OSCARS: The Road To 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'

Thomas McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.

Nearly 10 years after The Lord Of The Rings trilogy wrapped its record-breaking run with a best picture Oscar and more than $3 billion in worldwide ticket sales, director Peter Jackson has done the last thing he expected: He got the band back together for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. “I came away from Lord Of The Rings with 266 days of shooting three movies and thought I’d never do that again in my life,” says Jackson. “Then we sat down at the first production meeting on The Hobbit, and I flipped to the last page of the schedule, and it was 266 days! It was exactly the same length of time! And I just said, ‘I cannot believe I find myself back at this place again.’ ”

The first in a new trilogy adapting the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Middle Earth mythology, Jackson and his crew’s steady hand on The Hobbit offers reassuring creative continuity while pushing the technical envelope by adding stereoscopic 3D and, most controversially, shooting at 48 frames per second.

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But much like Bilbo Baggins’ own journey, the 10-year road to making The Hobbit followed a wandering path on its way to the screen. Originally pitched to Miramax in 1995 as a standalone film that could lead into The Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit rights were split between the Saul Zaentz Company and MGM, and a fix was not possible at the time, Jackson says.

Those issues remained even after the Rings trilogy was completed in 2003, though Warner Bros. tapped Jackson and cowriters and producers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens a few years later to develop the film anyway in the hopes that a deal would be reached.

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“We would have worked on it for probably two years without a green light, which was a bit soul-destroying really because if you’re committing to something you want to know it’s happening,” says Jackson.

On the creative end, adapting The Hobbit proved a very different animal, says Boyens. Often thought of as a children’s book, The Hobbit also is very episodic, features a lot of characters, and has a tone that darkens considerably as it progresses.

Thinking a different sensibility would freshen up things, Jackson ceded the director’s chair to Guillermo del Toro. “We thought it would be interesting to have another director come onboard with a different sensibility, for the same reasons as they use different directors on Bond movies,” he says.

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But with MGM in bankruptcy and no rights deal in sight, del Toro exited in 2010, prompting Jackson to take back the reins. “We felt a responsibility as producers and also, having developed the project with Guillermo, we had come to realize that his could be a really cool movie,” Jackson says.

Boyens says they started over on the script to tailor it both for Jackson and the cast, which includes returning members Ian McKellen, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving alongside newcomers like Martin Freeman as Bilbo. Of del Toro’s version, Boyens says the biggest change is the portrayal of Bilbo.

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“It shifted and changed into someone who, rather than being slightly younger and more innocent in the world, once had a sense of longing for adventure and has lost it and become fussy and fusty,” she says.

That led Jackson to Freeman. “We needed a dramatic actor because it is ultimately a dramatic role, but Bilbo Baggins is a much funnier character than Frodo was,” says Jackson. “There’s very few dramatic actors who can do comedy very well, but Martin seemed to possess the perfect qualities.”

Reuniting almost all of the crew from Rings gave Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh freedom to focus on the creative side, with first assistant director Carolynne Cunningham and unit production manager Zane Weiner stepping up to add producer duties and handle logistics.

“Peter’s got so much to worry about with directing that he relies on other people to sort out some of the other problems for him,” says Cunningham.

Drawing on material published in the appendix of The Return Of The King, in addition to the dense text of The Hobbit itself, the project expanded from the original two-film adaptation to a trilogy. Boyens says this was entirely a creative decision and came from structuring the story to work onscreen. “It was really about what we would not be able to tell, what we’d have to leave out of the story,” she says.

Shooting at a high frame rate is something Jackson says has intrigued him for a long time, and he liked the look of the footage he made at 60 frames per second for Universal Studios’ King Kong theme-park ride. Early reaction has been split, however, earning accolades for its remarkable clarity and criticisms for the video-like quality of motion.

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“It’s certainly different, and people are accustomed, obviously, to 24 frames being the look of film,” says Jackson. “But at the same time, do you also say that we achieved technical perfection in 1927? I mean, with all the technology that exists today, with all the ability we have to shoot 4K images and to project at high frame rates with these huge screens, the sound systems, do we settle for the 1927 standards, or do we say, ‘How can we use this technology to enhance the cinemagoing experience?’ ”

The frame rate had little effect on the 2,176 visual effects shots, says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. “There’s more work to be done, but a lot of what we do is independent of the frame rate,” he says.

The switch to 3D meant effects previously done with miniatures had to be done digitally, and advancements in technology meant nothing could be reused from earlier films. The main beneficiary was Gollum, who was completely rebuilt using new techniques to create anatomically correct musculature and more detail without changing the character’s look.

“The amount of detail in Gollum’s eye is more than what we had in his entire body on the first film,” says Letteri.

Technology also made it easier for Andy Serkis to reprise the role. Where he had to perform scenes multiple times for the original both on set and in controlled motion-capture environments, new motion-capture techniques allowed him just to play the character on set with Freeman.

“We played that scene out in its entirety every time we shot it, and it’s a 13-minute scene,” says Serkis. “It’s like a theater piece really, and we just explored it and mined it for everything that it was worth, and Peter shot it from lots of different angles.”

While Gollum has only one scene in the trilogy, Serkis took on additional responsibility as second-unit director. “Pete wanted me to be there because I’ve been through the experience of working on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and understand the rhythm and pace and stamina involved in keeping performance up during those films,” he says.

With all three films shot back to back, Jackson and crew are finishing The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug for next December, and the concluding The Hobbit: There And Back Again for July 2014.

Jackson says he thinks making the trilogies in reverse order will make for a better, more cohesive six-film series in the end. “I think we got a much better unity shooting The Hobbit after The Lord Of The Rings, ironically.”

  1. It’s quite interesting how The Hobbit never got any Oscar talk all year. It seems like Hollywood wasn’t going to celebrate this from the get-go. Oh well…the film is a hit and I can’t wait for the next one!

  2. that argument epitomizes people that make stupid arguments. I don’t think there is ANYONE that thinks film reached its perfection in 1927. it’s constantly improving and being perfected and 24p just happens to be something that has yet to be improved upon. I wasn’t bothered by hobbit in 48fps but it certainly allowed me to see the strings holding the puppet in regards to makeup/etc….. but maybe that’s all die to using the sh*^%iest most detrimental camera ever made, the Red

  3. Whats this about all this smack talking that The Hobbit was going to tank and Django or Les Mis was going to be number one. Critics are stupid and so are the degenerate sycophants who listen to them.

    1. Must be fun living in your world. Nobody said the Hobbit was going to tank…the reality is it’s not going to be close to making the same kind of money the LOTR films did. It doesn’t have the same wide appeal and is mostly bringing in the fanboys. Even with 3D surcharges and higher ticket prices it’ll be fortunate to hit $300 mil domestic. And since when does a movie’s box-office gross mean it’s a good movie, or that critics are “stupid”? To me the only people who are “stupid” are Jackson’s kool-aid drinkers who can’t realize stretching a book like THE HOBBIT out to three films has nothing to do with art and everything to do with being a cash grab.

      1. Yeah.. actually they’re now saying that $1 billion is on the cards, so it’s very likely that The Hobbit trilogy will surpass the LOTR trilogy in earnings. An Unexpected Journey brought in 100 million overseas this weekend, which is barely down from the 138m taken in it’s first weekend. Overseas it will raise about 600-700m+ and domestically maybe 300m+. Les Mis and Django aren’t released in most countries for another 2 weeks+.

        And it’s ironic that people like you think that “the only people who are “stupid” are Jackson’s kool-aid drinkers who can’t realize stretching a book like THE HOBBIT out to three films has nothing to do with art and everything to do with being a cash grab”; you’re saying that people are stupid for thinking a single minded point of view (in your opinion) when actually.. you too are thinking in a single minded POV with your cash grab attitude. And you kind of lose because they went in with an open mind and you (if you’ve even seen the film) were biased months before walking into the theatre.

        1. Making a single hobbit film of more events than LOTR … will be blunt and riddiculous . . Its pointless making the book as one film.. I guess none of you actually believe in character scenes and significant history ..all u guys know is blabbing stuff and those riddiculous american critics who expect to be a stupid Harry potter flick..

      2. I stopped reading at the word “fanboy”… I don’t know where some people get off trying to insult everyone who doesn’t agree with them on something as monumental and world-changing as an entertainment product – a movie.

        Still, as a 42-year-old woman, I’m glad I’m not included in the fan”boy” argument anyway ;-)

  4. As an avid fan of Tolkien’s works, and as a fan of Jackson’s cinematic adaptations, I remain split on the decision of making ‘The Hobbit’ three films.

    On one hand, I want to continue to see more of Jackson’s Middle-Earth on the big screen. I want to see more of the characters, the worlds, the sets, and so on. On the other hand though, making ‘The Hobbit’ (which is nothing close to a ‘dense’ novel) into three films is really stretching it.

    Yeah, all the added stuff from The Appendices is great, (and personally, I find all of that much more interesting than the actual story of ‘The Hobbit’ itself), but thus far, if I have to add a complaint about the film, it’s that the stories don’t really mesh that well. To me, anyways, it was very clear what could have been cut from the film, making it shorter, more concise, and a better flowing film.

    One film would have been enough, two films was a bit of a stretch, but now 3? I feel I’ve been ripped off now with LOTR–they should have been at least 6 films, instead of 3!

    I have yet to see it in 48fps, so I can’t comment on that technology.

  5. If Jackson wouldn’t have stretched the money-making machine and did The Hobbit without adding his own made up stuff to fill 3 movies, it wouldn’t have been 266 days.

    I cry foul on Jackson. He’s the new George Lucas

    1. People like you are the definition of idiocy; what you stupidly perceive as PJ “adding his own made up stuff” is actually ‘adding in Tolkien’s other stuff that was belatedly added to that era’. You colossal dumbass…

  6. I loved the Hobbit in the HFR. I thought it was more vivid and vibrant. I enjoyed the books but really, really enjoyed Peter Jackson’s take on them, so I agree that more LOTRs would have been great and I’m very happy with 3 Hobbitses. I don’t agree with the critics on this one and I think it WILL go over $300 mil domestically (it’s already almost there).

    1. I absolutely agree, it made more this week (62m) than last week (53m) and I know that it’s Christmas an’ all, but it’s pretty much set for 300m. Making around 10m per day is ensuring that.

    2. I think it is hilarious that it is kind of an unspoken agreement that the plural of Hobbit is Hobbitses. My friends and I say that all the time. Glad to see I’m not alone!

  7. The hobbit is a great standalone film and the franchise will be beautiful set up with the Trilogy .. Those who comment about making the hobbit into a single film has surely not read anything related to middle earth at the time of hobbit .. Besides that the Hobbit events if shown properly and in full will make into atleast 2 films to the brim .. Hence 3 will be apt..

    Besides those critics and similar idiot blabbers are not aware that The lord of the rings is a single novel and not 3 seperate movies .. Its because of the publishing house that the book was launched into 3 . . Secondly the lord of the rings has slightly more events than The Hobbit .. so the hobbit is not far behind .. This is not taking into account the necromancer plot.. and for the hexology or the franchise the sub plot is enormously important and cannot be ignored.. LAstly TOlkien wrote The Hobbit before he decided to create Middle earth so he dint knew the significance of rings that time.. but later Tolkien wanted to change the hobbit but could not coz of the popularity of the hobbit .. hence his work went into the appendices of Lord of the Rings.. So everyone who are not aware please see this before u go on blabbing about 1 film or 2 film or strecthing. .

    Finally the expansion provides character development and some of the scenes are brilliantly portrayed.. The supper scene in the book has no significance .. in the movie it is one of the most significant scene.. The Book Hobbit had no significance with Middle Earth legendarium , hence the movie had to do what it did and it did brilliantly.

  8. The Hobbit was bad, very bad. The HFR made the bad film even worse.
    The pacing, the writing, the acting (mostly) all horrible. CG was mostly great though, hats off to the VFX Weta folk. But sadly PJ is following in the Lucas footsteps. People probably are afraid to tell him something sucks. Ala Jar Jar.

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