Benedict Cumberbatch Did (Useless) Motion Capture For Smaug
A couple days ago, we were talking about how our man of the week, Benedict Cumberbatch, went fully nude when performing in Frankenstein. This wasn't the only needless indignity he's suffered as an actor. When voicing Smaug the dragon in the Hobbit movies, the man dressed himself in a motion capture suit and slithered on the ground when recording his lines.
The above video is highly entertaining, perhaps more entertaining that any scene from The Hobbit not featuring Bilbo. Cumberbatch should feel proud of the performance we see here. We're calling it an indignity, however, for one reason: The animators didn't actually use any of the motion capture footage for the film.
In general, motion capture doesn't necessarily translate one-to-one into finished footage. When Andy Serkis does motion capture for Gollum, for example, we don't see the exact coordinates of his every body part in the finished flailing halfling. That's because Andy and Gollum have different physiques. Still, Smeagol's not so different from a man, so the animators can map the real arm to Gollum arm and real leg to Gollum leg. Same deal when Andy Serkis plays apes: King Kong and Caesar aren't humans, but they're humanoids, so Andy was able to provide the moves.
Smaug, on the other hand, is a dragon. He has a head that moves thanks to a long serpentine neck rather than whatever movements a human actor comes up with. He has legs that bend in ways humans' don't, and he has only two of them, plus two wings that your arms can't replicate. (In the first movie, Smaug looked different and had four legs besides his two wings, and that might have been even harder to simulate as a human.) Human faces also can't really make reptile expressions; luckily, Cumberbatch has a reptile face so was qualified in at least this one arena.
All of which is why The Hobbit's visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken calls the video above just a performance test. Contrary to what the publicity team said, the crew did not incorporate the motion capture data, instead just treating Cumberbatch's movements as a visual reference. Now, visual references are important, and animators have based their work on the movements of motion actors for the past century or longer. But the motion actor is typically not the same person who supplies the voice (these are two unconnected skills), and they needn't wear an awkward motion capture suit during the process.
Anyway, it doesn't look like they adhered very closely to the visual reference Cumberbatch provided, judging by comparison footage:
The kindest thing we can say about Cumberbatch acting physically like a dragon is that it must have helped him get the voice right. We don't know if that's true, though. Voice actors manage good performances in the recording booth without replicating every movement, and when it comes time to get into the mindset of a 15-ton angry greedy fire-drake, we don't know if the most important factor is that you too are writhing on the ground.
Still, it's all worth it if Cumberbatch enjoyed the process, right? “You get in the gear and feel a complete knob,” he said, "wandering around in these sparkling pajamas."
Top image: New Line Cinema