Behind the scenes of the Hobbit

On the set of Jackson's latest masterpiece

TOM CARDY
Last updated 05:00 10/11/2012
The Hobbit filming
Behind-the-scenes images of The Hobbit with Peter Jackson working on the set.

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EXCLUSIVE: There's a passage about half way through The Lord of the Rings where an orc called Ugluk forces captured hobbits Merry and Pippin to drink a hot beverage called "orc-draught". Pippin "felt a hot fierce glow flow through him. The pain in his legs and ankles vanished".

J R R Tolkien could almost be describing coffee. And on a cold morning in 2012, on the set of The Hobbit, it's coffee that orcs prefer for a pick-me-up. I witness two orcs, cups in hand, standing next to a tiny coffee cart between the sound stages of Sir Peter Jackson's studios in Wellington.

As in Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, these orcs wear fighting regalia. Their makeup and prosthetics look unfinished – in The Hobbit, orc faces are transformed by computer-generated visual effects – but they still look menacing. Not a breed you can calmly approach and ask if they prefer espresso to a flat white or latte. But seeing orcs outside of Middle-earth – and dwarfs in full prosthetics lining up for lunch in a large marquee close by – are just some of the many double takes that occur while spending two days watching filming on the US$500 million production.

Rather than ruin the surprise or extinguish the magic, seeing Tolkien's characters line up in the catering tent to plonk fish cakes, kumara mash and Chinese cabbage on their lunch plates – followed by stewed tamarillos, icecream and coconut balls for dessert – has its own special magic. The studio hype isn't needed. The small media contingent is quickly convinced they are seeing something big.

For one, Jackson's studio setup in Wellington to make The Hobbit is considerably bigger than it was for The Lord of the Rings. Early in 2003, I watched Jackson direct a short scene with Merry and Pippin next to part of the body of an oliphaunt, the giant elephants from the climactic battle in The Return of the King. But even with the money then pouring in from the first two Lord of the Rings films, for most interior filming Jackson relied on one sound stage converted from a former paint factory. That sound stage, now known as "A Stage" is still there, but it's dwarfed by the purpose-built "K Stage" nearby – built for 2005's King Kong and used for Avatar – and two more, G and F stages, built specifically for The Hobbit.

There are also several other smaller sound stages and seven "block" buildings for specific departments, including the art department, costumes, hair and makeup. Many people are walking or running about, some with frantic expressions. Some would have been at high school when The Lord of the Rings trilogy was released.

A plethora of "trailers" – caravans and motorhomes behind A Stage – gives the aura of a Hollywood studio. Or at least how Hollywood studios are depicted in Hollywood movies. Jackson's Wellywood equivalent is now even big enough to boast "a back lot" near the cafeteria tent, where there's a giant green screen used for outdoor visual effects filming.

But the purpose-built sound stages are tiny in comparison to another stage, albeit a temporary one, in Upper Hutt. For the first time, Jackson has used what was a long-empty former car assembly plant. The building has so much space it can hold several large sets at the same time, or, as was the case before we visited, be used for one giant set.

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The first peek we get of shooting is in Wellington at the civilised hour – by film industry standards – of mid morning. "Today we're using all 10 orcs, so we'll need 10 orc masks" says a crew member into a walkie-talkie, as we're led to one of the converted stages. Outside A and B Stage, a collection of Middle-earth armour is draped on mannequins.

Inside, Englishman Andy Serkis, best known as the voice and motion capture model for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is seated in his own director's chair. He has a small crew and a few cast members. Serkis, at Jackson's invitation, is the second unit director for The Hobbit as well as reprising Gollum. The second unit is into its 184th day of shooting.

"This is my second home, I now realise," Serkis says, of Wellington. "I love coming back here. We started shooting in March last year. Pete [Jackson] decided that he wanted to shoot the Gollum scenes first, so for the first two weeks that's what we did. I think I can safely say I was the first person in the makeup chair on The Hobbit."

Serkis became a household name playing Gollum and it's something he remains very conscious of. "Gollum's never really left me, and he's always been lurking under my skin and there's always been the possibility of returning to him.

"But to actually finally get back to do it – a very strange thing kind of happened, really. Over the years, Gollum's become so – sort of – owned by the public, and in the public domain he has become such a well known character. To re-possess him, I suppose, was to grab him back and say, 'Right, I've got to get back inside the mindset and really play this character rather than doing a pale imitation of a hundred other persons' imitations of what I did originally'."

As to directing, he relished the opportunity. "A lot of second units are directed by stunt co-ordinators, or second unit directors only deal with a lot of background. But this is really like a whole other unit which deals with drama and all manner of things.

"Pete wanted me to do it to be his eyes and ears [and] have his sensibilities. We have had a very easy relationship with each other. It's been a huge learning curve for me, because normally for a director's first film you're shooting for maybe five or six weeks on a very low budget with a digital camera, or you're doing something contained and small, not working on the biggest film on the planet. It's literally like just passing a driving test and then being given a Ferrari. Or not even having passed a driving test and being given a Ferrari."

Serkis returns to filming and we watch some of the results on large monitors, which is common on big budget films. The big difference this time from The Lord of the Rings is that we don 3-D glasses and watch live in 3-D.

A short walk away and up some stairs is associate costume designer Bob Buck, who shows us examples of costumes for the dwarfs, elves and hobbits. To one side are several fat suits for some of the 13 actors who play the leading dwarfs in the films. In another corner are the clothes worn by Martin Freeman as Bilbo the hobbit.

One set is in good condition – Buck says this is before Bilbo sets out on his journey – while the rest look progressively worn and dirty the further Bilbo ventures from Hobbiton. All up they made between 10 and 15 Bilbo jackets. Buck points to the detail. Each button on Bilbo's jacket features an acorn. Then there's each jacket reproduced again for a smaller scale double of the hobbit for some scenes.

Buck has so many mesmerising anecdotes and facts behind the costumes. The fat suit for Bombur, portly even by dwarf standards, was so convoluted it took a week just to make the stomach. Kiwi actor Stephen Hunter, who plays him, has an 86-centimetre waist. All the fat suits can be used in tandem with a hidden cooling vest which uses tubes of water.

One floor down, the wigs and prosthetics department is equally engrossing. The walls are covered in photographs of the main actors in The Hobbit, to help with each time they sit in a chair for makeup, prosthetics and hair. Wigs in all cuts and sizes line several shelves.

Again, a lot has changed since The Lord of the Rings, when they used silicon prosthetics on the likes of John Rhys-Davies as Gimili the dwarf, says prosthetics supervisor Tami Lane. She picks up a giant hairy rubber arm. The arm, while designed like a glove to fit over an actor's own arm, looks so real it takes a few minutes to accept it as a prosthetic. It's the same with hobbit legs. No more finicky adjustments of big hairy feet.

"We're using a product called Plat Gel, and it's pretty amazing stuff. It's a lot easier to work with, it's much more durable than what it was, because John Rhys-Davies, he wore a silicon face with gelatin eye bags. By the middle of the day, we always had to replace the eye bags because of the heat. The body heat would just melt it away and expose the silicon underneath. So these are actually waterproof, sweatproof, heatproof, everything-proof, basically. Fireproof. And they look fantastic on."

Makeup and hair designer Peter King, whose film credits include Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides, says on The Lord of the Rings he used a lot of synthetic wigs. This time they use real hair. "For every character, there are at least three wigs. There will be the actor's wig, there would be a scale wig, whether he has to have a large scale or a small scale [double]. There's always going to be a stunt [double], and then some had a fourth wig, which is a riding double. But when we get down to the dwarfs I think we made six wigs and eight beards for each character. They all had to look exactly the same," King laughs.

"They said, 'Come and do The Hobbit, it's much smaller than Lord of the Rings'. It's actually about five times larger than Lord of the Rings." Like everything to do with this production, the devil is in the detail. At Weta Workshop, Sir Richard Taylor proudly displays on a boardroom table a variety of weapons it has manufactured for The Hobbit. They look deadly.

"We have looked for new ways to stay on top of our game and ahead of the market where we can, and we've consistently turned more and more towards robotic-built technology in the form of laser cutters, 3-D printers, and robotic milling machines. And we now have seven robotic milling pieces of equipment working on the shop floor for us. Only one of them is actually shop-bought."

Next door at Weta Digital, which creates the computer-generated onscreen wizardry, visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken is equally proud of their achievements. "The Hobbit has many challenges, great challenges. The sort of challenges we love to work on."

Jackson's contentious decision to have the films shot at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24 frames has been relatively straight forward, he says. "Essentially it just means that we do twice as much work. But apart from that, no, nothing changes. In fact, it's a much lower impact on us than the move from 2-D to 3-D."

Sir Ian McKellen, who reprises his role as Gandalf the wizard, isn't filming, so is out of costume but on set. Our makeshift meeting place for McKellen is a chilly trailer. He looks cold when he enters and I hand him a throw blanket. He promptly wears it like a wizard's cloak.

Of the differences between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, McKellen says: "Well, a lot of it's the same and some things are a bit different." For one, The Hobbit is lighter in tone. "You can tell it's lighter, and the casting – Martin Freeman is a brilliant comic actor. Barry Humphries, Billy Connolly – wonderful standup comedians. Stephen Fry, whose stock-in-trade is laughter. And that's infected all of them. And all of the dwarfs, a lot of them had a comical background. So there's a difference in style. But in texture and in the details of costume and makeup, no, it's all the same for me."

McKellen says one reason he agreed to reprise the role was working with the same people. His praise for New Zealand goes beyond politeness and feels genuine. "For people living so far from home, it's wonderful to feel that these are real friends. Family is probably the word. And when the family is led by a married couple [Jackson and partner Fran Walsh], part of the time I feel like their child, and part of the time I feel like [I'm] their uncle dropping by." We catch up with Jackson shooting a scene with dwarfs at the Upper Hutt sound stage. The interior is huge. There are trailers and a wind machine. To our left a set appears to be the remains of Mirkwood forest. Jackson has a pair of 3-D glasses around his neck and sips a hot drink. "I was always resistant to doing The Hobbit for a long time. I was superstitious, I just didn't think we would want to repeat The Lord of the Rings. I didn't really want to feel like I was competing with myself," he says.

It's easy to forget that Jackson's original plan was to produce The Hobbit and let Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro direct. But due to delays, del Toro quit and Jackson stepped in. "But since I ended up doing it, I'm having a blast. I'm really enjoying it. I'm enjoying myself probably more than The Lord of the Rings, in some respect. Because I sort of feel like I know what I am doing a lot more than I did back 12 years ago."

So, too, are the dwarfs. We meet several in costume and makeup, and out. Oin – Kiwi actor John Callen – gives an unscheduled preview by wandering into the Upper Hutt cafeteria in full costume and makeup. He spots the media and walks over. While still in character, he gently ribs us about entering Middle-earth.

Later in the cafeteria we also meet Freeman, the hobbit of The Hobbit. Freeman has a day off from filming and is in a relaxed mood and keen to talk. In fact, he talks for nearly an hour, which surprises his handlers. Prior to being cast in The Hobbit, he was best known for television shows The Office and Sherlock. While he does get recognised on the street in Britain, he's keenly aware of the potential for much greater exposure once the first of the three Hobbit films is released next month.

"I've had 10 years of people coming up to me ... and sometimes it's great and sometimes it's not. But I can go to Italy and no-one cares, and that will change after December. So that's a big thing to consider, as well. That's a big part of the sacrifice, 'cause once that's gone ... I value being able to go into a record shop and people leaving me alone. So I really had to want to do this, and I did want to."

Kiwis garnered a reputation during the filming of The Lord of the Rings for largely leaving the actors alone when they were out in public. I ask Freeman if that's been the case in Wellington. "No, that is self-mythologising bull, I'm afraid. Kiwis don't leave you alone," he says.

'Oh, yeah, you'll love it here 'cause no one will say a thing to you.' "I went to see Rhys Darby [perform] and this guy was like, 'Can I take a picture with you?' 'Yeah, yeah, sure.' 'Can my daughter take a picture with you?' 'Yeah, yeah, sure.' 'Can we get an autograph?' 'Yeah, yeah, sure.' 'It must be nice everyone leaving you alone.' 'What do you think you're doing?' So it's this Orwellian double-think thing. We leave you alone – while we're insisting on giving you shots of tequila."

THE HOBBIT: An Unexpected Journey has its world premiere in Wellington on November 28 and opens on December 12.

- The Dominion Post

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