The next location was our final spot in New Zealand’s North Island and turned out to be pretty special.
Ohakune was our destination and was to serve as two locations within Middle Earth. One of these locations was up on Mount Ruapehu, which is the tallest mountain in the North Island and very sacred lands to the local Maori Iwi (tribes). They filmed quite a lot of the Mount Doom scenes in Lord of the Rings, such as Sam carrying Frodo up the cliffs, on other parts of the mountain, but this particular area was new ground for the production. That’s not to say that Ruapehu is Mt. Doom, which is a common misunderstanding amongst touring LOTR geeks.
It’s considered disrespectful to photograph the distinctive peaks of Ruapehu, so while they filmed much of the prologue battle and the slopes of Mt. Doom scenes on Ruapehu they had to digitally construct the imposing Middle Earth landmark out of a hodgepodge of other mountains, including active Hawaiian volcanoes.
The local Iwi (two tribes specifically, Ngati Uenuku and Ngati Rangi) granted permission to the production to film on this side of the mountain and to show the union of the tribes and the production they hosted a Powhiri. The production couldn’t force the cast and crew to go to this traditional event as it was on a day off, but they strongly urged everyone to go as the more people who showed the more respect would be shown to the Maori people who granted the crew permission to film on their lands.
They expected maybe 30-40 people and when I arrived at the Maungarongo Marae there was easily double that, including producer Zane Weiner and all the principal cast from Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen to all the dwarves. By the time the ceremony began there were 130 people from production there.
The hosts, Ngati Rangi, began with a haka, a sort of warrior dance made world-famous by the All Blacks Rugby team who perform it before every game. We, the visitors, weren’t allowed on the field (known as the Marae aitea) until after the haka when one of the warriors was sent out to distinguish whether us visiting movie types were friend or foe in a custom known as Tikanga. This man presented a rau (a fern) which was picked up by Zane, indicating that we came in peace and signified our two groups were met as friends and that we may enter the Marae aitea.
From here on out it was a series of speakers from both sides, which were kept separate, calling back and forth in turn, giving speeches that end in a song. The Ngati Rangi leaders each had a turn, speaking in Maori, which was translated for us by a liaison by the name of Turama Hawira.
We were all given a song to sing and in the parking lot went over it as a group. Since we were all visitors, in order to show respect to our hosts we all had to take part, including fat American reporters.
With the clouds slowly lifting off of Mt. Ruapehu in the background and bright sun shining down on us all the whole ceremony triggered some very serious spiritual buttons in me. I’m not a religious man, but there was an undeniable power here. The history behind the ritual, the sincerity of our hosts’ words and the obvious respect from the cast and crew all jumbled together into one heavy, focused atmosphere that was kind of amazing to experience.
Ian McKellen was the last person from the crew to speak and he gave a great speech talking about the journey this crew was undertaking and thanking them for letting us share their beautiful lands with the people of the world. “You could have easily told Gandalf the Grey ‘You shall not pass’ but you did not,” he said before reiterating his thanks for their cooperation and letting the filmmakers pass onto their property.
Remember I mentioned that each speech was followed by a song? After Sir Ian gave his speech all the actors playing dwarves stood up and sang one of the songs from The Hobbit, a particularly haunting baritone ballad called Misty Mountains (the very one from the newly released trailer).
The final part of the ceremony involved something called the hongi, where the visitors line up and walk past the iwi leaders, women and children, shake their hands and lean in to touch noses and foreheads. This invitation into each other’s personal space solidifies the union of our tribes and makes us no longer visitors, but tangata whenua (people of the land).
Walking down the line I must have done the hongi with a good 20 people, ranging from adorable kids to kindly old men and it’s not as awkward as I expected it to be. When touching noses with strangers that forces you to look them in the eye and consider them as more than what you take in at first glance. I was told afterwards that looking our hosts in the eye during the hongi was actually a sign of aggression, but they didn’t seem to take offense.
After all of us had completed the hongi, we gathered together and discussed some of the Maori mythology about the land and were told that we would have an iwi representative with us while the crew filmed “to protect the mountain from you and you from the mountain.” Remember that Ruapehu is an active volcano and the Maori believe there are good and bad spirits in the region that have to be respected in order to not upset the balance.
In addition to Turama Hawira being on hand at location we were asked to always say good morning to Koro (the Maori word for grandfather, referring to the mountain) when we arrived and good evening to Koro when we left as a sign of respect.
I can’t speak for everybody else, but I sure did. It’s hard not to get caught up by the majesty of this area and even though I don’t believe in exactly the same things that our hosts do I felt the power of the place.
The first location was at the Ohakune Beech Paddock, which wasn’t quite up the mountain, but just to be on the safe side I still turned to the mountain at the horizon and whispered a “Good morning, Koro.”
This wooded area was to represent the outskirts of The Shire and featured Bilbo catching up to Gandalf and the dwarves. They’re riding on horseback so you can imagine the circus that day. Thirteen dwarves and a Wizard and horses for them all!
The dwarves’ horses were wearing sort of shaggy jackets since they were supposed to be ponies, but the guys playing the dwarves would look silly in all their gear on tiny ponies. In order to sell the stature they had to make the regular horses look more pony-like.
The day was spent mostly getting wider shots of troop on horseback riding through the woods as Bilbo catches up to the party, but there was one shot in particular that you can actually glimpse in the trailer that had Fili and Kili picking up Mr. Baggins (from horseback) and putting him up onto his pony.
Watching Jackson, Martin Freeman, Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman set this up was particularly interesting. For more room, they moved out of the wooded area to a flat field where tent city was. Tent City is what they call the set-up just off-set. Peter’s tent, VFX, armor, prosthetics, cast and a few more get tents so they can do their work while close to the camera.
Peter, Martin and stunt coordinator Glenn Boswell (you’ll hear more about Glenn in a future report. This dude is a stunt guy who survived the making of The Road Warrior and Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Turkey Shoot!) blocked the shot, which was tricky because it involved three actors, two horses and needed precision timing to come off.
As you can see, the camera went where Peter’s hands are framing that shot, so Martin didn’t have to be fully lifted out of shot, just pulled up enough to sell the motion. I imagine they’ll grab another angle with Martin’s stunt double actually being pulled up and put on a pony. For this shot they just needed to sell him moving up so they have some motion to cut on.
That also explains the apple box Freeman has a furry hobbit foot up on. The action has him walking towards camera and stepping up on that apple box right when Kili and Fili get up to him so he can push up with his foot as they grab his backpack and hoist him up.
As you’re well aware, I’m sure, there’s a famous stigma about working with animals and children in show business. Some usages of this quote are from an actor’s perspective in that animals and children will steal the scene away from even the most charismatic actor every time out, but if I were a betting man (and I am) I’d say the roots of that saying come more from a practical aspect of filmmaking.
Working with either usually means slow going days and when on location that could be particularly frustrating.
It takes a lot of coordination to make the timing work when you have humans and animals in a scene together and I noticed some interesting things the trainers did to make the horses comfortable. For instance, I saw one of the trainers gently sniff the boom mic in front of a horse so the horse would follow suit and realize this fluffy thing hanging over his head wasn’t going to attack him.
Another issue at this location was the cloud cover. It was really cloudy, but not the cool puffy clouds… just white. At one point during filming the clouds parted and beautiful sunshine shined down on us all. However that wouldn’t match with everything they shot the previous day and that morning, so we waited around for more clouds.
Lighting is, of course, crucial for continuity. They can (and probably will) replace the flat white sky with interesting clouds, but if there’s bright sunshine and not the diffused light from previous takes their shots won’t match.
It was a quiet period. The shot had been set up, the work had been done and there was nothing to do but wait. It was kind of like being in the eye of a hurricane. Everything slowed down, the contained chaos of a movie set put on hold. It was pretty relaxing to be honest. After about 10 minutes the cloud cover came back and it was like some evil bastard kid had shaken up the ant farm and everybody was back to work.
In this lull I noticed the great artist John Howe was on set. I had seen him around the Stone Street studio set in Wellington, but didn’t want to bug him. I was hanging out with the sound guys Tony Johnson and Corrin Ellingford when Howe came up. I figured he was going to chat with them, but to my surprise he introduced himself to me and complimented the set reports.
I’ve been following his work for years, so I was quite taken aback by the kind words from somebody whose talent I admire so much. He was even kind enough to bring up the reports on his blog (read it here).
Before long he was joined by Alan Lee and we discussed the 3D art they did in the last production video. In reality that started off as joke and they didn’t really draw in 3D, but as the joke took shape they actually did collaborate on that piece, the very first time in all their years of working together that they both drew on one single piece of art. They used the computer to really add dimensionality to it, so that’s why that image really does work in 3D.
I strongly urged them to get it printed up for next year’s Comic-Con and that people would go nuts for it. I know I’d love to have one. They liked the idea, but we’ll see.
After two days of shooting at the Beech Paddocks the company moved to the mountain. I won’t have too much for you on this location thanks mostly to this:
That moss is endangered and very old. One of the conditions of shooting in this location was that only essential crew went down to the set and essential I am not, so I stayed up on the mountain road, which I was kind of okay with. They built this scaffolding to get down there, you see, and that scaffolding was declared safe, but I took one step out on it and felt the connecting slats bend under my girth and suddenly didn’t want to be there anymore.
The view was incredible, though, so inched my way out to get a clearer look back at the valley below us.
Between that epic vista and the crazy massive waterfall (and super rare moss) this location was visually stunning and I understand this place also plays a very important role in the journey. I know there is going to be a giant statue put into this location digitally. All the dwarves and Bilbo were down there looking for something. I can say no more!
I talked with Peter a bit before he made his way down to the set and he pointed out that they shot a lot of the opening prologue battle from Fellowship about 5 minutes drive from this spot, on the opposite slope. And down the mountain, the stream from this waterfall was where they shot Gollum catching his fish after joining up with Sam and Frodo.
Peter also tried to convince me that the surrounding area was all built by Weta Workshop, that all the rocks were really foam and the waterfalls were just salt being poured in slow motion, but he can’t trick me! No sir, not this time!
Since I spent most of my time in this location sitting in the catering tent catching up on writing (probably working on the Holiday Guide, actually) that’s about all I got for here.
Ruapehu represented the very last North Island location for Main Unit. After this we all drove back to Wellington, had a nice night (in my case filled with good company at a great Indian food spot called Planet Spice) and then boarded planes bound for the South Island, where the real fun (and weather extremes) kicked in.
As usual, here’s the preview of our next location:
Now it’s time for our featured crew member! One of the most important people in the whole location process, and a key figure in the arrangement with the Ngati Rangi and Ngati Uenuku, is a man by the name of Jared Connon.
Jared is the supervising location manager and is one of the key members of the team that hunts down, checks out, organizes and locks in each of these locations that we’re tagging along on.
From the first recce photos to the clean up after filming has wrapped Jared is on the front lines, searching out spots that not only work for the story being told, but that are also logistically feasible. Keep in mind that a crew some 400+ strong (and that’s just counting main unit) has to be able to stay within close proximity, but also has to be able to access these locations.
So, it’s not as simple as Jared and his department finding pretty locations, there’s a whole logistical side that has to be figured out.
Talking with Jared he said the process on The Hobbit started back under Guillermo del Toro’s direction and many of the spots picked remained when Peter stepped from producer/writer to producer/writer/director.
The brief rundown of the process begins with the script (naturally) and a list of locations is made when Peter informs them what he’s planning on shooting in studio and what he wants to find on location. A scout researches and makes his or her way up and down both islands taking tons of reference photos of prospective spots.
Back in Wellington the team will look at these and any that might prove worthy are marked and a big recce is planned with many of the department heads and Peter to see each location for themselves and decide if they want to go for it.
When that call is made the real fun stuff begins. Securing the locations, dealing with landowners, or the government if it’s public land, and trying to squeeze every bit of value from these stops.
Location shooting is an expensive process and whenever possible they try to get a couple different locales from one company move. This time out there aren’t a lot of one or two day stops before moving on to the next location and they planned it that way. If the company can stay based in one spot and get multiple locations for different segments of both movies they get more bang for their buck.
Jared is one of the many members of the team that keep the machine greased and moving smoothly. Without him you wouldn’t get those pretty aerial shots and the whole iconic feel of these films would be reduced. So, this one’s for you, Jared! Thanks for all that you do and for the help in getting all the Maori stuff right at the start of the report!