Archives for posts with tag: Peter Jackson

New Zealand: Like Lord of the Rings

Bruce Bennett

One of the running gags in Flight of the Conchords, the sitcom about the eponymous ‘novelty music’ duo from New Zealand, who are trying to make it in New York, is that the office walls belonging to their manager Murray Hewitt, the deputy cultural attaché at the New Zealand embassy, are decorated with  posters diffidently promoting tourism to the country with such captions as  ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE SCOTLAND BUT FURTHER’ and ‘NEW ZEALAND, ONLY 18 HOURS FROM NEW YORK’, and ‘NEW ZEALAND, WORTH A GO’; but one of the funniest is a mountain-scape with the caption, ‘NEW ZEALAND, LIKE LORD OF THE RINGS’.

Visiting New Zealand six years later, it is clear that this similarity is a crucial promotional device. When you fly in to Wellington airport, for instance, one of the first things you see is the exterior of the terminal building, which is decked with a large banner proclaiming ‘Welcome to the Middle of Middle Earth’, while the interior of the terminal is dominated by impressive and beautifully detailed statues of Gollum catching fish underwater and Gandalf flying on the back of a giant eagle.

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These attest to the presence nearby of WETA digital, Peter Jackson’s visual effects facility, but travelling through New Zealand you are constantly reminded of the importance of these films to the country’s cotemporary cultural identity and international prominence. Bookshops across the country have stands dedicated to the second Hobbit film, and it is difficult to escape the various locations used for shooting the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films as you move around the country – I jogged up Mount Victoria in Wellington one morning, passing the point where the hobbits hide from the black riders beneath a bank, and later took the ski-lift up the volcano, Mount Ruapehu, and walked around ‘Happy Valley’ and ‘Mead’s Wall’, the location for several scenes including the severing of Sauron’s hand.

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The neighbouring volcano, Mount Ngauruhoe, meanwhile, also functions as Mount Doom in the films.

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On sale in almost every bookshop around the country is a Lord of the Rings location guide, newly updated to include The Hobbit trilogy, allowing tourists to plot a route around the country visiting the numerous locations. However, this project of over-writing the terrain of the country with a fantastic cinematic landscape goes into over-drive in the small town of Matamata, the dairy-farming and horse-breeding centre of the North island, Te Ika a-Maui, that is also the site of the set of the hobbits’ village, Hobbiton.

In the town centre a sign welcomes you to Hobbiton, and the adjacent tourist information centre is housed in a thatched hobbit house, while the windows and walls of local shops have been decorated with imagery from the films.

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The focus of a visit to Matamata is a 90-minute guided tour of the set. This was built as a temporary set on nearby farmland for the Lord of the Rings films with assistance from the NZ army who constructed a metalled road to the site – and the bus driver gave us a full account of the process by which the film-makers identified the location and negotiated with the fortunate land-owners, pointing out the famer’s house along the way, as well as his neighbour’s house which was commandeered by Jackson and his assistant as a production base for the shoot.

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After being partially dismantled on the films’ completion, it was rebuilt as a permanent set-cum-tourist attraction for the three Hobbit films and is now maintained by a team of staff. The company managing the site extended the set by constructing the ‘Green Dragon Inn’, which serves food and drinks at the end of the tour of the 44 hobbit holes, which are built to different scales to allow forced perspective staging (and only a handful of them have shallow interiors). It is an interesting  and popular tour – they were expecting 2000 visitors on boxing day but average around 1000 per day – and it is fascinating to see the amount of care with which the detailed sets were built, almost all of which is imperceptible in the films – such as the artificial oak tree above Bilbo’s house ‘Bag End’, or the apple tree that was changed to a plum tree (by art students who painstakingly replaced all the leaves), through to the artificial lichen covering the surface of the woodwork.

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The long-term value to New Zealand, and in particular, to film production in the country, of hosting these transnational super-productions is perhaps questionable. They offer a case study of how small national cinemas are occasionally invigorated by injections of US money due to tax breaks, comparatively high levels of privacy and extraordinary government support – it turns out, for example, that a 5,000 feet no-fly zone was established over the Hobbiton set to prevent paparazzi photographs, and, incredibly, one pilot who flew journalists over a location on the southern island was subsequently arrested and banned from flying in New Zealand.

James Cameron has just announced that three sequels to Avatar will be produced in New Zealand after negotiating a controversial increase of the tax rebate from 15 to 20% with a possible further 5% increase. Among the conditions of the deal are that the DVD and Bluray releases include a documentary focusing upon New Zealand’s importance as a base for the film’s production. The rationale for this deal is that the production will bring up to NZ$500 into the economy and may boost NZ film production more generally. While the long-term value of such mega-productions to the New Zealand film industry may be disputable, what is clear is that New Zealand has been made-over by Peter Jackson’s films into a quite different place, its landscape and architecture having become fused with the fictional mise-en-scène of the films. Once you are sensitised to it by the barrage of publicity, you begin to see the film’s scenography everywhere in the rolling pastoral hills and mountainous, volcanic skylines. Like the poster says in Flight of the Conchords, New Zealand is like Lord of the Rings.

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This is a new article I’ve just had published in the free online journal, JumpCut: A Review of Contemporary Media. It’s an analysis of the emergent formal and ideological conventions of the current wave of digital 3D cinema, using Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)  and the cave-diving thriller Sanctum (Grierson, 2010) as the key case studies.

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