To Middle Earth …And Back Again

Filmmaker Peter Jackson fulfilled a longstanding dream when tackling J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but his greatest achievement wasn’t just a matter of completing the grueling project, or even winning Director and Best Picture Oscars® for the third film in the cycle. Right out of the starting gate, Jackson succeeded where many others had not: meeting the immensely high expectations of a notoriously tough crowd of science-fiction and fantasy fans—the very people whose enthusiasm created the cultural groundswell surrounding the novels in the first place. By way of comparison, both David Lynch’s feature adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Wise’s big-screen version of Star Trek failed to capture the magic of their source material in a way that pleased their most devoted advocates.

Might it be tempting fate to revisit Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe and film the author’s prequel, The Hobbit? Initially, Jackson had intended only to act as producer, with Guillermo del Toro directing. According to VFX Supervisor Eric Saindon, a veteran of the first trilogy, "Preproduction under del Toro generated hundreds of pieces of artwork, with creature designs that were just utterly amazing [various production delays effected a change of The Hobbit, leading to the Pan’s Labyrinth director’s departure]. Working with Guillermo was fun, and I was a little disappointed when he left, but it didn’t quite feel like the Middle Earth realm we’re used to. You should be able to watch all of these movies as part of a single flow and not tell they were made 14 years apart, so in the end I was glad it was Peter who came back to direct."

With the source novel’s wealth of dramatic situations to draw upon, The Hobbit also was to be realized as a trilogy, with its first installment, An Unexpected Journey, debuting this month. Differing from the LOTR films, each of these features would be captured, not with 35mm film, but on RED EPICs in native 3D, and at 48 frames per second rather than the standard 24. Jackson regular Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC, who had shot all three LOTR films as well as King Kong and The Lovely Bones, joined the project in mid-2010, but the abundance of new technological challenges to surmount didn’t come as a surprise to the director of photography.

"Peter has been talking about 3D and higher frame rates for years, so I undertook to embrace that when I started prep," Lesnie relates. "My responsibilities were to enhance the director’s vision, set the mood and tone of the film, make the work space as actor-friendly as possible and ensure that safety, welfare and morale of the crew was maintained over the 266-day shoot."

And then there were the innovations necessary to make the whole production feasible. "We had to devise new peripherals to make the rigs work with the cameras—sync, timecode, video reference, control, making the systems wireless and managing the wireless spectrum to allow multiple units to run multiple rigs at the same time," says Lesnie.

2nd unit DP Richard Bluck assembled an infrastructure to investigate every new tech challenge, while head of technology Dion Hartley and 3D camera supervisor Gareth Daley tailor-made additional hardware. "We needed a couple months of prep to make both cameras and rigs ready," Daley reports. "Both the EPIC and the 3ality [Technica] TS5 rig were essential because we wouldn’t have been able to do 3D Steadicam or handheld without them. I was in touch with RED every day; they were fantastic in adapting to Peter’s needs [Jackson purchased 48 camera bodies], which helped the pipeline."