How did they do that?

Stephen Colbert is a huge fan of the Hobbit world created by J. R. R. Tolkien and is familiar with the most minute aspects of it. When I saw that he was going to interview Smaug (apparently is a character in some of the books) I thought it would be someone dressed as the character and was wondering whether it would be worth watching since I am not a big fan of the books or the films. I am glad that I did because it was really something to see.

Smaug turns out to be some kind of massive reptilian monster and what intrigued me was how they did the interview. Was Smaug completely CGI? Or was it some massive puppet? It looked too good to not be CGI but doing it is really expensive and I did not think that it would be worth it for a regular TV show, however big a fan Colbert is. Or has puppetry got so sophisticated that they can do things like this?

Can anyone enlighten me as to how the Smaug in this interview might have been done?

(This clip aired on December 11, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Can anyone enlighten me as to how the Smaug in this interview might have been done?

    I can’t, but Colbert did read off a long list of people at the end of the show, so I suspect it was a collaboration with many moving parts. His popularity combined with his obvious love of the films has endeared him to Peter Jackson, I’m sure.

    The only good thing I can think of about the movies was the Annie Lennox song “Into the West” at the end of The Return of the King. Quite lovely.

  2. kyoseki says

    Definitely CGI, it’s the same guys who did the work for the movie, I saw a couple of friends congratulate the Weta character guys on it over the Facebooks.

    Looks like a lock off camera for the shots with Steven in and a completely CG set/camera for the Smaug reaction shots (you can see some extremely weird motion blur when the camera first shows Smaug bursting through the wall).

    By constantly reusing the same cameras over and over and heavily limiting the scope of the work you can keep the cost down, but I’m surprised they had time to work on it given that they only really finished up work on the Hobbit 2-3 weeks ago. I would imagine that the animation team finished up long before the FX/Comp guys were done so they had time to put together this promotional piece for the movie.

  3. DonDueed says

    Massive reptilian monster? Ha! Smaug is a dragon, my dear Mano — the last of the great fire-drakes of the Third Age, no less!

    To call Smaug a mere reptilian monster would be like describing Santa Claus as a rather generous fellow.

  4. Carl says

    I imagine that creating a CGI character for a movie also entails creating a set of tools allowing a lot of the basic things like facial expressions relatively routine and automatic. And for a comedy bit like this, the animation obviously doesn’t even need to be as convincing as for a dramatic film like The Hobbit. So I’m guessing that it was relatively straightforward--though surely not trivial--to create this sequence for the Colbert Report.

    Stephen Colbert even had a small cameo appearance in the last Hobbit film, so I guess he was already friendly with the production team.

  5. Carl says

    Also, I have mixed feelings about the Hobbit movies, but the last 45 minutes or so of the last one featured the Smaug Character quite heavily and were easily the best parts of the series so far, in my opinion.

  6. kyoseki says

    I imagine that creating a CGI character for a movie also entails creating a set of tools allowing a lot of the basic things like facial expressions relatively routine and automatic.

    Smaug was actually performance captured, so when they got Bumpercar Campervan back in to do the voice for the interview, they likely just put the facial capture rig on him and used that to drive the animation.

    As you point out, there’s normally a pile of work that gets done to the performance afterwards to add subtlety for the movie performance (though Andy Serkis likes to take all the credit for the performance, there’s teams of guys fixing his shit after the fact) which wouldn’t be necessary for the TV bit, so the number of artist hours doing actual animation would be reasonably small (in comparison to the number of hours that go into a movie shot).

    Lighting & rendering would hopefully be reasonably quick as well, Weta has a monstrous render farm (pretty sure it’s the biggest in the industry), but computer hours are cheap compared to man hours, then it’s just a case of compositing the shots which was all kept very simple by using a lock off camera for shared Steven/Smaug shots.

  7. lorn says

    They tell you how they did it, green screen. Colbert and the foreground are shot in front of a on green screen. Smaug is one CGI. The back of the set is a second CGI. The whole thing is integrated, timed, and, when right, committed to tape. In the 80s this would have been a huge undertaking. In the 90s it could be done but it would be expensive. Now it is standard, and pretty cheap for a studio already set up to do it.

  8. kyoseki says

    Not seeing any need for a green screen in this setup, Colbert never needs to be separated from the background (which is what you need a green screen for). Smaug occupies most of the left hand side of frame and never appears behind Stephen, only on top of him -- the background in the wide shots isn’t CG, it doesn’t need to be.

    Even if you did need to get a matte for Colbert, since those shots are all locked off (non moving camera) you could pull a key by simply computing a difference pass and determine which pixels are changing color, which will give you Colbert, his shadow and the fireplace.

    The Smaug shots are entirely CG, including the set, which appears to just be done with some projection mapping techniques, it works great for the close up set, but the background set (and especially the overhead lights) looks rather wacky when Smaug bursts through the wall.

    Using a green screen is actually a monumental pain in the ass for the compositors because they end up having to suppress the green bounce light (aka “green spill”) on the main characters without making them look unnatural, it’s a lot more trouble than it’s worth and is only necessary if you need to put CG behind an actor.

  9. Mano Singham says

    kyoseki #6,

    Bumpercar Campervan? What/who is that?

    I apologize for asking you to explain what must be CGI 101 to me and really appreciate the tutorial you are providing.

  10. Mano Singham says

    DonDueed #3,

    I always thought that a dragon was imagined to be a reptile like (say) a dinosaur with the added ability to breathe fire and, in this case, fly.

  11. ChristineRose says

    They probably made many hours of imagery that didn’t get into the final cut. In fact they could easily have used imagery that did make it into the final cut but which wouldn’t be obvious outside of its set and that Burrahobbit.

  12. Carl says


    I’m pretty sure that’s just a silly name for actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who performs the motion capture and voice for the Smaug character in the movie.

  13. Mano Singham says

    Thanks, Carl and Dean!

    I had no idea that Cumberbatch did the motion capture for Smaug. I wonder how they did the voice. Was that his voice or do they do some fiddling with it later to make it sound so menacing?

    When I saw that the title for one of the films was “The desolation of Smaug” I thought that Smaug was a location and it was only because of the Colbert clip that I realized what it was.

    As I said, Tolkien’s world is not one that I am familiar with, though I did see the LOTR trilogy.

  14. Carl says

    Cumberbatch performed the Smaug’s motion capture and voice in the movie, and it’s clear that his voice underwent a lot of processing & manipulation to make it sound the way it does.

    I’m not sure if that’s him performing the character on Colbert, though. It wouldn’t be unusual to have someone else do the character for something like a TV appearance. The voice sounds distinctly different than the movie version to me, but I’m sure at least some of that is a result of less effort being put into the processing and sound mix compared to the movie.

  15. Mano Singham says

    Carl #16,

    At the end of the show, Colbert read a long list of credits that included Cumberbatch. I was puzzled by it until I learned from these comments that he was the person who played that role. The fact that he was credited on the show suggests that he did it there too.

  16. moarscienceplz says

    It looked too good to not be CGI but doing it is really expensive and I did not think that it would be worth it for a regular TV show

    In addition to the previous comments about how they could re-use a lot of the CG work they did for the movie, CG has gotten so cheap so fast. In the making-of commentary on the DVD of The Incredibles, they talk a lot about how much time and trouble they had to spend to get the characters’ hair to look realistic. Yet today, there are TV commercials for Cricket Wireless with a bunch of little hairballs with legs and arms and some really intricate hair effects. Obviously, this has become a fairly easy and low cost process, or they wouldn’t have used it so cavalierly in a commercial.

  17. moarscienceplz says

    When I saw that he was going to interview Smaug (apparently is a character in some of the books)

    Mano, I know you are a busy guy, but I really recommend you read The Hobbit at least. Someone recently pointed out that you can read it in less time than it would take to watch all three movies based on it, and it is really some of the best fantasy fiction I have ever read. It’s very funny in places, and it has such a rich world that it travels through. Please give it a try.

  18. kyoseki says

    It’s a pity that the Hobbit movies aren’t nearly as enjoyable as the books they’re allegedly based on.

    They already stretched a single book into a trilogy to make more money & it FEELS like a money grab, with the characters just going from one big CGI set piece to the next. The CG orcs aren’t a patch on the real orcs from the LOTR movies, you can tell they’re phoning it in (compared to the CG character work on the Apes movies, for example).

    Also, the trickiest part of doing hair work today is getting it to move believably, particularly when it comes to geometry interaction (like having a character brush their hand through their hair). Rhythm & Hues set the bar with Life of Pi, they were known for their realistic animal work, but of course they went bankrupt immediately afterwards. Weta is probably the leader in hair/fur these days, but doing it believably is still monstrously complicated.

    Smaug, thankfully, isn’t hairy, it wouldn’t have taken much work to rerender him for the interview -- and he was rerendered, they used the same asset (the rigged dragon) but the animation/mocap was done specifically for the show -- if you already have Buffalo Custardbath coming in to do the voice, it’s easy enough to stick the facial capture rig back on him and get your facial animation (which is very time consuming) that way -- unlike about a decade ago, a lot of the gear is actually highly portable these days, in Apes they did the motion capture in the forest with tracking cameras mounted on the trees.

  19. kyoseki says

    I should probably say “live action” orcs, rather than “real” orcs unless Peter Jackson took authenticity further than anyone knows.

  20. Mano Singham says

    Wait, the orcs in LOTR were live action? I did not know that, though I did know they were not real!

  21. kyoseki says

    There were swathes of CG orcs certainly, the battle of Helm’s Deep was heavily reliant on them, but there were also gigantic numbers of Orc costumes & props constructed for the movies and all the “hero” Orcs (anyone who speaks or does anything particularly interesting) was an actor in a LOT of make up/prostheses.

    I think they looked FAR better than the CGI characters we’re subjected to in the Hobbit movies -- I don’t get the impression they spent nearly as much time on them as they did for Gollum, for example.

  22. pixiedust says

    Let me echo moarscience @ 20. Read “The Hobbit”. It is a delightful tale. It is the book I have reread more times than any other save one. (That honor goes to Catch-22. )

  23. Nick Gotts says

    Ha! An obvious fake: Smaug was killed (arrow in the armpit) by Bard the Bowman, so clearly that was’t the real Smaug.

  24. kyoseki says

    Ha! An obvious fake: Smaug was killed (arrow in the armpit) by Bard the Bowman, so clearly that was’t the real Smaug.


  25. Carl says

    This is a little of the subject but I just want to say that I couldn’t agree more with Kyoseki about the CGI orcs in the Hobbit.

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