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'The Hobbit': Weta's ongoing quest for the digital face of the future

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a tale of two risky quests. The first quest is the one on the screen, which sends Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and 12 compact compatriots off toward Lonely Mountain. The second is the filmmaking odyssey for the cast and crew led by director Peter Jackson, who won fame and glory in Middle-earth with the Lord of the Rings trilogy but found a different combination of challenges in adapting this earlier Tolkien epic.

A key figure in Jackson’s odyssey is senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, the director of Weta Digital and a four-time Oscar winner (Avatar, King Kong, and the second and third Lord of the Rings films) who may add a fifth thanks to his latest Middle-earth nomination (which he shares with Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White). EW caught up with Letteri to talk about the changing face of digital effects and its unexpected journey toward the spiritual center of acting craft. Also, check out a new sizzle reel of The Hobbit, a film that racked up $956 million in worldwide box office, which among Tolkien adaptations bows only to Return of the King, the 2003 finale of the first trilogy that took in  $1.1 billion and won the Oscar for Best Picture.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first Lord of the Rings film opened a little more than 11 years ago but it’s amazing how far digital effects have leaped in that span. For you, when you look back at your path, what do you see that’s unexpected?
JOE LETTERI:
The nature of it, the true nature of the work. We’re just in the early days of understanding what facial expression means of how people relate to each other. I know people focus on the technology, like the motion capture, but really when you look at a lot of this and you try to tease out what the meaning is, you figure out that it comes down to trying to understand expression and the way people relate to each other. That’s drama, that’s the heart of what actors do. We work with actors to distill that and to bring it to these new characters. With Hobbit we had a chance to do it with six characters with speaking lines — there was over 20 minutes of dialogue for these characters. READ FULL STORY

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