Cumberbatch breathes fire as motion-capture Smaug

05:00 AM, Dec 08, 2013

Benedict Cumberbatch and director Peter Jackson collaborated to bring Smaug the dragon to life in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." Kevin Winter, Getty Images/


Written By by Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

Benedict Cumberbatch has two chances to showcase how he’s the worst of the worst in Middle-earth.

The British actor’s sizable fan base may not be able to see his face or body, but they get a full dose of his voice and presence with both the evil Necromancer and a greedy, psychopathic talking dragon in director Peter Jackson’s sequel The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (in theaters Dec. 13).

And when it comes to playing that gruesome twosome, “trust me, he relishes it,” says Hobbit screenwriter and producer Philippa Boyens.

Cumberbatch’s baritone gives villainous depth to the Necromancer — a dark, nebulous force that ultimately becomes the baddie Sauron in Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy — and Smaug, but motion-capture work he did in New Zealand for the computer-generated characters helped to inform their vocal personas.

When confronting the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), the ethereal and disembodied Necromancer’s voice is “ethereal and high” and full of “very aspirated chokes,” Cumberbatch says.

To capture more of an inhuman vibe, Jackson had him actually say his lines backward and then they were reversed via audio effects so when they’re uttered, “it gives you these almost swallowed, real creepy sounds,” Boyens says. “It’s like someone speaking who almost has no voice.”

Smaug’s name is in the movie title, though, so his role is a bigger one for Cumberbatch. The dragon rules the former dwarf kingdom of Erebor and its vast treasure, sleeping under millions of gold coins. But he is awakened by the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), who’s sent to retrieve the mythical Arkenstone from Smaug’s mountain resting spot.

Cumberbatch was clad in a motion-capture suit so filmmakers could get a sense of the movements of this “powerful, fire-breathing, all-destroying, flying napalm machine,” the British actor says, and also to capture his facial expressions — such as the way he would tilt his head or glare at Bilbo out of the side of one yellow eye.

We gave Smaug almost this noble character, where in a way it was almost beneath him to just eat the hobbit without at least exchanging some pleasantries first,” says Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor on the Hobbit films and Jacksons’ Rings trilogy.

Smaug is unlike any of the other major CG characters from Jackson’s movies, a reptilian creature with nods to European and Asian dragon designs that proved a different challenge from the big ape of the director’s King Kong or Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

Talking dragons are pretty terrifying things,” Jackson says. “So many people over the years have said, ‘What’s he going to look like?’ that you’re horrified you’re going to let people down.”

But it’s Cumberbatch’s voice as Smaug that ultimately makes him a new cinema icon, Jackson adds.

You walk away from the movie and it doesn’t matter how many teeth he’s got or how many bloody claws he’s got. The voice, the character, is what lingers.”