Set Visit: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

By Garth Franklin Thursday October 25th 2012 11:05AM
Set Visit: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

This one has been a long time coming. Almost twenty years ago in fact, back in the mid-1990s, was when New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson and his wife and producing partner Fran Walsh expressed interest in adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic "The Hobbit" into a feature film. At the time it was hoped it would be the first in a trilogy, with the next two instalments being based on "The Lord of the Rings".

Unfortunately the production and distribution rights to "The Hobbit" were already tied up and out of reach, so Jackson forged ahead instead with a trilogy adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings". Seventeen Oscars and nearly $3 billion in global box-office later, the fantasy trilogy is still widely considered one of the most ambitious, most acclaimed and most successful film series ever created. After the last film came out in 2003, everyone wondered whether a film based on "The Hobbit" would finally be made and if so, would Jackson be the one to direct it.

Nine years later and here we are, a little under two months away from the worldwide release of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". The first in an ambitious new trilogy of films, this return to Middle Earth will be a quite different journey to our previous trip. Penned back in 1937 as a children's book, "The Hobbit" has a much lighter and more humorous tone than the 'Rings' stories. The cast of characters is tighter, the sense of adventure more wild and playful, and the scale not as vast but still epic.

In June this year I, and several other online journalists, went down to Wellington for a few days to visit the set of the trilogy and talk with everyone involved. It was an extensive trip, we went through the various departments and conducted many interviews with the focus predominantly on the first film (the first of two at the time). Below is the result of that trip, a guide to the making of these films that should answer various lingering questions you might have about where the initial film in this new trilogy is going and what to expect.


"The Lord of the Rings" remains one of literature's densest works. A hardcover copy in my bookcase with small print comes to 1030 pages and that's not including the appendices. A similar hardcover copy of "The Hobbit" however is just 294 pages, and that's with smaller pages, larger print and more illustrations. This showcases the most common question and/or complaint I still hear about these films - that Tolkien's book simply doesn't have enough material to justify two films let alone three.

If this was a straightforward adaptation that would be a fair assumption. It isn't. In fact, Jackson and his crew are trying something even more ambitious - "The Hobbit" the way it should have been. After creating "The Lord of the Rings," Tolkien himself toyed with the idea of republishing "The Hobbit" as a rewritten book that was more fleshed out and would closer tie into the events in "The Lord Of The Rings". While that didn't happen, much of the sketched out material for it ended up in the appendices of the later editions of "The Lord of the Rings: The Return Of The King".

Jackson says: "That was a lot of his material that he was at one stage, continuing to rework back into a revised Hobbit. So we've got access to all this material, so we are able to delve into those appendices and search for little clues about bits of story and some of them are only half formed. You get the feeling that maybe if he ever did sit down to really flesh it out we would have got a lot more information from some of those writings. We are taking that." That includes fleshing out some back story elements to explain things as "Things shouldn't be arbitrary in movies," says Jackson. "I always get frustrated if suddenly something happens and it has no particular reason for happening."

One such element is why Gandalf chooses Bilbo Baggins for the trip in the first place. Jackson says: "Gandalf remembers this young Bilbo Baggins as a young child who was the one hobbit that he sees that loves adventure likes danger, loves scary stories. That has a more outgoing spirit, and when he wants a hobbit to be a burglar on this adventure he returns to Hobbiton many years later and he finds Bilbo. He deliberately hunts down Bilbo, because that's the hobbit who he thinks would be the best one to pick for this. He's appalled and shocked to find at the end of eighteen years Bilbo's become stuffy, and ultra conservative, and not at all like the little boy that he remembers. So that's the beginning of their relationship really."


For those unfamiliar with "The Hobbit," the action is set sixty years before the events in "The Lord of the Rings" and follows Frodo's uncle Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) who finds himself pulled along on an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, cavernous halls that were conquered many years ago by the dragon Smaug.

Approached by the wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakensheild (Richard Armitage). Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers.

Their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain, an area of Middle Earth we've yet to see portrayed in a live-action film. On this journey, on the shores of an underground lake, the unassuming Bilbo Baggins gains possession of the "precious" ring of the creature Gollum that holds unexpected and useful qualities. This simple gold ring is tied to the fate of all Middle-earth in ways Bilbo cannot begin to know.


Conceived as two films, you would think there's no way these films could be bigger than "The Lord of the Rings" right? Wrong. Weta Workshop creator Sir Richard Taylor says: "On 'Lord Of The Rings', I think we probably did about 500 primary illustrations to conceptualise the three movies … at this point [on 'The Hobbit], I think we've almost clocked 8,000 digital paintings to realise the piece of the world that we're doing. We've had five conceptual designers from our twenty-six strong design team working over the whole time on the project, although almost everyone's done some small part of it."

Approximately 350 people are employed by the art department alone on this production and, as the film is a 'road movie' of sorts, our heroes are never anywhere for very long. As a result they visit many different environments and every one of them is a different culture. It's also a different historical era, so even the environments we are already familiar with from the previous films have a different look. The city of Rivendell for example was towards the end of the Elven civilization in "The Fellowship of the Ring" whereas here it has a much brighter, richer look.

Color serves as a key element that changes with the scenes. Set decorator Ra Vincent says: "We needed a mood progression to read on the film. One of the ways that we got a good head start was to create colorways for every individual environment. So as a group we went through the different places we were going to visit, and looked at the ways that the colors would change with the environment and how that would affect the mood of the film."

A combination of the RED Epic 3D cameras and 48 frames-per-second filming technology meant the designers have to be more detailed than ever before. Vincent says: "We are being a little bit more careful about what the finished surfaces are like. How our texture treatments are done, and just by pushing that much more detail into everything. It's actually enriched the propage and the sets a whole lot more because we're quite often using real materials instead of prop making plastics and things. I think it's better as an interactive thing as well for the actors because they're interacting with glass instead of plastic and ceramics instead of card."

One elaborate environment built for the films was Dale, described as the 'orchard city of Middle Earth'. Its streets are full of trees and there are Venetian style waterways, but it's also an alpine city situated high on a rocky mountain. Another was the Goblin community built within the crevasses of the Misty Mountains. The goblins themselves are like scavengers who build makeshift accommodations out of timber, fabric, skins and whatever they can find or steal.


The much greater attention to detail extended to all the costumes in the film which looked far and wide for inspiration and influences. The lighter fairytale tone meant the designers amped up the color, while the styles were more pastoral and 18th century inspired to convey the earlier point in history. Costume designer Bob Buck came up with an interesting explanation for why Bag End looks more luscious on screen this time around - "one of my theories about why we also are more colorful is because the Ring hadn't actually been in Hobbiton now. In The Lord of The Rings, the Ring had been there, and had been tucked away in an envelope. But the evil and the menace, and the bad magic that that emanated, I think sucked the life and the color out of Hobbiton."

Bilbo's look is that of an English country gentleman with Tolkien himself serving as an influence with his ever-present smoking jacket and pipe. Ian McKellen's wardrobe as Gandalf the Grey remains the same as we saw in 'Fellowship', aside from an Elven scarf. Buck says "the hat's exactly the same. The cloak's pretty much the same. I think we took a bit of the length off just to make it a little bit easier to move around in". The dwarves are like a medieval biker gang so they're cloaked in leather, armor and skins. As each of the dwarves comes from different classes and backgrounds - some of nobility, some commoners - each is also dressed in distinct ways as Jackson wanted to create "iconic silhouettes" which allows us to determine which of the thirteen is which, even from a distance.

Buck says Jackson is very much into "this world of storytelling from the garments … [each] garment goes through all these different adventures and stages of drama, of action, of peril. Each episode, each drama leaves a scar, leaves a stain, leaves something that we then have to put on to the next jacket." Bilbo's outfit alone has at least six different "stages" throughout the trilogy as the clothes deconstruct, collapse and fray from the rough journey. Getting that look is a fun process says Buck - "We get in there with knives, and we scrape off the pile, we spray things … we put fake dirt on everything, we've dunked them in hot water, we get a blowtorch and put fire on them. Everything has to be permanent, so that when it does get laundered, it doesn't come off. "

All the fabrics had to be as natural as possible with an organic quality. Leather, suede, linen and wool which all underwent various treatments. Everything is hand-stitched and everything has to be custom made, including the segmented, reticulated foam fat suits. All the dwarves have body padding that goes right down to the wrist, even the least overtly dwarfish like Kili still has padding in the shoulders, thighs and "a little bit of booty". Thorin's outfit clocked in the heaviest at approximately a bit over 30 kilograms (about 70 lbs.), and all have water cooled vests on.

Their weaponry is equally impressive. Nearly eight hundred individual weapons were created for the thirteen dwarves, mostly variations of soft weapons, hero weapons, and cut-off weapons made for visual effects shots. Most were created with 3D milling machines and 3D printers, a whole new field technology that will revolutionise the world over the next decade or two. WETA's Richard Taylor says we'll soon get to a point that: "we could 3D print large-scale props, even, imagine if you could start 3D printing sets."


With thirteen dwarves and assorted other characters, the make-up department certainly had a lot more work ahead of them on this than they did with the previous films. Six wigs and eight beards, knotted one hair at a time, have had to be made for each dwarf. Each actor gets two wigs (which are alternated every day), then there's one each for a scale double, a mask double, a riding double and a stunt double. In fact, every single principal actor in the film has got hair on that's a wig, and these babies don't come cheap.

Each is made in England by one of the world's best wig makers and costs around $10,000 to construct. Knowing this, I glanced at a rack of wigs all along one wall of the department that probably had a total value of a quarter of a million dollars … whew. In a few lucky cases, some wigs were already done over a decade ago for "The Lord of the Rings" and brought out of storage for this. They included Galadriel, Frodo, and a few other Elven characters. Most of the dwarf wigs are made of yak hair, but Thorin sports real hair.

Make-up itself has completely changed since the original trilogy. Gone is the foam latex and heavy silicone, now there's a thin and lightweight type of silicone called flat gel. Essentially the same as bald cap material, it is far easier to apply and paint and has the exact same luminance as real skin when light strikes it. As an added bonus, it's heatproof and waterproof. The downside is it doesn't breathe like foam latex, thus sweat 'bubbles' can accumulate which leads to the actors having to be 'milked' to drain it. Several times during our interviews we noticed the actors seemingly shedding tears, turns out drops of sweat were draining from around their eyelids.

Early on Jackson made the edict that prosthetics on all (bar one) of the dwarves could not go below the crow's feet and the line of the nose. As a result, each of the actors playing the dwarves dons a full foam latex head cowl to make their head appear wider, deeper and more in proportion. Jackson's WETA workshop manufactures the various custom raw prosthetic pieces which the artists then have to paint and apply. Facial make-up pieces for example only work for one day of filming, so every day it takes an artist five minutes to paint and an hour to hand-punch the eyebrows. Actual application time is much shorter with the flat gel, and there's no allergic or skin reactions like you get with the chemicals in foam latex.

Aidan Turner's Kili has the shortest make-up time at only 30 minutes. Stephen Hunter's Bombur takes the longest at about 105 minutes. Every single dwarf has a prosthetic artist, a hair artist, a make-up artist, one or two wardrobe people, a weapons person, and at least one 'hands and feet' person who basically rush in numerous times per day between rehearsals and actual shooting to check everything is in place.

The infamous uncomfortable Hobbit 'feet' that took an hour to apply are a thing of the past. Now there's slip-on gumboot-like silicone legs, with multi-toed ninja shoes inside for comfort and support, that can be popped on and off. Same goes for the hands and arms, a trick ably demonstrated by the female make-up artist who put on one of the arms. While it looked rubbery and prop-like while off, as soon as she had it on it immediately became like a completely convincing second skin, her right arm below the elbow looked as if it suddenly belonged to a hairy 6'7 bodybuilder.


Our visit took place around day 232 of a 254 day shoot. Despite starting a year and a half ago, the project remained on schedule to wrap when expected, though additional photography is due to take place early next year. A brief 10-15 minute drive took us to Miramar and Jackson's Stone Street Studio which has grown over the years. Each of Jackson's big tent-pole movies seems to lead to a new sound stage going up. The previous trilogy had just one. "The Hobbit" has it, a massive 24,500 square foot sound stage built originally for "King Kong," and two more sound stages built specifically for this production. None of that includes buildings for the various departments, trailers for the cast members, and one of the single biggest green screens I think I've ever seen.

One of the most famous tricks utilised in "The Lord of the Rings" proved untenable for "The Hobbit" films - forced perspective. Used to great effect previously so actors could play different sized characters within the same scene (such as Gandalf and Frodo on the cart in the opening scenes of 'Fellowship'), shooting in 3D renders the trick essentially useless. Instead, a new system had to be devised, one that was repeatedly mentioned and brought up during our visit - 'Slave-Mo-Co'.

A scene such as the Bag End banquet, where Ian McKellen's Gandalf towers over the Hobbit and dwarves and moves in and around them throughout the scene, demonstrates this perfectly. McKellen himself describes the process thus, "After we had rehearsed the scene … I had to then move out away from them, into my own green screen set, so that my figure could be transposed onto their picture for it to be shot by two enslaved cameras working in exactly the same way, at the same point. So the thirteen dwarves are over there in their set, and I'm over in my set, which is a little green screen cutout to make me look tall. With nobody else, 'cause my camera's enslaved to the other one, there isn't an operator. I can't see the people I'm talking to, so they're represented by pictures on top of poles, which light up when they're talking, and I hear them through a sound piece in my ear."

Another technique of filming utilised throughout 'Hobbit' is one many will be more familiar with - giant technocranes. This system has the ability to get a camera anywhere within a set. Art director Simon Bright says: "usually the logistics of normal filmmaking has limited you to the dolly or a drive crane, but this can, within a moment, be in any area of the set." Approximately 48 RED Epic cameras are being used on the production with everything being shot at 5K resolution (5120 x 2700 pixels).

Actor Andy Serkis has been making the push into filmmaking and here he jumped at the opportunity to helm the film's second unit. "It's very, very different from a traditional second unit on a project of this scale. We're shooting all the aerials" says Serkis who scored the gig literally a few weeks before he was slated to reprise the role of Gollum. "Just leading up to that, before principal photography started, Pete said, 'Will you come and direct the second unit for about a year-and-a-half?' So it was a big, big turnaround. But Pete's known that I've been heading towards directing for some time, and it's just a wonderful opportunity" says Serkis.


Jackson himself has proven something of an unlikely hero to one group of people - movie exhibitors. "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" marks the debut of 48 frames per second technology, a frame rate double that of the industry standard since the 1920s. Willingly or not, Jackson has found himself as the front line ambassador for this new approach to filmmaking. It's a technique that could very will live or die by the public reaction to the select 48FPS screenings of this film. Jackson says: "I personally think 48 frames is great, but we'll just wait till everyone can just see a whole full length movie, graded and timed and we'll see what people think."

One thing is certain, this new way of filming has resulted in the various departments taking different approaches. The greater depth of field removes strobing and smudging, making the smallest details crystal clear. Richard Taylor says: "You can't trick light like you could on film. Film would capture the moisture in the air between the foreground and the background, somehow digital camera work [at this frame rate] penetrates that and sees everything."

This means textures and finished surfaces of all the sets have to not only be more detailed, but often made from the real material where possible. Production designer Dan Hennah says: "It has made our job more interesting. If you walk into a set and you don't feel you're there, it's not working. It's that active. Normally you could cheat a bit here and cheat a bit there." Those days are gone, environments have to be fully completed and there's no luxury of hiding things behind other things or building things without backs.

Same goes for the costumes. Costume designer Bob Buck says even a stray hair out of place jumps right out at you in 3D, especially at 48FPS. "We have to be conscious of every little aspect, and that every button is right on every costume," he says. "It's amazing what we did with our screen tests. Just boards of textures, boards of color, and things like that. Just seeing how some things did something, and some things did nothing. So we're always having to be constantly aware of that."

Another change was color. One of the very first things to show up in early tests with the technology was that the system eats a lot of color, especially the red part of the spectrum. As a result the sets had to be almost psychedelically vibrant with colors and lit fairly strongly, which is then toned down during grading into something more natural. Same with the make-up which was turning people jaundiced in the tests. Make-up artist Tami Lane says: "It was like the camera was picking up something that the human eye wasn't seeing, and so they were kicking yellow. So what we had to do was overcompensate for the camera and put more red into them." As a result the dwarves all look slightly sun burnt on the set, but in the final film they will appear normal.


WETA Digital was still a very young digital visual effects company at the time of the original trilogy, these days it is a whole other story. Along with their numerous Oscars, they boast a track record that includes many of the groundbreaking visual effects on the likes of "Avatar," "King Kong," "District 9," "The Adventures of Tintin," "I, Robot," "X-Men: First Class," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," "The Avengers" and "Prometheus" to name just a few. As a result, the mood around the company seems more sedate than it was on 'Rings'.

Visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken admits "we were very green back in 'The Lord Of The Rings' days. We were scrambling a little bit more. I think as a company we're more mature, our production shot tracking and shot management is much more mature. Personally, right now it's quite, I wouldn't say relaxing, but it's not onerous at all … As a company we can manage things in a much more artist friendly way." That includes the company's current side job of "doing a chunk of work" on Zack Snyder's Superman reboot "Man of Steel".

Because a lot of the tools they use they develop in-house, the artists are able to reuse them on later projects - their water simulation software for 'The Adventures of Tintin" was reused in "X-Men: First Class" for example. However, there was nothing that they were able to reuse from Jackson's earlier trilogy. "We are doing things that are at a much higher level now," says Aitken. "We're rebuilding everything. We pretty much did that when we were doing Lord Of The Rings, we rebuilt Gollum from film two to film three. It's a very fast-moving field. We're constantly updating our assets even if we need them to look the same."

Speaking of Gollum, the character may look the same in the final films, but he's being created in a whole different way off screen. "With Gollum we got an opportunity to look at the development that we've done over the last ten years," says Aitken. "We want to basically make all these improvements without changing his appearance. He's got to be instantly recognisable. It's not about a redesign, it's just about trying to make him behave more naturally, more realistically."

You would think the visual effects people would be amongst those hardest hit by the more substantial workload created by the shift to filming at 48 frames a second. In actuality, the move to 3D was a much bigger challenge. Aitken says: "The switch from 24 to 48 technically has much less impact on us than the switch from 2D to 3D Stereo did." A lot of that is because the shift to 3D meant a lot of basic shortcuts and tricks of the trade in the 2D world were instantly rendered useless by the move to 3D and had to be completely rethought. With 48 frames per second though, the main changes are improving the level of detail along with more processing time and infrastructure to handle the greater output.


I've been on numerous film sets of varying scales over the years. Though this is one of the biggest I've seen, one thing that stuck out was just how relaxed the atmosphere was. Everyone was working hard, but there was no panic or even tangible sense of high pressure. Actors would come and go as needed. Film crew were busy, but never flustered. We didn't even get that grumpy look of consternation that we entertainment journalists often get greeted with by all the random people rushing about on head sets. As a working environment it was highly enviable, and certainly Jackson was making good use of it to get the exact shots he wanted.

We saw two scenes being filmed, scenes which are now a part of the second film so I've been asked to keep those details aside for my next report in 2013. The big question for now though is just how this first film will turn out. It may be a lighter and less substantial story in a literary sense, but Jackson and his crew are seemingly fulfilling their promise of expanding it in logical ways. Certainly there's a lot more hearkening back to the previous cinematic world of "The Lord of the Rings" than you might expect. Not just in terms of look, but feel and tone as well.

Beyond the film itself of course is the presentation which will differ wildly depending upon how you see it. There are at least five different ways that exhibitors are offering it - regular 2D and 3D 24 frames-per second screenings. There are also 48 frames-per second screenings in 3D and IMAX 3D. Certain key places will also have a Dolby Atmos sound mix. Any combination of these could well add a whole other level to the experience of the film.

Ian McKellen wisely argued that so many options will be available, no-one need complain they are not being catered to. He says: "People should be reassured, if they don't want to see this film in 3D, they don't have to. If they don't want to see it in 48 frames per second, they don't have to. You'll have the choice. You'll have the choice of whether you wait and watch The Hobbit at home, or go and see it on the big screen. And will we see it on an even bigger screen? Will we see it on a 3D screen? I think it will make people want to see the film in a variety of ways. So for those that don't like 3D, they needn't worry, they needn't have it. It's not one or the other."

For all the talk of frame rates, fancy graphics, elaborate make up and so forth, in the end it all really comes down to the people involved and the story they're telling. Even with the added material of the appendixes, I'm still not sure how Jackson will flesh out the story across what could ultimately be 7-8 hour total run time for the three films. That said, he's certainly taking an all-inclusive, involving and elaborate approach to the material. The whole endeavour is more of a gamble than a lot of people are giving the production team credit for. In a few weeks, we'll see if that gamble pays dividends.

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" opens throughout much of the world on December 12th & 13th, in the United Kingdom and United States on December 14th, and in Australia on December 26th.



Interview: Sir Peter Jackson
The filmmaker talks frame rates, filming techniques and development woes.

Interview: Sir Ian McKellen
Gandalf himself talks his initial frustrations and the joy of being a wizard.

Interview: Martin Freeman
The 'Sherlock' star on his the pressure of being Bilbo and fellow actors.

Interview: Richard Armitage
The handsome 'Spooks' star on what it is like to play a dwarf leader.