The Peter Jackson hive mind known as Weta Workshop has been laboring since 2008 to populate J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe with frightening freaks and spooky environments. The effort paid off for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which passed the $800 million box office mark and picked up three Oscar nominations.
Weta Workshop designer Daniel Falconer goes deep inside the New Zealand creative-industrial complex in his new picture book The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug Chronicles: Art and Design (Harper Design). Packed with concept art, sketches, 3-D renderings and maquettes, the hard cover volume documents the fantastical workflow that fueled Jackson’s three-movie adaptation of The Hobbit. Falconer tells Co.Create, “Somehow Peter held this picture in his head and shepherded all of us along as we colored in the various elements of his vision.”
As Falconer describes it, Weta sounds like a makers’ paradise for digital and analog artisan alike. “People draw with pencil and paint in Photoshop, they push clay and wire around, they manipulate digital sculptures,” he says. “We have glass blowers, sword-makers, potters, saddlers, calligraphers, book-binders alongside laser and plasma-cutters, 3-D printers and motion capture technology. It’s a huge buzz and for a designer it means that really, anything is possible.”
Hewing to the trilogy’s overall aesthetic, Desolation of Smaug design challenges included the creation of monstrous Orcs and eerie Mirkwood forest settings featured in the slide show above. (The backstory for uber-dragon Smaug will be the subject of a separate WETA-produced book in April).
Jackson and his team also expanded on the original Tolkien mythology by inventing the warrior elf Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly. “Tauriel was fun for us as designers because she gave us an excuse to take a break from drawing burly bearded blokes,” explains Falconer. “Peter wanted her to be different from Arwen or Galadriel, who were a little more aloof and ethereal. Tauriel represents a young, empowered woman’s perspective and provides another window into the story that people can relate to. And we got paid to draw kick-ass Elvin chicks.”
Jackson’s decision to shoot the Hobbit trilogy in 3-D at the hyper-crisp high frame rate demanded higher standards of photorealism to avoid fake-looking effects. For example, Falconer notes, “Miniatures weren’t going to work because of the 3-D, hair weft could be seen at the edges of wigs, blade edges blunted for safety reasons might look too dull, and certain layered fabrics behave in strange ways when viewed in 3-D. Camera tests helped everyone figure out what was working and what had to change.”
Falconer joined WETA fresh out of art school in 1996 and contributed to King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Avatar before joining The Hobbit design team. In the face of huge technological advances, the workshop’s essential ethos remains intact, he says. “Weta Workshop was quite a small company 18 years ago but even then, (co-founder) Richard Taylor’s attitude was that we were never just designing a prop or a character in isolation–they inhabited a world somewhere. That fundamental approach has never changed: We’re team-based world-builders.”