Being the supreme geeks we are, one of the great bonuses to moving to Hamilton was the prospect of being only 40 mins away from Hobbiton, the amazing little piece of New Zealand farmland out in the middle of nowhere transformed (twice!) into a magical film set for two epic trilogies.
Ok, one epic trilogy and one fair-to-middling trilogy that gave you something to do every Boxing Day for three years in a row. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one is which …
The set is beautiful, surrounded by lush green hills about 12 ks from Matamata, literally in the middle of nowhere. But for me, it is the stories told as part of the two hour tour that are really intriguing.
For instance, every hobbit hole is built to a predetermined scale so that they could achieve what they in the movie business call ‘forced perspective’. The hobbit hole below was a smaller scaled model, with the top lintel only reaching to your shoulders. An adult standing in front would look like a giant – or a normal human in a hobbit world.
The larger hobbit holes were for filming the hobbits in front of so they appeared child-like. Sadly, any interior shots were done in a studio so there was no climbing in to see what Bilbo’s house at Bag End really looked like inside. But there was no denying the exterior views were pretty special.
The New Zealand Army actually had a lot to do with the creation of the original set. Peter Jackson was still an up-and-comer and the budget was tight. Legend has it he approached the NZ government for assistance and they volunteered the Army to lend a hand, building a road into the site (still used today) and digging out sections of the hills to install the facades. It was arguably the worst-kept secret ever that filming of LOTR was happening in the area, especially when the army dudes knocked off for the week, went into the local Matamata pub, got drunk and spilled the beans. Fortunately, Kiwis are very similar to Aussies with their blase attitude and didn’t get in the way.
By far the best story of all revolves around the large oak tree atop Bag End. Do the leaves look a bit funny to you? They should – they’re fake. They have done a marvelous job of making it look so realistic but it was a long and difficult process for some poor sap (yes, pun definitely intended!). If you’ve read LOTR and The Hobbit you know the tree is an important part of Bag End and whilst they could have done CGI, Peter Jackson was quite adamant about using realism as much as possible.
They first scoured the area for a suitable oak tree: found one near Matamata; carefully carved it into a giant jigsaw of branches; numbered them; trucked them all back to the set and reassembled the tree. Of course, trees aren’t much for moving so … the leaves fell off.
So they arranged for something like 30,000 silken oak leaves from Taiwan to be delivered and some poor sucker had to manually attach them with wire to the tree. Dear sweet lord.
But then … it took a while to get around to actually filming on the exterior set and thanks to the New Zealand weather, the leaves had all faded. What to do? Spraypaint. Every. Single. One. I bet someone was muttering swear words under their breath while they did it.
But wait … there’s more.
After LOTR filming wrapped up, they took away a fair percentage of the set, including the oak tree. In 2011, when they decided to film The Hobbit, they had to go through the whole process again! But this time, the set would stay.
The owners of the property signed a contract that gave them permission to keep the set intact after filming and use it to conduct tours. The first tour was apparently six people taken in a jeep – nowadays they have 55 seater buses going three-four times a day, every day apart from Christmas.
If you ever get a chance, take a tour through Hobbiton. It’s not just the beauty of the set but stories of the sheer determination and ingenuity of people passionate about creating something amazing that will inspire you.