AwardsLine editor Christy Grosz contributed to this story.
Joe Letteri said the biggest difference between the first Hobbit and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (WB/MGM) was the kind of simulations that the Academy Award-nominated visual effects team had to create. Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and Eric Reynolds were director Peter Jackson‘s special effects wizards. The first simulation, he said, “was creating the rapids and waterfalls for the barrel chase, and the second one was the simulations that we needed for all the coins in the Treasure Hall that Smaug was moving through.” For the first effect, they had to simulate 20 tons of water through the rapids — an extraordinary feat. The waterfall, the movement of the water, looks absolutely real onscreen. With the dragon, it was the movement of coins. “Treasure Hall filled up with about a billion coins,” said Letteri. “So every time he moved, we’d have to just simulate millions of coins being pushed and displaced by the dragon.” The creature’s movements create waves in a sea of gold coins, and it is truly impressive and astonishing at times to watch. The beauty of the visual effects is that this Herculean effort by the Smaug team makes the movement of the coins look effortless. They used 40,000 gold-plated coins and then duplicated them to make a billion.
Another big difference was that the Hobbit pics were shot at 48 frames per second instead of the usual 24. The move to use the higher frame rate was controversial with fans because the difference was palatable. With 48 fps the film is much crisper, and it was designed to make the film feel more immersive to audiences, more real. “I could also see that people were going to look at that and a lot of people were going to probably be put off by it because it was new and they were looking at things in a different way,” said Letteri. “So what we did on this second film — what Peter in particular did — was he paid a lot of attention to the final look of the film, the final grading. He sat down and did the grades himself on this one and really paid attention to kind of softening out the look of the film to remove some of that harshness. The other interesting thing that I noticed this time around was [audiences’] reaction to 48 frame was now kind of second generation. So in other words, the first time they saw it, [they] said: ‘Wow, this is new. I’m not sure if I like this or not.’
“But what was interesting, then, is in the past year, people have gone back to watching all these movies at 24 frames a second, and when people saw 48 frames again in the new film, they realized what they were missing from the 24 frames,” he continued. “They sort of had this year to understand, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ Now I see what this is all about, about bringing more information and better clarity to the picture. Do you remember when music went digital? It was the same sort of thing. All of us that were used to listening to LPs, there was sort of a warmth that was gone, but we all got used to it.”