With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s incredible six Middle-Earth films come to an end – films that have heralded incredible advancements in filmmaking and visual effects technologies, particularly from Weta Digital. We break down some of the particular advancements made on this most recent adventure.
– Above: watch an exclusive behind the scenes look at the army creation and Lake-town sims created by Weta Digital for the film, in this video made with our partners at WIRED.
Perhaps one of the most significant advancements on Five Armies was Weta Digital’s full-scale adoption of its proprietary renderer, Manuka. The physically-based renderer had been used on select shots during Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but this time around Manuka was employed as the full production renderer. In addition, Weta Digital has continued development of its hardware-based (GPU) pre-lighting tool called Gazebo – essentially a way for artists to ‘playblast’ their lighting decisions.
“With all our work we’re trying to make it photoreal,” notes visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken. “Manuka just allows us to get there more readily, gets us further and much more straightforward for the lighter to use. I don’t think we could have done film 3 without Manuka. It was such an enabling technology in being able to render these huge complex scenes at a very high level incredibly efficiently.”
The dragon Smaug is shown attacking Lake-town eve before the opening title. Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, the dragon benefited from continued Weta Digital development since the second film and a further appreciation of who Smaug was. “It’s all about learning the character,” says visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon. “You learn to become part of that character, how they would react, what makes them look good on screen.”
Sims on sims
The attack is a mostly complete CG sequence – cut with live action set pieces as the town collapses from Smaug’s fire and crashing – and involved significant fire, building, smoke and water simulations. “We use Smaug and emit fuel from him,” explains Saindon. “It’s almost a water simulation from Smaug. We spray everything with this simulation and then we use that water as a fuel source as our solver. That water simulation becomes the fuel source and it gives a different look to the fire than we’ve ever seen before. It’s more like napalm, almost.”
Interestingly, the layout for Smaug’s attack began as a master shot of Lake-town and the dragon, with Peter Jackson then deciding on cameras and shots via a virtual production approach. “What you see is one giant shot where you see a really wide view of Lake-town, dragon flying by – one super shot – it’s going to be broken up into many different shots,” says FX supervisor Ronnie Menahem. “So you don’t know when you’re doing the R&D where the camera’s going to be, what you’re actually going to see, what she would focus on, where we could up-res, what we could leave as a simple campfire in the background.”
Ultimately Weta Digital had to devise a new constraint system for all of Lake-town’s wooden structures, and then deal with shots of Smaug crashing through 80 buildings at a time – plus enable next-gen fire and water sims to interact with each other. Smaug was also lit almost solely from the fire simulations.
Managing the battle
When the battle begins in the Erebor valley – pitching dwarves against orcs (30,000 of them!) against elves and more – Weta Digital relied on its expertise in virtual production, performance capture, environment effects, digital character creation, deep compositing and crowd work to realize the complex shots. A new tool, Army Manager, helped layout pieces of the battle and was nimble enough to allow for quick changes. Massive – the tool synonymous with the first Lord of the Rings trilogy – was still used for final shots, too, along with full screen CG characters in battle scenes. Live action actors were filmed mostly on greenscreen stages with minimal set pieces.
Army Manager which was built inside Maya. “It allows,” says animation supervisor Aaron Gilman, “the animators to very quickly generate large amounts of armies, and position them wherever they want in the environment, play back any previous existing animation. It could be cycled keyframe motion or much more complex motion captured performance. And then they could also snap those performances to whatever undulations or angle changes are in the terrain. We could literally execute some of the artwork we had received in the scope of that in hours, and show that back to Peter.”