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The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand style

I'm in Wellington today, a charming city which combines the look of San Francisco suburbs (with daily earthquakes, the city copies San Fran housing to great success), with the laid-back New Zealand style. I got to go up to Mount Victoria, where the houses having tiny "baby cable cars", with 400 single-person sized cable cars used to get up to the house. Looking through the list of things to do, I thought a Lord of the Rings tour would give a nice taste of the city.

The Lord of the Rings was a very influential book for me. The Hobbit the was the first book I read, at 5, and made me crave more books to read: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." I read and reread the Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times as a teenager, and I still love Tolkien's method of world building by creating, but only lightly referencing, a deep history. If nothing else, it immunised me against religion when I first heard about Christianity ("You believe what? Like, gods and things from Lord of the Rings? You think that was real?"). I quite liked the movies too, in that they did away with the worst aspects of Tolkien's world (the tedious detail of the long-expected party, the complete absence of all women) and kept true enough to the grandeur of the books. 

I had a guide to the filming sites of the Lord of the Rings, who knew perhaps too much about the filming (which room number her favourite stars stayed at in the local hotel, what time they went shopping, etc). We saw the location for the Buckland ferry scene ("hiding from the Black Rider"), the gardens of Isengard and the valley of Rivendell. The odd thing was that so much of the filming was done in very narrow shots with magestic scenary from the South Island stiched in behind, so it kind of seems odd that they worried about the location at all. We also visited the excellent Weta studies. Weta Studio is named after the weta, the giant "spider" of New Zealand (actually a type of cricket), which can be translated into English as "the God of all Ugly Things". Weta Studio certainly lives up to the name, with all manner of uglies made inside, from the orcs of Middleearth to prosthetics for slasher films. It is amazing the level of detail that goes into it, with real human hair weaved hair by hair into most of the prosthetics (except the Dwarven beards, which used yak fur to get that coarse curly look). The scene where orcs pulled down the trees of Isengard actually involved fake trees, with 700,000 silk leaves woven in. The attention to detail is incredible.

The filming of the Lord of the Rings has transformed Wellington. There was an embryonic film industry here before the LotR, with TV series such as Hercules and Xena, but Peter Jackson changed it into a world player. The LotR cost $600 million to produce (it made more than $8 billion, so the production company can't be upset), most of which was ploughed into the local economy. Vast numbers of local staff were employed over a decade to work on different aspects (stunts were initially done by the local karate club, until someone broke a collarbone), and Peter Jackson constantly reinvested money from the film and his profits into creating a film ecosystem that is one of the few places in the world where films can be made the entire way along the production process in a single site. Small production facillities such as Weta blossomed into major industry players, and Peter Jackson even bought his own polystyrene factory to ensure a good supply to the film industry. The old industrial site is now transformed, with an abandoned paint factory becoming a studio and digital effects companies springing up. Since the LotR, over 150 films have been made in Wellington, and there has been a 700% increase in tourism to Wellington, shaping the entire economy.

The location of the scene where the hobbits cowered from the Black Rider, while spiders crawled over them. They were originally going to include a rare weta, except it got killed by one of the centipedes, so they buried it and moved on.

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