Peter Jackson on shooting The Hobbit

CAMERA MAN: Peter Jackson isn't afraid of getting his hands dirty on a shoot.
CAMERA MAN: Peter Jackson isn't afraid of getting his hands dirty on a shoot.

These days if you get on to a big budget movie set you can see what the cameras are capturing when a scene is being shot. More often than not, several large television monitors will be propped up near where filming is taken place. Or, as is the case during filming of The Hobbit, a few metres away in a small tent from where Sir Peter Jackson is directing a scene involving the movie trilogy’s 13 dwarfs.

We’re in a former car assembly plant in Upper Hutt in space that is so big it’s able to hold several giant sets. Jackson is directing the dwarfs on a large and very detailed environment that would normally dominate a sound stage on its own. But the former plant is so large there are at least two other big sets surrounding it, including what appears to be a patch of Mirkwood forest.

It’s also clear that this is film-making in 2012. Not only is Jackson and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie – who also shot The Lord of the Rings – using state of the art digital cameras and in 3-D, we can also watch the results in 3-D on the monitor.

EYE TO EYE: Peter Jackson talks to Mark Hadlow, who plays Dori the dwarf in The Hobbit.
EYE TO EYE: Peter Jackson talks to Mark Hadlow, who plays Dori the dwarf in The Hobbit.

Jackson and the dwarfs take a short break – they’ve been shooting for several hours – and the director meets us at the monitor. He’s wearing his trademark shorts, but now has a pair of 3-D glasses around his neck. There are no signs of being worn out either from the project or the day’s shoot. ‘‘The Lord of the Rings is what you'd probably call more epic in its scope,’’ he says between sips on a hot drink.

‘‘The Lord of the Rings is about good and evil and the fate of the world. I mean, it's about the biggest possible issues you could imagine and that's huge armies and huge empires fighting against each other, as well as the story of Frodo getting to the mountain. So, it a much more [an] epic type of movie. The Hobbit is more of a character ensemble film and an adventure story.

‘‘I'm trying to shoot The Hobbit in the same style as The Lord of the Rings, but obviously the subject matter is different, in the sense, we're following Bilbo [the hobbit] and the dwarfs and we're taking them on this adventure – which is very different to any of what happens in The Lord of the Rings. It simply isn't about such intense kind of issues and intense themes as The Lord of the Rings.’’

But Jackson, who only became director of The Hobbit after Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro pulled out, says The Hobbit has a very similar visual style to The Lord of the Rings. It will be consistent. ‘‘[It’s] in the sense that I am going on location exactly the same Middle-earth as what we did 12 years ago. In theory, I'm just taking the cameras back into Middle-earth again for telling a different story with these different characters. But the world is the same. It's just as epic in many respects as The Lord of the Rings is.’’

Jackson once said in an interview that The Lord of the Rings was the film of his lifetime. So has The Hobbit changed that observation? 

‘‘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, and that is why Guillermo got involved. For the long time we thought,  ‘If we're doing The Hobbit, which would be kind of fun, we let another film-maker go into Middle-earth and see what he does’. A bit like how they used different directors for the Bond movies. A different director brings a different tone and sensibility.

‘‘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 twelve years ago. So, I'm having fun. I'm enjoying it. I think it's good that it's got a slightly different feel.  I'm realising as I'm going that I'm not really repeating The Lord of the Rings, I've got a different story to tell. So, there's providing some of the freshness.’’

But there’s a glaring difference between The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The source text for the former is more than 1200 pages long, while the latter is about 300 pages. With The Hobbit expanded from two to three films, how is Jackson fleshing the considerably shorter tale into a trilogy?

‘‘We're also using all the appendices for Lord of the Rings, which is helpful too, because as far as I understand when [JRR] Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and then he wrote The Lord of the Rings, he realised that the mythology didn't quite sync up between the two, because he was obviously making it up as he went along.

‘‘Rings and The Hobbit are very different. In The Lord of the Rings, [for] the ring itself, he created a mythology around it that he obviously didn't have a clue about in 1936 he wrote The Hobbit. 

‘‘As he was writing, he was in the process of trying to write a revised version of The Hobbit. After The Lord of the Rings, he was going to re-publish The Hobbit, where he kind of pulled everything [together], added to it and gave it a lot more synergy with The Lord of the Rings. And yet, he never got that done and all that material ended up in the appendices [of] The Return of the King.’’

Jackson says they have also used ideas in notes Tolkien kept on possible changes to The Hobbit. ‘‘We've fortunately been able to access all that material, too. So what we've done really is, we've taken The Hobbit plus all the extra stuff that he was developing, that were in the appendices. The majority of what we're putting in The Hobbit comes from Tolkien.’’

Another important difference from The Lord of the Rings is that is not only being shot in 3-D but at 48 frames per second – twice the frame rate for most feature films. When a 10 minute preview of the film in 48 frames was shown in the United States earlier this year, some viewers complained that it was jarring and difficult to watch.

‘‘Well, they saw an unfinished film,’’ says Jackson

‘‘I've been watching 48 frames for a year and I can only go on what I believe and I certainly think it's pretty fantastic. There was a lot of people who were dubious about it when we started shooting and started looking at stuff, but everybody here is completely won over now. So, you know, rather than the experience of somebody seeing 10 minutes, I'm amongst people that have seen hours and hours and hours of it for a year. And I think that it will be good.

‘‘What I was interested in with the negative comments [is that they] were based around, ‘Well, it's so real. It's so different and it's so real’. And I think, ‘Well, that’s fantastic’ because my entire career I've tried to make my stuff real in the context of what it is. Whether it's zombies or whether it's Middle-earth or a gorilla, whatever it is, I've always tried to make it as real as I possibly can. Like, just down to the texture of the world and the costumes and the languages they speak and the performances of the actors to be authentic, I mean, real is what I'm after and if I can use a 48 frames whatever technology there is to make it more real, that's fine by me. 

‘‘I don’t subscribe at all to the idea where it's fantasy so it can't be real. The best fantasy is real.’’

The Dominion Post