Isengard’s Zip Line and Rivendell Coffee.

25 07 2012

Wellington – Film Locations

Our first day in New Zealand we had a slow morning before our LOTR tour that afternoon. We always used spare time to find a local cafe, because one of our greatest discoveries was the coffee. Yes. The Coffee! Being products of the quick-coffee culture of America, we had no idea what we were missing out on. In Australia & New Zealand (as well as Italy and other European countries) being a barista is not a part-time gig as you pursue some other line of work like acting, surfing, or college. It is a passion and a calling. A two-week training period in the USA could be a two year training period there. Needless to say, the difference in the flavor and preparation is delectably tangible.  The coffee is “made with love” as my wife likes to put it….

Image Image

We were so spoiled with the creamy delights of NZ that we are now scouring the LA area for similar passionate coffee houses. It isn’t just the look of the coffee, it is how the coffee bean is prepared, the machines are serviced, the brew is mixed and how delicately the foam is added. We were asked a couple of times how we thought the coffee compared to the US and they knew our response was going to be no comparison. And it was. Even in talking with New Zealander’s who had come to the US, they mentioned they couldn’t find a good mocha anywhere. Now, we understand why!

So, after our great morning coffee we were ready to head out to see where Peter Jackson magically brought Tolkien’s mind to life.

Our Tour Guide was a delightful local actor, Todd Rippon. He had some great insights into the LOTR and Hobbit behind-the-scenes as he was an actor in Return of the King. He gave some great insights into the production woes of LOTR and even the details of the 3-year production delays for Hobbit. Even had some inside track info on why Stuart Townsend got replaced by Viggo Mortensen. Needless to say, Todd was a great guide with intriguing insights.

Check out Todd’s great role in Return of the King here:

Our Tour Guide – at seconds :25 and :48 being killed by Legolas…

Todd’s a great guy with a passion for film and acting, so drop him a line if you need a New Zealander for your film!

The first spot Todd took us to was where Frodo and other Hobbits first encounter the Ringwraith. It is in a public park on the mountainside just a few miles from Stone Street Studios. The park is Mt. Victoria.

(Mt. Victoria Film Locations. Recognize them?)

The trees in this park are native and unique to New Zealand. In other parts of the world where they grow, they are not able to keep their branches intact due to the wind and weather. But here on Mt. Victoria, they are able to grow and create these spindly finger-like branches. A perfect location for a scary movie or a scary scene in a movie. This is where Peter Jackson’s attention to detail for the LOTR fans began to really shine for me. His location scouting.

The location where some people on our tour are posing below is where the Hobbit’s crouched under the tree hiding from the Ringwraith. The large tree stump and root under which they hid was fake and placed there for the filming. But the hollow in which they hid is still carved out of the ground and can still be used for a great photo op:

(picture of sitting in hollow here)

The clip from the movie here:

The path above the hiding spot is also where Frodo stands under the towering arms of the tree as he hears the Horse approaching was specifically chosen for its ominous and foreboding tone. Always a storyteller, Jackson picks a shot that visually tells the story. The first spot that Frodo is in real danger, even his surroundings are used to show the danger.

What I began to realize is that Jackson showed his daring in the details of the locations. Coming from the no-to-low budget world of filmmaking, it is impressive how Jackson would choose a location for only a few shots and angles. Then he would move on to another location, miles and miles away, for the reverse shot. Quite impressive dedication to get the exact look he wanted! But that attention to detail is what makes the films so rich in texture and tone.

The next location we traveled to was Isengard.

What is impressive about the Isengard location is how truly small a space it was. In a park just on the outskirts of Wellington, you would have no clue that Saruman’s tower was just ‘around the corner.’ For if his tower wasn’t placed there digitally, you would see a children’s park just behind it. Where a wonderful kid’s zip line was built. No insurance company would allow this on a playground in the USA, but since all parks are gov’t owned, run, and with no liability in NZ, it’s a ‘play at your own risk’ type of country. So we did…

So, if you visit “Isengard” you have to ride the kid’s zip line.

The actual location of Isengard’s front lawn is the nice greens of Harcourt Park. I think it’s hole 9 of a frisbee golf course also. In the reverse direction is a quaint little nook of trees that was used for the garden where Saruman and Gandolf walked and talked. Again, very impressive use of very public locations with digital mattes added in later.

The forest that is torn down in Two Towers around Isengard was also staged here. In the greenery of the park, they built one fake tree. Just one tree and tore it down over and over again. Different angles. Branches turned different ways. Different lighting setups. But all only one tree. Quite amazing how that one tree was able to pull at the heart strings of all the Ent-friendly and eco-friendly viewers!

We stopped along the highway at the location where the fellowship is drifting along in canoes. Two interesting facts about the filming.  One is that since only one side of the river looks like a cliff, they had to pull the canoes up stream for the reverse shots on Boromir.  Also, since the canoes were built more for looks and not function, divers had to hold the bottom of the boats and walk them in a straight line down the river. The actors couldn’t keep them steady in the shot I’m sure!

The last location was again several miles away. Rivendell.

Now most of Rivendell was done on the studio stage or with effects in post. But Frodo’s room at the end and the bridge with the waterfall was done in a national park some miles East of Wellington.

The other great thing about the tour with Todd and Wellington Rover Tours is that they provided props for your photos. Elf ears, Elven bow and cloak and Sting – Frodo’s sword. Needless to say, it was a fun spot for photos.

Since the set for Frodo’s room is no longer there, it’s a bit difficult to imagine. But the spot was chosen for the lush forest around and the native New Zealand trees in the background. They actually had to clear out several of the trees and plant them a hundred yards away in a ‘nursery’ that the production watched over. Then when the set was removed, they placed all the trees back where they were. Now that is commitment to a location and environment!

The bridge where Arwen gives Aragorn her evenstar necklace is also in this location. They also removed trees to build the bridge. What is also interesting is there is no stream here at all. Jackson built the stream and waterfall in the background. They had to bring in water from elsewhere to create this waterfall, which was no easy or inexpensive task. As you can see in the clip, you see the waterfall in the back for probably about one second of film time (around 1:24 mark)

(clip from LOTR)

Our guide, Todd, was a wonderful host and while in Rivendell pulled out a picnic from the van and gave us all tea, coffee, muffins and cookies.

(Coffee and Cookies with family and new LOTR friends)

A light rain fell on us the entire time we were in Rivendell, but I don’t think any of us cared in the least. I think it just added to the magic of ending the day in Rivendell, with family, new LOTR friends, and memories of a lifetime.

(Todd our guide)

A definite must-do when visiting Wellington. Ask for Todd as your guide!

mySYLF takeaway:

As a filmmaker, what surprised me most about seeing these locations is how every shot was selected for an ideal location. As an independent filmmaker, it usually comes down to finding one location that will allow you film there and making it work for every shot. Peter Jackson is the opposite with LOTR and Hobbit. He finds his ideal sequence of shots and finds all the locations to make the shots. This shows me just how dedicated Jackson was to making the world as ideal and real and ‘other worldly’ as he possibly could. He created an entire miniature waterfall, that took several tons of water for one second of screen time in the film! Of course, he never could have done this in the USA with the studio a few blocks away. But being at a distance of a 14-hour plane ride certainly gave him some ‘privacy’ to make his epic a local, indie film. Done the way he wanted it done.

Certainly LOTR is an exception and not the rule, but I am challenged to think about finding locations that enhance my story, characters, and world. Even if a little snippet of that world is in 5 different locations, many miles apart! I hope you will not let limitations keep you back from finding several locations and piecing them together to make the story you truly want to make. I will show even more in a future post of how widespread his locations continue to be!

Be inspired and Be bold.


Jason Baumgardner

NEXT BLOG: Step into the beautiful Embassy Theater. The Wellington theater for the World Premiers of “Return of the King” and “Hobbit” films.


Peter Jackson & Wellywood – The Ultimate Local Filmmaker & His Studio

10 07 2012

Wellington, NZ – Population ~400,000

I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ but if I did, New Zealand certainly would have jumped up the list after the LOTR films. I would say after my trip, it should be the top spot of any LOTR & HOBBIT fan. So, actually finding myself in route to land in Wellington, NZ tickled that dream-like state of excitement and “undeserved blessing” euphoria. The next 10 days were like stepping into not only Tolkien’s mind, but the Promised Land as Moses and Joshua must have seen it. Everywhere are rolling hills with backdrops of mountain peaks, lakes, waterfalls, sheep spotted pastures, and ocean front temperatures… New Zealand is truly a peaceful grazing land for the soul. We traveled all over the North Island and my future posts will include LOTR film locations, the Embassy world-premier theatre, driving through New Zealand to find a HOBBIT film location, and of course, the mecca of all locations… Hobbiton.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First was the quaint city of Wellington.


What I knew of Wellington before arrival was little, but I knew it is the home of Peter Jackson’s own little-Hollywood. The locals call the little peninsula where WETA, Stone Street Studios, and Park Road Post are located as WELLYWOOD. They proposed to put up a white sign that pronounced the area like the Hollywood sign in LA, but the town preferred the sign to read “ALL BLACKS” instead. A strange substitute you might think, as I did. But as you may not know, the sport of rugby is HUGE in New Zealand. There’s only one professional team for the entire country and the ALL BLACKS are it. It would be like if the Dallas Cowboys were the only NFL football team in America. Honestly, the All Blacks unite the country in a great way. Their symbol and name is all over the place. Every game brings about national pride like only the Olympics do in America. Everyone is a fan. And so, the Wellywood sign proposal lost to the mighty All Blacks without even a scrimmage of effort. Needless to say, rugby is a much more prominent icon than the small studio popping up in a quiet Wellington neighborhood.

(The “All Blacks” sign on the hill as seen from the top of Mt. Victoria – Find it? )

Upon the second day of our stay in Wellington, we made our way down to the “Wellywood” area. The area used to be an island until an earthquake (1000’s of years ago) created a land bridge where the airport now sits (also pictured above). It connects the island to the main land and thus into a small peninsula.  This is where Peter Jackson has made a home for the most prestigious, small studio in the world.

The entire “studio” area is nestled sparsely within homes and businesses of the small neighborhood. The town center is like a “one light” mountain town or a “one street” middle America town. Including easy-to-find barber, coffee shop, and restaurant. Unless you knew what you were looking for, it would be quite easy to drive past anything associated with Peter Jackson or WETA.

(see video here of how nestled WETA is within the neighborhoods)

The only public access attraction in the area is the WETA Cave. It is a must see but it’s about the size of about a two bedroom house. So, its contents are limited. It has a few props from WETA films, a video room with a 20 min film, but it’s mostly a memorabilia store. Worth buying something if this is your only stop on a LOTR/HOBBIT tour, but not if you are headed to Hobbiton (which we will hit in a later blog post).

(Gollum and I in Weta Cave)

Next door is WETA Digital. From the outside it looks like an old warehouse for a sewing factory or something. So, not very photogenic. But looking closely you can see toy figures in windows sitting on desks. I’m sure it’s brilliantly entertaining inside.

Around the corner, past a few homes is Park Road Post. With my editing background, it was must stop for the editor nerd in me. I became a better storyteller by osmosis, I’m sure. The card scanner on the door kept me from sticking my head in, but next time I’ll make sure I email a bit farther in advance for a meeting.

(Park Road Post front)

The last stop I’ll mention today is the studio itself: Stone Street Studios.

This was quite exciting as the set was full of trailers and some activity even for a Sunday. Peter Jackson tells that it used to be a paint factory and as you drive by you can see that it fits the bill. The only giveaway is the large green screen wall that is visible from the road. Cars lined the street but we found a parking spot in front of someone’s house and walked up. Its accessibility is very apparent to its popularity. In Culver City, Hollywood, and Burbank the studios are surrounded by large castle-like walls and complimentary gates to hold off the curious public. Stone Street may reach those needs someday, but as for now, it’s as of little interest to the locals as the paint factory that preceded it.

(Stone Street Studios as viewed from Stone Street)


Walking to the gate and snapping some pictures and video was as geeky as we got. The moment we got too close to the point of entry a security guard came out and kindly motioned us away.

(video snippet of my wife letting us know where we are)


What surprised and most inspired me as a filmmaker is how truly “indie” Peter Jackson is and how the studio he has built here bears the same feeling. The buildings are all found in a small township within a small neighborhood. Not unlike thousands of neighborhoods like it across the world. He has created some of the most popular, beloved, and highest grossing films of all time, in a place as homegrown as West Texas, Nebraska, or rural New England. It truly inspired me to realize that the world of big budget, top quality filmmaking can come from anywhere. Peter Jackson realized a great story that fit the area in which he lived, and he went for it. He was inspired by what was around him. I used to think Texas was too far from LA to make ‘real’ movies, but you can’t get much farther from Hollywood & Vine than Wellington, New Zealand. And if they can do it, anyone can do it.

So, for myself and for all filmmakers wherever you are, you are NEVER too far away to make your films. Use your surroundings to your advantage. There are so many amazing places in the world, different landscapes, and different stories that are unique to where you live. So PLEASE tell the world those stories! What can you show us that no one else can show us? Every town has its own history, local characters, and unique locations that cannot be duplicated. Use those and find a way to make audiences interested in where YOU live! Peter Jackson saw New Zealand as a land for Middle Earth and now he has his own studio in his backyard. Who’s to say you couldn’t do that either? Or me?

Look out your window and find a story that’s unique. Then tell it.

You’ll soon be on your way to making better films which only you can tell, and that’s a product people will buy into.

Just ask Peter Jackson.

(And PLEASE let me know when you do, I’d love to see it!)

J Baumgardner

NEXT BLOG:  I will cover some of the LOTR film locations we visited and my revelations of how insanely bold and brave Peter Jackson is as a filmmaker.

Support Your Local Filmmaker

29 06 2012

If you like movies, or more specifically, if you like how movies are made and want to do it yourself or help others do it. This is the site for you.

Every big time director starts out small… local… independent.

There may be one you know right now. He or she works with you, lives next door, or down the hallway. Or it may be you.

We want this site to be an encouragement and behind-the-scenes look at filmmakers, big or beginning, and the films they make.

So, give us a read and sign up to follow us! Give us any feedback you may have and…

if you know a filmmaker, let us know about them. We’d love to support them!

All the Best,

Jason Baumgardner
Dream Loud Film