Gollum’s Getup: How The Hobbit‘s Groundbreaking Technology Works

Performance capture enters a new era in Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth

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At a pivotal point in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, our hero encounters Gollum, the haggard creature moviegoers will recognize from the director’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Though Gollum is 60 years younger in The Hobbit (in theaters Dec. 14), he is already torn between his desire to be good and his dark addiction to a certain bijou. His cooing over his “precious” is hauntingly familiar. The biggest difference between Gollums: in The Hobbit, he looks more grotesquely human, more real, than ever before.

Gollum was conjured using an animation technique known as performance capture or motion capture. Special cameras recorded actor Andy Serkis’ movements and expressions, from froggy hops to conflicted scowls. Computers instantly translated that visual data into a rough draft of the final creation, which Jackson could watch and direct in real time. The technique also midwifed J.R.R. Tolkien’s trolls, orcs and goblin king. “It’s like sampling reality,” says Joe Letteri, supervisor at Weta Digital, Jackson’s New Zealand–based visual-effects studio. Over the past decade, Weta has helped transform the process from a “science experiment”—as Letteri puts it—into standard practice.

(MORE: Richard Corliss’s review of The Hobbit)

Thirteen years ago, Serkis (who calls Gollum his Dorian Gray) was hired just to do Gollum’s creepy voice in The Lord of the Rings. Then he arrived on set and started stepping in with other actors to help their responses to Gollum feel more genuine. Serkis’ presence inspired rewrites that delved deeper into Gollum’s character, and Serkis also started acting out solo bits in a motion-capture studio. At the turn of the 2000s, that meant putting on a skintight suit with reflective markers placed at key points on his body. The crew had to eschew all other reflective material, down to water bottles, so cameras shining bright lights would record only the markers. The data yielded a 3-D approximation of Serkis’ movements that could then drive the motion of digital Gollum, an animation complete with skeleton and muscle system.

The unmet challenge on the Lord of the Rings set was to mimic a soft, malleable face. By the time Serkis played the title role in Jackson’s King Kong (2005), the crew was gluing reflective markers all over his mug, using the data to guide digital muscles, but the markers often fell off. For James Cameron’s megahit Avatar (2009), they were supplanted by a helmet cam pointed back at the actor’s face.

It was Weta’s work on Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) that truly set these synthespians free of their special studios. Rather than using reflective dots, the Apes crew wired Serkis into an infrared suit for his role as Caesar, a supersmart chimpanzee in purgatory between human and animal worlds. The regular cameras didn’t pick up the infrared LEDs—which were bright enough to be detected in broad daylight—meaning Wyatt could direct his primates at high noon, on the Golden Gate Bridge, among the human actors.

Weta used similar infrared equipment for The Hobbit, though this time Jackson chose to film in 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24. Some wags have likened the resulting look to that of a video game or a telenovela. But Letteri and Serkis say the performance-capture characters benefit from the doubled rate—especially in the eyes, in Gollum’s furtive glances and blinks.

(MOREThe Hobbit Stamps and Money Are Coming to New Zealand)

Motion-capture technology is being advanced by an increasing number of studios and directors. A significant non–Weta milestone was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), which used motion capture to meld digitally aged versions of Brad Pitt’s face with other actors’ bodies. Woody Schultz, who played multiple characters in Avatar and formed a committee on performance capture at the Screen Actors Guild, calls the technique a “go-to” for horror and sci-fi flicks. Savvy users are pushing it into new media too: Schultz is pitching a weekly talk show with a live performance-capture host and cites live theater as the next frontier.

According to Serkis, some purists think performance-capture acting isn’t equal to the real thing. He disagrees. “Acting is acting,” Serkis says. “It’s really a matter of how the character is clothed and made up. One is before the fact, and one is after the fact.” Still, a typical costume-and-makeup regimen isn’t nearly as elaborate as the techniques behind the digital characters in The Hobbit. For Tolkien beings like Gollum, motion capture without a talented animator is like a soul without a body. “Everything you take for granted in the real world, we have to think about and create,” Letteri says. Given what the industry has created so far, the tests of motion capture’s limits are likely just beginning.