Friday, July 25, 2014

Benedict Cumberbatch at Comic-Con: The Characterization of Smaug

During a Q &A with MTV's Josh Horowitz Thursday after the DreamWorks Animation panel for "Penguins of Madagascar" at the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con, Benedict Cumberbatch confirmed that he would be back in Hall H on Saturday for "The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies" panel. Of course, attendees and Hobbit fans will be excited to see director Peter Jackson, who missed last year's event due to filming conflicts, along with cast members from the film trilogy - and the chance to get a sneak peek at the director's vision of the final chapters in the beloved book.

However, if Thursday's reaction in Hall H is any indication, the big draw, once again, may be Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrayed Smaug (which doesn't rhyme with 'smog') and the Necromancer.

During Thursday's panel, attendees were cautioned to avoid off-topic questions for Benedict, or, as Craig Ferguson warned, "Comic-Con will be cancelled."

That's unlikely to recur during "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" BUT,  those who were allowed to ask questions of the panelists on Thursday found themselves at a loss as to what to ask.

We're here to help. Think of this as your source material, with links to even MORE information - should you find yourself in a long line waiting to catch a glimpse of "he-who-shall-flirt-with-the media-about-future-projects."

Note: his motion capture experience is, well, a bit important to him for these films. Please don't call it voice over work. On his behalf, we all thank you.)

Let's get started, shall we?
  • Was the voice over work different for Smaug versus Agent Classified? Yes
    While he couldn't "see" his features, gestures or personality in the DreamWorks Animation family film, he explained that acting in the Hobbit films was different: "I could see bits of Smaug, because I did lots of facial capture as well as full-body motion capture for that, so even being a dragon...I saw myself in that fire-breathing serpent." (via Hitflix)
    • How did Benedict prepare for the role? Research (You knew that...right?)
    At the December 2013 premiere of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," Cumberbatch told reporters (not for the first time) that he watched Komodo dragons at Regents Park at the London Zoo, collaborated with Peter Jackson, Jackson's partner Fran Walsh and co-producer Phillippa Boyens - and reviewed "lots of illustrations from all the editions of the books and the fantastic drawings" since the book was first published (September 1937).
    • How would Benedict describe Smaug? Colorfully
    In an August 2012 interview with The Telegraph, Benedict referred to Smaug as  'a 400-year-old fire-breathing worm who lives in the middle of a mountain on top of a pile of gold, who is three or four times bigger than the Empire State Building and can fly', but was a bit more forthcoming last December when speaking with Gina McIntyre of the LA Times Hero Complex, calling Smaug his "porn star dragon," in part because of the motion capture experience, especially later on in the process: "they built the platform in the main soundstage at the post-production facility down in Wellington and it was great. It was sort of above [the floor] so I had this kind of thing of superiority. They built a wooden platform on stilts and they had this hard board that they’d padded with some foam and mats and stuff and on top of that they put this sheepskin. It was literally like “Baum chicka baum baum,” me up on my Smaug-y platform. I was like, “This is cool, I can slink around like a porn star dragon.”
     What does a mo-cap porn star dragon look like? Glad you asked:

    During his interview with TwoTubeTV, Benedict commented that "motion capture is really freeing, a sort of ironically, technically unencumbered way of doing things."

    Unencumbered? Really? Let's take his word for it, shall we?

    While we're at it, there's no need to ask about certain parts of Smaug's anatomy. Sophie Foster with On Demand Entertainment solved that mystery - or attempted it, at least:

    • What's it like for Benedict to work in The Hobbit trilogy with Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman - or the other actors? He doesn't. 
    In both "Penguins of Madagascar" and The Hobbit trilogy, Benedict didn't really interact with his co-stars. The voiceover process for "Penguins" began over 3 years ago, and he largely worked alone. For Smaug? Cumberbatch told The Telegraph that he "worked on his scenes with the director, Peter Jackson, shooting against a green screen while wearing a motion-capture suit. 'It's sort of a grey all-in-one jumpsuit, with a skullcap, a Madonna headset and Aboriginal-like face paint,' he explains. 'You feel like a tit in all that gear, but Peter is so lovely you soon forget.' 

    Really? You forget that? I'm slightly suspicious.

    Benedict has also stated that appreciates the value of mocap because it allowed him to "embed the voice somewhere in the body," which he also did for the Necromancer.
    • How did the creative team put it together? Hard work. Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, based in New Zealand, is the video effects group responsible, releasing this featurette last year:  

    • What are the concerns when you're the voice of Smaug? The characterization & physical demands.
    Director Peter Jackson expressed his early concerns, telling Total Film: Smaug "is a psychopath, a very scary character and the fact that he talks was something I was worried about initially, but, we decided to use that to our advantage. With Benedict Cumberbatch and his voice, it gives us a chance to really make (Smaug's) personality the most dominant thing. People will remember his voice, his personality.
    During the same interview, Benedict admitted that the voice work was a challenge due to the physical demands put on his vocal chords: "I was pushing my own register down to get (Smaug's) depth and bass and volume. If you're forcing your pitch into any extreme above or below yours, it rips into your vocal cords in a matter of seconds." 
    • Finally, who inspired Benedict Cumberbatch to want to be a part of such an acting adventure? Timothy Carlton, his father. 
    Early on, Carlton was praised publicly for his parenting skills. During an interview with TV Times, when reporter Stewart Knowles came to Kensington to interview Wanda Ventham, actress - and mother to then three-year-old Benedict, he called the tot "an energetic handful who was treating the living room like a sports stadium." 
    By means of explanation, Ventham remarked, "Our brains go to jelly the whole time," she said, watching him. "He has been rather vile today, though - you’ve hit on a bad day. He has just had his adenoids and tonsils out and his temperament has gone slightly loopy in the last day or so. But even at times like this Tim is fantastic with him."
    (Imagine if your dad had the voice repertoire of "The Hobbit." I bet you'd pipe down every once in awhile, too.)

    Carlton's connection to "The Hobbit" appears to have transferred to Benedict quite early on: "I wasn’t that into the books as a kid, but “The Hobbit” was a huge deal for me from dad reading it. That made me realize, Christ, the written word. You can read a book and have that much going on in your head as an imaginative world of characters and places. So, it sparked off my love of reading as well. It’s a big book in my life."

    His dad was the voice of Smaug, Smeagol - and a "brilliant, brilliant Gollum" in Benedict's recollection, and he admitted that his dad continued the voice characterizations to "keep me sweet when I was in a grump, get my attention or make me laugh." Benedict added, "I owe him a lot - and so the first person I told when I got the part was him - and he was thrilled, and proud - and suitably pissed off as all actors are that they weren't seen for a role in the film."

    What was the defining moment when Benedict knew he could be an actor? He credits his dad for that, too. As he told People Magazine last October, he was a young actor in a university production of Amadeus, playing Italian composer Antonio Salieri. After the performance, Benedict recalled his dad's reaction outside the theater: "He turned to me with a tear in his eye and said, 'You're better than I ever was or ever could be at this. I think you'll have a wonderful career,' and once I had that blessing...I thought, 'Right, well, I better prove him right.'"

    Remember, this is the same actor who called his dad during a movie premiere in Germany - and told the fans as much, before handing the phone to Martin Freeman (presumably so they could have a little chat about the boy? We may never know.)

    However, we do know Benedict continues to credit his father for his success, particularly as Smaug:

    Now, your mission? Remember this information BEFORE you ask Benedict Cumberbatch about working in this film series. Keep that "porn star dragon" image in mind if it helps you remember he did more than voice over work.  Pick up a copy of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Smaug: Unleashing the Dragon" with a foreword written by Benedict - and ask him to sign it. Try to find out what project he may be working on with Andy Serkis in the future. Ask him about his parents.

    In a pinch, you could always ask him if he'd like to have this Lego set for Christmas. Follow up by asking if he'd enjoy playing with himself - and Martin Freeman (as Bilbo Baggins, of course):

    courtesy Lego
    Or, if all else fails, re-work the question he offered during the "Penguins of Madagascar" panel - and ask him what Smaug's shoe size is.

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