The NZ Herald
McKellen & Co.

The New Zealand Herald
November 17, 2000

Creating Middle Earth
Russell Ballie, Tim Watkin

We are in Minas Tirith. From the outside, it looks like a towering pile of plywood sitting precariously at the top of a quarry in the Hutt Valley. From the inside the place looks seriously old, with its imposing archways, columns and walls the colours reminding of the ice and rock of a glacier.

As photographers jostle to snap a team photo of The Lord of the Rings cast and crew in a courtyard after a 40 minute press conference, the temptation to take a closer look at the stonework proves too much.

Tap, tap. It’s not stone. It sounds and feels like the side of a fibreglass boat.

As the media drive away, some of the actors depart in their chauffeur-driven limos. Some mill about swapping theatrical embraces. There’s a lot of love in the quarry tonight.

Director Peter Jackson leans against his in-need-of-a-wash Mercedes four-wheel drive chatting with the lofty Sir Ian McKellen. For a man making three movies at a time from the best-loved book of the past century, Jackson looks worryingly relaxed.

There have been three previous films based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but all have been animated and none have tried to tackle the entire Rings trilogy.

The popularity of the tale has drawn rumours about live-action films led by leading fantasy directors such as Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. But no one dared. Then, with steady advances in the technology allowing the blending of live footage with computer graphics, such a project became possible. Although Jackson was seen by many as an unlikely, offbeat choice for the second most expensive movie project ever, his use of cutting edge computer imaging alongside human actors in Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners showed that he and those who worked at his special effects company WETA had the right skills for the job.

For example, normal size actors play the diminutive hobbits and dwarfs but will be digitally shrunk during post-production and many of Tolkien’s fantasy creatures will be entirely computer-generated.

Jackson could also offer producers the perfect set — his home paddock and the hills behind it. In terms of both scale and the detail of our diverse landscape, New Zealand fits perfectly into the role of Middle Earth.

Tolkien, with a mid-20th century worldview smaller than our own and writing on a British scale, imagined quite compact lands, with dramatic changes from downs to forests to mountains to lakes.

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