life where they never get to relax, so are flighty and sneaky with quick movements in various directions. Orcs are militaristic, they move from their chests and push through obstacles. Elves are the most interesting of the movers, driven by their backs and with a very calm center which means movements are smooth, precise, determined and seemingly effortless.

Yet the biggest problem Notary faces, and one that takes time to break, is the conditioning of the actors. The roles and movement require them to be both completely present and yet unaware of themselves, no posers allowed. The people playing the Orcs in particular had to learn to tone down their movements to some extent. It takes time, but everyone gets the hang of it and Lee Pace in particular he singles out as an exceptional grasper of his teachings.


The title character remains mostly a mystery in terms of appearance. One of the last creations of the film to get a finalised design, he’s still the most secretive part the film beyond what we know of the creature from the books. Jackson played coy with us when we asked about him:

“He’s a dragon. That’s all I’m gonna tell you. Yeah, I mean, you want a really cool dragon and we’re doing a really cool dragon. Not gonna tell you anything more than that. But I’m not reinventing the wheel. Like, I don’t want to do anything too clever, I just want to make an absolutely terrifying-looking dragon. Well, I never try to compete with other people, you know, I don’t think what our dragon looks like particularly compared to others, I have no idea. Other people can make up their mind about that.”

However, he’s not just any old dragon. As fans are well aware, Smaug isn’t just a beast – he’s a cunning, intelligent threat. Jackson says that had to be considered whilst making the designs: “Smaug has to be perfect for the story that we are telling, and everything that he needs to do in The Hobbit, be absolutely terrifying, be able to destroy a city, be able to have sly conversations with Bilbo, all of that we’re building into the design of the character and the way that he looks. So hopefully we’re building a good Smaug for The Hobbit.”

“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” opens throughout much of the world on December 11th & 12th, in the United Kingdom and United States on December 13th, and in Australia on December 26th.