OSCARS: 'Hobbit' Production Design

Diane Haithman is an AwardsLine contributor

Production designer Dan Hennah—nominated for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with set decorators Ra Vincent and Simon Bright—says that this set for hobbit Bilbo Baggins’ comfy parlor is one of few that did not require a CGI extension to accommodate both fantasy elements and the movie’s large band of characters, who tend to appear together in many scenes. And even the simplest of sets required finetuning to meet the demands of 3D. By phone from New Zealand, Hennah talked about this scene in which Bilbo (Martin Freeman) talks with Dwalin (Graham McTavish) as the dwarf slurps his way through Bilbo’s carefully hoarded food supply. 1) Bilbo’s parlor had to be built twice: Once in “hobbit scale” and once in a .76 “wizard scale” for Gandalf (Ian McKellen), so Gandalf would appear to be too tall for his surroundings, whereas for the hobbits it would be, as Goldilocks might have observed, “just right”. Hennah says the less dramatic difference in size between hobbits and dwarves was taken care of by casting: Most actors portraying dwarves are taller than Freeman.

2) Hobbits hate adventure, so Bilbo’s home is full of things that make him feel safe: A warm teapot, a full larder, his favorite books. “This is 60 years before The Lord of the Rings, when he was sort of an old guy who had accumulated a lot of stuff and was sort of untidy; this was more (for) a casual, homely bachelor”, Hennah says. For The Hobbit, Hennah’s team took advantage of the fact that New Zealand can boast more traditional craftspeople than a Renaissance Fair. “We had potters and glass blowers and pipe makers and book binders. New Zealand is a great place for alternative lifestyles, and that often translates into making something that you can sell”, he explains. The designers created their own fantasy era rooted in 17th-century England, but “once you make up the rules, you have to stick with them or you break the spell”, Hennah says.

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3) That’s no rubber fish that Dwalin is noshing on: It’s the real deal, caught by one of the prop dressers who’d been out just that morning trying his luck in the local bay. “There were probably quite a few real fish, we were cooking them up” to use on set, Hennah says. Since dead fish are like houseguests (best if they don’t stay around too long), the crew kept plenty of ice on hand to keep them fresh.

4) Often books on sets have authentic bindings but blank pages. But Bilbo, Hennah says, “is sort of a learned chap” who loves to read, so his books can’t hide on the shelf. Plus he’s writing his own book, There and Back Again, using a quill pen. A calligrapher with quill expertise was called in to create the book pages. And the calligrapher worked overtime on a document used in another scene at Bilbo’s home, when he reads over the alarming contract he must sign before accompanying the dwarves on their dangerous quest to reclaim Lonely Mountain from the dragon.

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5) The Hobbit was shot in 3D using a high-speed 48 frames per second (normal 2D speed is 24 fps). Some film critics thought the images created by the high-speed process were too sharp, making The Hobbit look more like a videogame than a feature film. Critical taste aside, Hennah says that extra clarity required more careful attention to items in the background or middle ground that would have appeared out of focus in regular 2D. Plus, 3D tends to desaturate colors, so everything had to be made in brighter colors than it appears.