Journey to 'The Hobbit' set for Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman and the spectre of 48 frames per second
WELLINGTON, NZ – It’s our second day on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and we’ve finally gotten a chance to chat with the man steering the ship of the massive undertaking, Peter Jackson. But it was never supposed to be the New Zealand filmmaker’s job.
Jackson, who won three Oscars in 2004 for co-writing, directing and producing “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” was just going to produce and possible co-write “The Hobbit” this time around. The principal job was given to Guillermo Del Toro who was expected to combine his vision with the original world Jackson created. But, on May 30, 2010 with partial rights holder MGM still trying to figure out its financial situation, Del Toro left the project after having lived and worked on it for almost two years at Jackson’s Wellington based studio. About two years later, that day and the years and months since seem like a “blur” to Jackson.
“When Guillermo left it was a surprise,” Jackson admits. “It was so long ago, but when they were nearly going bankrupt and they couldn't-- Warners were trying to do it without MGM and they wouldn't do that. When Guillermo left we didn't have a green light and we didn't have a movie, and so it was freewheeling, in a sense, for at least two, maybe three months after he left. I was there as a caretaker, but it wasn't like anything much could be done 'cause there was no budget, there was nothing really. We didn't know what was going to happen with MGM. But we were working on the script with Fran and Phil and Guillermo for a period of time beforehand. We were starting to work up the characters and so I was beginning to get connected to the material quite well. I never wanted to do ‘The Hobbit’ in the first place 'cause the idea of having an ensemble of thirteen 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.’ I thought it was a nightmare that I thought would be much more interesting to see what somebody else did with it, but the weird thing with this is that having ended up where I am, the fact that there's thirteen dwarves in it is the great joy of the movie. I've actually swung a hundred and eighty 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.”
And on that day in May, there were just two “Hobbit” films and concern over Jackson’s decision to shoot and possibly screen the picture in the unconventional 48 frames per second. How times of changed. Today, there will be three “Hobbit” films. The first, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” – and the subject of this report – opens on Dec. 13. The second, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” opens on Dec. 13, 2013. The third and final picture, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” will be released on July 18, 2014. And while some question how close to the spirit of Tolkien's original "The Hobbit"novel the movies will be after Jackson and co-producers and screenwriters Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have added other published material by the author to the screenplay, many are overjoyed at the thought of an extended return to Middle Earth.
Over 24 hours earlier, a group of movie writers and journalists arrive at Jackson’s Stone Street Studios. Before we visit the set we’re going to talk to a number of the key talent including Ian McKellen [You can read that interview here]. But, at this point the unit publicist is more than happy to provide us with a running list of facts and figures about the production so far.
*Filming began in February 2011 and will end (or ended) in July 2012. Pickups for the second and third film are expected for 2013.
*Production during that time was divided into three blocks. The longest break was two-three months over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The longest shooting block has been February 2012 – July 2012.
*The production shot on location all across New Zealand for nine weeks.
*Two units, one under Jackson’s direction, the other under second unit director Andy Serkis’ eyes are shooting at all times.
*Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving have wrapped as of mid-May, 2012.
*McKellen, the dwarves and Martin Freeman are still shooting.
*Ian Holm and Christopher Lee shot their scenes in London.
It’s day two and we’re sitting in a makeshift cafeteria interviewing most of the Company of Dwarves. Richard Armitage, best known for his years on British television’s “MI-5” and a supporting role in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” has the unenviable task of bringing Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the Company of Dwarves, to life.
A commanding 6’2 in person, Jackson and the production’s costume designers and makeup artists will use proportionally designed clothes and prosthetics to create the illusion each dwarf is much shorter than they are in real life. Obviously, Armitage is their toughest challenge, but there is more to being a dwarf than just a height disadvantage. He notes, “Human beings that are short, and are termed dwarfs, they're human beings. These are a different race, there's nothing human about them. And actually, as they grow older, they grow tougher and stronger. So that's why you get an army of dwarves, the most experienced fighters on the battlefield will be the oldest. So in a way, The Oakenshield represents that. It's like an old piece of wood that's grown hard with age. So, yeah, all of the fight skills have been really useful. But because I play the character younger as well, deciding how to portray that, the fight style has been a way of doing that. When he's a younger dwarf, he fights in a completely different way to when he's older. He's much more crazy and berserk, and as he's got older, it becomes more efficient, so he doesn't waste any energy. It's a very heavy, disciplined way of fighting.”
Thorin is also, perhaps, the most tragic figure of the Company. Our story finds the dwarves cast out of their home by the dragon Smaug. They form an alliance with Gandolf (McKellen) and Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to find gold in the Lonely Mountain (dwarves have an addiction to gold it seems) and drive out Smaug. Armitage says that the fact Thorin knows his father and grandfather have previously been “touched by this dragon sickness” (which only effects some dwarves) haunts him.
“I think the burden of taking his people back to their homeland, which is so massive, makes him a lonely figure, I think,” Armitage says. “Knowing that his grandfather failed, and his father failed, so if he doesn't do it, there's no other member of his line that will ever do this. So he will continue through history as the king that failed to achieve the potential for his people. That's something, again, which is a huge burden to carry. And I think that's what drives him, but it's also the thing that he fears, that he will fail. And there's many opportunities for him to fail on this quest.” But we haven't really got into the mountain yet, and had to play around with the dragon sickness, but I think it's going to be very interesting. I've looked at all sorts of different-- I've looked at drug addiction, and along those lines, so that it actually has a physical effect on him, his mind and his body. But I think because he's been a very heavy, melancholic character, I think the gold is going to change that, and it's going to sort of bring him to life and make him the king that he should be, and more vibrant. But it comes at a price, I think.”
It’s seven months before the first “Hobbit” film is hitting theaters, but fan favorite Martin Freeman seems to be handling the pressure of leading this band of misfits toward Lonely Mountain just fine. Of course, Bilbo Baggins already appeared in the “LOTR” saga, as a much older hobbit, played by Sir Ian Holm. Taking a few minutes before the beginning of his workday, Freeman warms up with a cup of hot tea and, as you’d expect from a man of his comic talents, proceeds to charm the pants off the traveling press corps.
Middle Earth fans actively campaigned for Freeman (BBC’s “Sherlock,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) to play the younger Bilbo in “The Hobbit” films, and the 40-year-old Brit (now a grand old 41) is intent on making the iconic character his own.
“There were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian's performance. But generally, no,” Freeman responds when asked how closely he’s following Holm’s work. “Because I think we're quite a good-- I know why I'm cast, do you know what I mean? 'Cause I think we're not that dissimilar, physically, or whatever else. I think if I was, I don't know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking, ‘Right, hang on, if he's the older me, I'd better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start.’ But no, 'cause I think I was always trusted with it. All I was told, which I think was flattery, and probably bollocks, was, ‘You are the only person to play it.’ So I thought, ‘Well, if they think that, then I've to trust that.’ And there's only so much you can run with someone else's thing. It's very helpful, in the way that it's brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it's a beautiful establisher of that character, and a very loved one, for obvious reasons. But…if there's even part of me thinking, ‘How would Ian have done this?, then I'm [expletive]. So, I've got to let that go. I've always been mindful of it, 'cause I'm familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I'm then going to do on top of it.”
(And yes, admit it. You never thought Jeff Goldblum would be referenced in a “Hobbit” story. It appears his reach is far and wide.)
Jackson ended up paying him a huge compliment, although he might not have understood it at the time, by arguably shooting some of Bilbo’s most difficult moments during the actor’s first day on set. Freeman’s inaugural scenes were in Gollum’s cave with Andy Serkis in motion-captured mode. Scenes far into the film where Freeman would be expected to have locked down his portrayal of Bilbo. Freeman refers to going up against Serkis as a “fascinating baptism of fire, but friendly fire.” Surprisingly, Freeman was more than fine with Jackson’s plan.
“That character is so beloved, and [Serkis] knows that character, obviously, as well as anybody knows anything,” Freeman says. “So you feel safe. In a way, I preferred a scene that was more like a ten-minute theater scene than if it had been this scene, or just a running scene, or exploding cars-- There isn't that in the film, though. We haven't gone that far-- Then it would have been not in itself fascinating to play every minute of. But a ten-twelve minute, maybe, in a little chamber theatrical piece is really interesting to play.”
Freeman continues, “So, the first days on set for me were about finding out everything-- You find out so much in those first few days. You just come along, in a way, and be open and ready and receptive. And bring whatever you've got to bring, but don't bring too much because it's not a done deal yet. And it grew as the weeks and months went on, really. I was doing ADR the other day on that scene, and because it was the first thing I shot, I really was thinking-- And I don't normally think this, not because I'm too conceited about my work, but I don't normally think, ‘I wish I had a chance to do that again.’ But jobs aren't normally this long, so this is a job where you can really look back and go, ‘If I had a chance to do that again, I would really do something different.’ But I can't, and it's all right. You're looking at Gollum anyway, so it's okay.”
Of course, moviegoers across the globe will be looking at Freeman just as much as WETA and Serkis’ iconic Gollum. And, for a moment, he admits that he does feel a tad bit of pressure about the role. What helps alleviate that concern is the faith he has in Jackson to eventually guide the ship to port safe and sound.
“[Jackson] said to me about other things he's done, where he's taken maybe too much notice of what was going on on the internet, and actually been given a bum steer. And I think he's learned from that,” Freeman says. “We can all look on the Internet and go, ‘He hates me! Oh, but she loves me. Oh, but he hates me...’, you know. And that way, madness lies. So I think yeah, it's very nice, it's gratifying that people wanted me to be in it. But they didn't get me the job.”
True, but the fan campaign certainly didn’t hurt.
Imagine you’re a longtime art director who has been given your first major lead production design gig from a dear old friend. It’s a two-film, er, now three-film job adapting one of the most beloved books of all time. A little bit of pressure, no? What about the fact it’s following three previous films set in the same world that won Oscars and critical acclaim across the world? Eh, you were part of those films as an art director and have one of those Academy Awards sitting in your office. Ah yes, but here’s the kicker: your old friend – the director – tells you the film is going to be one of the first Hollywood productions shot in high resolution 48 frames per second. It’s an unknown world. How detailed do the sets need to be? What can you cheat like you would on a traditional set? What can’t you? Basically, if you and your crew can’t get it right, your director is potentially throwing you to the wolves. Welcome to the world of production designer Dan Hennah and set decorator Ra Vincent.
Taking some time to talk to the traveling band of journalists in a meeting room filled with concept sketches and paintings for all three films, Hennah and Vincent seem to have either dealt with the pressure rather well or are expert poker players. It didn’t take long for the 48 frames per second situation to come up in the discussion and both men noted nothing could be taken for granted this time around. As we learned from the costume dept. and makeup and hair as well, any detail that looked foreign to the world – a stray hair, some brushed off makeup, a slight rip in a coat – would be exacerbated 100 times when projected in 48 fps. Hennah and Vincent weren’t as dramatic as their cohorts when describing how the format changed their jobs, but it certainly gave them a lot to think about.
“We're being a little bit more careful about what the finished surfaces are like. How our texture treatments are done, and just by pushing that much more detail into everything,” Vincent says. “It's actually enriched the [props] and the sets a whole lot more, I think, because we're quite often using real materials instead of prop making plastics and things. I think it's better as an interactive thing as well for the actors because they're interacting with glass instead of plastic and ceramics instead of card.”
Vincent continues, “It's made it really important for us to make sure that we complete the environments as well. There's no hiding things behind other things. Or not building the backs of stuff. The furniture is complete. Behind the bed head there is a wall and things like that.”
From a thematic perspective, Hennah reminds us this novel takes place 60 years earlier than “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” During this period, Middle Earth is a tad younger and brighter because Sauron’s dark influence hasn’t corrupted most of the world.
“By the time we got to places like Elrond's Rivendell in ‘Rings’ it was the autumn of the Elven civilization,” Hennah says. “Whereas now it's like midsummer. So we could be a little brighter, a little more uplifted in Rivendell. It's a beautiful place anyway, but we were able to bring a little more magic into the color of it. And also in Hobbiton. Well, it's late spring, early summer.”
Also complicating matters from a production standpoint was Jackson’s goal of emphasizing the different sizes of hobbits, dwarves and humans more than he could in the “LOTR” trilogy. Because “The Hobbit” films are also in 3D it created a lot more work.
“The whole scale issue, across the border, doubles up a lot of what we do,” Hennah admits. “Starting with Bag End, the small one, the big one. Same thing except we've got thirteen, fourteen scale people to deal with. So apart from all the wardrobe problems, there's all the [props and] there's the set pieces. But also, you've got the transitional characters like Gandalf in a scene with dwarves, and so all those old tricks, the false perspectives [didn’t always work]. The false perspectives is one that doesn't really work in 3D, so there's a lot of digital transition, but we also have been doing a lot of slave motion capture*.”
*Slave motion capture is a new version of traditional motion capture WETA and Jackson have devised where an actor can be filmed on a green screen in a mo-cap suit and react to what is going on within a live set. This has been used to create the different proportions of the characters. It also meant that Sir Ian McKellen was often in a green screen soundstage by himself while the dwarves and hobbit shot live on set. McKellen made it clear he personally wasn’t a fan.
During the rest of our conversation, Hennah and Vincent tease us with stories of beautiful sets built in New Zealand forests that are no longer standing. In fact, there is one massive set just a few miles from the studio, but it’s for the last film and being kept under wraps. Like little kids we plead with the unit publicist for a quick side trip to check it out, but are politely smacked down. Jackson isn’t fanatical like some filmmakers, but he’d like for there to be some surprises down the road.
Jackson looks exhausted, but considering he’s been working non-stop for almost two years you can’t blame him. His passion for filmmaking is practically rooted in his DNA now. Ask him any technical question about the future of the medium and he’ll perk up with a burst of energy.
The Wellington native is clearly aware that technology is advancing more quickly than the art form’s ability to adapt to it. He notes that three or four years ago filmmakers were using digital cameras shooting at 2k and now it’s up to 4k. Within another few years it could be 8k. He’s excited that laser projectors are on the horizon and should improve the brightness for 3D projection. Like his peer James Cameron, it’s the innovation of enhancing the movie experience to keep bringing people back to the movie theater that drives Jackson.
“It's really a question of do you just say, ‘Okay, this is what we've been used to for the last seventy-five or eighty 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? 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. So, I think anything that we can do to provide a more immersive and spectacular experience [we should],” Jackson says. “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'? [Editor’s note: Films are currently projected at 24 frames per second. More frames means more detail delivered on screen.] 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 twenty-four 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.”
Through all the MGM drama, the departure of Del Toro, the long battle to keep the production in New Zealand Jackson is happy to report, “Making the movie has been a lot of fun.”
“Since we've started shooting it's been pretty plain sailing, touch wood. It's been just a joy. I've been having a blast,” Jackson says. “It was an incredibly painful couple of years leading up to it, yeah. That was the most stressful time. So, stressful that I got an ulcer, which was awesome, but anyway the ulcer was actually quite good because it gave everybody six weeks of extra pre-production time [that] I think everyone was delighted when I was laid up for six weeks, they couldn't believe their luck. 'Cause 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. It was tough, but once we got it running it's been fantastic. It's been a lot of fun. I hope the fun that we've had is a spirit that goes into the movie. I hope you see that on the screen.”
And with that, the always kind and polite Jackson departs to return to his playback village. He has some dwarves in the middle of – oh, but that would be telling and the scene he’s working on is now in the second “Hobbit” film. Yes, movie fans, get ready for many stories from New Zealand over the next three years.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens nationwide and in IMAX on Dec. 14.