THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
Design, Photography and the Physical World
Stone Street Studios, Peter Jackson's production facilities in Miramar, New Zealand, has nearly tripled in size and capabilities since the days when he and his team made THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy in the converted paint factory. Building the world of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY would take up the whole of the eight-acre site, encompassing six stages, including the two state-of-the-art stages built specifically for the new Trilogy.
Making three films back-to-back once again required the filmmakers to deploy a truly epic logistical operation that would leverage the talents of hundreds of people, involve the construction of nearly 100 sets, the fabrication of thousands of pieces of clothing, prosthetics, wigs, props, and weapons, and take the company from the soundstages in Miramar off to spectacular landscapes across both islands of New Zealand.
Bringing Middle-earth to life for THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY are Jackson's longtime collaborators, led by director of photography Andrew Lesnie, production designer Dan Hennah, composer Howard Shore, make-up and hair designer Peter Swords King, Weta Workshop's Richard Taylor and Weta Digital's Joe Letteri, all of whom won Oscars for their work on THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy, as well as costume designers Ann Maskrey and Bob Buck. "Ten years after THE LORD OF THE RINGS production, we found ourselves back on set with many of the same creative talent and crew," Jackson comments. "So there was a great family atmosphere from the first day."
He also got a new crew member in the form of an old friend -- Andy Serkis, who, in addition to playing Gollum, served as Jackson's second unit director throughout the shoot. "Peter has known that I've wanted to direct ever since our experience together on THE LORD OF THE RINGS," Serkis says. "He said, 'Look, this will be a chance for you to expand into filmmaking on a big scale.' And it proved to be the most extraordinary, challenging, and immensely life-changing experience."
Jackson and his team hoped to carry over a sense of visual harmony from the previous film trilogy, with one major difference. "A decade later, a lot of the imagery of Middle-earth has become quite iconic," he says. "But for THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY, it was important that it feel like a more idyllic time. The darkness that will descend on this world is brewing but hasn't yet expanded, so we wanted to reflect that visually by making it feel a bit more gentle, and have a bit more of a storybook quality in the design and photography."
The foundation for this world emerged from the production's art department. Working with a team of roughly 350 people, Dan Hennah was charged with designing a layered, multi-faceted and palpably real Middle-earth in the physical sets, going hand-in-hand with characters and environments to be created by Weta Digital.
This ever-evolving process began within thousands of drawings painstakingly and beautifully rendered by renowned Tolkien illustrators John Howe and Alan Lee, who also created the seminal imaginings for THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy. Their imagery grew organically out of their discussions with Jackson and Hennah, the screenplay, and their own love for the book.
"Working on a film requires so much more detail than what you might glean from reading the script or even the book," Lee explains. "Tolkien used language as a way of creating the history and depth of the cultures of Middle-earth. He evokes a feeling, a sense of where you are, and an atmosphere without actually pointing out where the sun would be or where the moon would rise."
Their conceptual art also at times expressed the emotional content of the material. Howe adds, "Peter mostly wants the viewer to get the same imagery from his film as they would get from their own imaginations when reading the text. So he'll describe a place with practically no details, but he's giving us the impression the characters have. You don't necessarily know what it looks like, but you get how it should make you feel."
With the concept art as a guiding force, Hennah then got down to the work of designing sets that would meet Jackson's mandate for both realism and exquisite detail. "To build the set, I looked at what part of it the characters would interact with to gauge how much we needed to construct," Hennah states.
Model builders created scale models of each set, which allowed Jackson to plot his action and iron out any potential issues. Hennah and supervising art director Simon Bright then oversaw construction, which was truly a 24-hour-per-day operation throughout production, with crews working alternating shifts to build detailed and fully dressed sets with a rapid turnover.
"We've developed quite a few techniques that we didn't have ten years ago," Hennah notes. "For example, all the natural things were molded from living or real elements. We'd go out into the mountains and put a big swatch of silicon onto a rock to get a mold of it. We had five or six pieces of rock face, each five or six meters tall, that fit together in all sorts of combinations. And we had trees on wheels too. It was almost like working with a theatre set."
That style of set creation worked particularly well for sets like Trollshaw Forest, Goblin Town, and Gollum's cave. The art department was able to change or extend a set overnight, thus allowing Jackson complete freedom and flexibility to shoot however he chose.
Between Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, Wizards and the Goblins, each realm was distinctive and required the designers to establish identities not just through actors and costumes, but also through props and environment. "We had lots of different histories to honor, especially in terms of their use of materials, so we did a lot of research and laid down certain rules based on that," Hennah explains.
Some of the sets will be familiar to fans of THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy. The small-scale set for Bilbo's home at Bag End was pulled out of storage, restored and substantially enhanced for THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY. Jackson wanted it to feel very much as the same place that was occupied by the older Bilbo and Frodo in the earlier films, which director of photography Andrew Lesnie describes as, "The most ideal place to live in the world -- warm, inviting, simple, but breathtaking."
Lesnie relished the opportunity to return to Middle-earth with Jackson, this time shooting in 3D on hand-manufactured, state-of-the-art Red Epic digital cameras. Compact and mobile, the cameras easily handled dolly, crane and handheld shooting while recording far more information than film cameras -- an unprecedented 48 frames per second (fps). Lesnie notes, "It's a completely different technical experience, showcasing amazing developments that have taken place in the digital realm in the last ten years."
One of the first scenes to be shot that would test the techniques Jackson planned to leverage on THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY was the dinner at Bag End, when Bilbo is joined by 13 rowdy Dwarves and Gandalf, who towers over the group.
Whereas Jackson's previous 2D visit to Middle-earth allowed them to use "forced perspective" to fool the eye into believing Gandalf to be much taller than his Hobbit and Dwarf friends, shooting in 3D rendered previous techniques mostly obsolete. As with the earlier productions, THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY makes copious use of scale doubles of each character, ranging in size from under four-feet-tall to over seven-feet-tall. But, for the Bag End feast, and many other scenes that required face-to-face interaction, Jackson took the opportunity to pioneer a cutting-edge camera technology called Slave Motion Control, or Slave MoCon.
This technique required the art department to build two sets to accommodate the action -- one sized for the main actors in a scene and the other created on green screen for the taller or shorter characters appearing in the same scene. The actors would then perform the scene simultaneously on the two sets, with visual cues for eyelines and earpieces for dialog, while the cameras recording each set moved in perfect sync. This process allowed Peter Jackson to simultaneously direct both sets, which would then be merged together digitally into one scene.
"The master rig on the main set operated on a normal camera crane," explains Slave MoCon supervisor Alex Funke. "However, it had every single movement encoded-boom, track, pan, tilt, and so on -- so that everything it did was converted to numerical data, scaled to the correct percentage, and sent down a cable to the motion-controlled camera crane, or slave rig, which was filming to scale on the green set. That rig then exactly copied the master rig's movements at a specifically scaled distance and speed."
The resulting shots reveal Dwarves running in all directions carrying food from the pantry to the dining room, with a very tall, correctly scaled, Gandalf in their midst.
Jackson also wanted the freedom to follow the characters from room to room, so he expanded the set for Bag End, adding a dining room, bedroom and an extensive pantry, all of which were meticulously detailed in both small and large scales. "The way that Peter likes to move the camera meant that there is really no such thing as background, especially since we were filming in high definition," comments set decorator Ra Vincent. "So everything in Bag End had to look like it belonged there, including some replicas of props people may remember from THE LORD OF THE RINGS films."
Middle-earth is a pre-industrial society, so everything had to appear handmade and unique, which was made possible by the company's army of artisans, including a potter, a blacksmith, a glass blower, furniture makers, a food stylist, a saddler, a soft furnishing workroom, a boat builder, basket makers, and a fully manned foundry for aluminum and bronze slip-casting.
For the pastoral exteriors of Hobbiton, Jackson and company returned to the Alexander Farm in the Matamata region on New Zealand's North Island. A decade ago, a section of the working sheep and cow farm had been transformed into a real life Hobbiton for THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and, to this day, offers guided tours of the set. The greens department moved in early to set up a plant- and tree-growing area to keep the Hobbit gardens replenished, and existing Hobbit Holes were refurbished.
A new set created for THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is Rhosgobel, the forest home of the Wizard Radagast. Among its many eccentricities, a tree grows right through his house, which leans precipitously upon crooked floors and walls, creating many practical challenges for the builders.
Another new set is Gollum's cave -- an unforgettable setting to readers of the book -- which Lesnie lit with moody and shadowy tones. "It is the calm in the middle of a storm," he describes. "Its stillness only enhances the strange, eerie quality that exists in this cavern. It reeks of loneliness and the desperation of lost souls."
In a rock cavern far below the Goblin tunnels, the creature paddles across a murky lake in a small boat, or coracle, constructed of the bones and skins of Goblins and Orcs. "There are lots of crevices, so he's been living on what fish he can catch and, well, mostly Goblins that fall down through these crevices...very grisly stuff," Hennah grins.
The Goblins themselves live below ground in an environment of scavenged scraps and decay. "In our color palette, we go from granite colors to mustard tones," Hennah describes. "And the rot shows itself in these little holes in the rock. The deeper you go, the more obvious it becomes that the rock has been eaten away by all the acids the Goblins give off. And on its surfaces, Goblins have built spindly walkways and platforms."
For the art department, dressing Goblin Town became quite an imaginative enterprise. "Goblins are a bit make-do and mend," explains prop master Nick Weir. "They put things together for their own devious, and probably disgusting, purposes. It was great fun."
The aesthetic opposite of Goblin Town, the Elven outpost of Rivendell is ethereal, mysterious and intimately connected to its forest and river surroundings. To return to Rivendell, Hennah restored and extended the original physical set from THE LORD OF THE RINGS production, which was even more substantially enhanced through visual effects.
For the chamber of Lord Elrond, Alan Lee conceptualized revealing more of Rivendell by adding the observatory where Elrond scrutinizes Thorin's map, as well as an exquisite courtyard and the White Council Chamber. Lee says, "The White Council Chamber is a magical place, perched on a rock, with very dramatic views all around, courtesy of Weta Digital."
Hennah sought to maintain consistency with the silver and blue color palette already established for Rivendell, with one key difference. "In the last films, the Elves were a dying culture and it showed in their environment," he explains. "But, for this film, we're looking at an earlier incarnation of Elven culture, so we intensified the blues and infused the environment with a lot more life."
For Rivendell and all the sets on the film, the innovative camera systems Jackson and Lesnie were utilizing required an extra layer of design. These cameras capture exponentially more information in each shot but "eat up color," Hennah explains. "So we had to allow for that in our color palettes, especially since we're creating a brighter and, on the whole, happier rendition of Middle-earth. In the grading, we could take color out, but it's harder to add it in, so the same thinking had to be applied to all the sets as well as costumes and make-up."
The decade between the films and all the concomitant technological upgrades notwithstanding, Lesnie sought to honor the look of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films while fully embracing the possibilities inherent in this new technology. "Because the 48 fps picture is so clear and sharp, I lit more gently to create a more 'filmic' quality. And in the post-production grading process, we took great pains to give the film some softness and body."
3Ality provided the mirror rigs necessary for 3D filming, but both these and the cameras themselves were still works in progress at the start of the shoot. The entire camera system needed to be synced to a finite degree as it collected and processed data in preparation for post-production. The team also designed new peripherals to enable wireless communication between multiple rigs and the master system.
As Lesnie explains, "We wanted to film 3D on a 2D schedule, and day-to-day use educates you in ways that are irreplaceable, but I think we lived in world of perpetual upgrades. Our head of technology, Dion Hartley, and camera supervisor, Gareth Daley, tailored additional hardware and our infrastructure to investigate every new challenge."
Lighting set-ups were developed to allow Jackson complete flexibility in matching and replicating natural light between soundstages and practical locations. While Kino lights can't be dimmed, Lesnie's team came up with a program that allowed individual tubes to be turned off in a random pattern which created a dimming affect or allowed for changes in color temperature during a shot. This technique was particularly useful for sequences that started at dusk and rolled into twilight, especially in Rivendell.
"This mystical kingdom almost transcends reality," Lesnie muses. "I kept this magic by portraying the realm always in dawn or dusk light. At night, Rivendell still has a magical glow."
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