One would think it would be hard to play a dragon. Whether you’re in a costume, or doing it via motion capture, it’s gotta be hard not to feel completely silly. Still, Benedict Cumberbatch did a very good job in The Desolation of Smaug, especially considering he was a talking dragon as well.
This is not easy, but thankfully nobody laughed at the giant talking dragon when The Desolation of Smaug came out in theaters. As the artists at Weta Digital told the Hollywood Reporter, it was a challenge to make a dragon convincing. Doing tests with Cumberbatch, they knew how to animate the dragon’s face, and as one FX artist told the Reporter, “Smaug is twice the size of a jumbo jet. Smaug is centuries old, so we aged him with scars, flaking skin, broken scales, and chipped horned. Each of his one million scales is unique.”
As for Cumberbatch crawling around on the floor in a mocap suit, a Weta FX artist told the Reporter it was “lots of fun, and seemed to help get him immersed and hone in on the character.” Still, even with motion capture, trying to translate a human into a dragon, even with the top notch CGI of the day, wasn’t easy.
“The translation of performance from Benedict to Smaug wasn’t a one-to-one match like you’d get from a humanoid creature. As animators we had to transpose the elements of Benedict’s performance that were critical to the shot, such as head nuances and facial expressions. We then built up the majority of his motion with keyframe animation.” Yep, that means animating by hand, which is a very tough job, but we geeks really appreciate the effort.