Set visit embargoes are a funny thing. While we here at Cinema Blend often get the chance to fly around the world and watch movies as they’re being made, in most cases the trips come with enforced non-disclosure agreements that force us to remain absolutely silent about what we’ve seen or where we’ve been until an undisclosed date. As these special vows of silence can last for months on end, it can be a very hard, difficult time, particularly when the movie set you’ve visited is one of the most hotly anticipated movies of the year. For that reason, I’m tremendously excited to announce that back in May I flew from my Los Angeles home across the International Date Line to Wellington, New Zealand where a group of journalists including myself were invited to the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Over the course of an amazing five day trip, we got to spend nearly two full days on set where we had the chance not only to speak with the brilliantly talented people who appear in front of the camera – such as Sir Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, and the host of performers who play the company of dwarves at the center of the plot – but also to the stunningly talented artisans and filmmakers responsible for bringing Middle Earth to life. Over the next few days I’ll be posting a number of articles about the experience, giving you the full inside access to the creation of The Hobbit, and it begins with our fascinating discussion with director Peter Jackson and our tour of the various departments that work to make the movies as breathtaking as possible.

The King Of Middle Earth
When thinking about the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s amazing to think that The Hobbit almost didn’t happen. But it’s also scary how close that almost came to being reality. While the project was still in its development stages it experienced set back after set back, comparisons being made to director Terry Gilliam’s attempts to try and make his vision of Don Quixote. MGM was going through bankruptcy; Guillermo del Toro, who was originally attached to direct, decided to move on to other projects; a fire ravaged and destroyed everything in one of the New Zealand-based workshops; and actors union issues almost forced the production to move to Eastern Europe. But even with all those issues and a terrible fear about making a movie featuring 13 dwarves as lead characters, director Peter Jackson told us on set that where he ended up was exactly where he wanted to be.

“I never wanted to do The Hobbit, in the first place,” Jackson told us while we were on set and he was in between takes, sporting a nifty pair of Iron Man style 3D glasses around his neck. “'The idea of having an ensemble of 13 dwarves terrified me and I thought, ‘Well, it's going to be much more interesting to have another filmmaker dealing with that I'll just go with it and see what happens.’ …But the weird thing with this is that having ended up where I am, the fact that there's 13 dwarves in it is the great joy of the movie. I've actually swung a 180 degrees round now. It's like I suddenly think, "Wow, this movie is really cool because of all these characters, these eccentric dwarves." And we've given each of them personalities and things and they are very much the heart of the story. Bilbo is the soul of the story, but the dwarves and their wanting to reclaim their homeland is very much the heart of the story. I like these guys now. Actually I'm pleased it ended up the way it did.”

Helping in that respect is the fact that it seems the film got all of its problems out of the way during pre-production. Describing the movie as “a lot of fun,” and “just a joy,” the director even went as far as to say that one of the early calamities ended up helping the movie as whole. “I got an ulcer, which was awesome,” Jackson said sarcastically. “But [it] was actually quite good because it gave everybody six weeks of extra pre-production time…literally the art department, wardrobe costume, they all got an extra six weeks to prepare for the movie, so I think there was a lot of people that were quite happy about that.”

As for his key to approaching the material, we learned that it falls somewhere right in the middle of making the production feel exactly like The Lord of the Rings while also making sure it’s something different. The process begins with being true to the world that’s being created and pretending that Middle Earth is a real place, but from there it’s about finding the proper tone, and for that Jackson went straight to the source: J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. Contrasting The Hobbit with Lord of the Rings, Jackson said that the earlier trilogy is more about the battle between good and evil, while this one is more closely related to a fairy tale. “The elements of the story give you room to change the tone slightly, but in terms of the look and the feel and the filmmaking style I wanted to keep it pretty consistent and keep everything feeling like it's the same world,” Jackson said.

But tone isn’t the only thing being changed for the new trilogy – there’s some major visual changes as well. Early in the production the director made the controversial announcement that not only would The Hobbit movies be shot in 3D, but they would be filmed at 48 frames per second, a rate twice as fast as the standard 24 frames per second. A good amount of outcry resulted, with some fans upset that the new movies wouldn’t have aesthetic fidelity to the earlier movies, and others complaining that faster frame rates make everything too realistic – an element not desired in what is very much a fantasy world. In spite of protest, Jackson continues to defend his choice, explaining the importance of embracing new technologies and not just sticking with the status quo just because it’s what we’re used to. Said Jackson,
“I just think that we're living in a world where the technology is advancing so rapidly. You're having cameras that are capable of more and more-- The resolution on cameras is jumping up. Three or four years ago filmmakers using digital cameras were shooting at 2K and now we're shooting this at 4K and I'm sure within three or four years it'll be 8K. It's just going insane with the development, the speed of it, and likewise projection. And shortly the one thing we're all hanging out for is brighter projection for 3D, but the laser projectors are on the horizon and they're certainly going to massively improve the brightness, and theatres are building bigger screens.

And it's really a question of do you just say, ‘Okay, this is what we've been used to for the last 75 or 80 years, and that's what we're going to stick with.’ Or do you explore ways to actually harness this technology to give people a better experience, and we're also, as an industry, we're facing a situation where less young people, especially, are coming to see films anymore. It's too easy to watch them on your iPad. Too easy to stay at home and play games, and so I think anything that we can do to provide a more immersive and spectacular experience-- Filmmakers have been doing it, 65mm, 2001… Kubrick and David Lean, they shot in these huge big formats to try to make it sharp and clear and that was like the equivalent of 5K in the film stock days. Todd-AO was 30 frames a second, wasn't it, for Around the World in 80 Days. There's been people trying to push it, but of course the just effect for seven or eight decades projectors were pretty much locked into 24 frames per second. We had to get past the mechanical film age to be able to explore other things, but it will be interesting. 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.”

(Stay tuned for the rest of our interview with Peter Jackson, which will be posted later today!)

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