Peter Jackson
Carlo Allegri, Reuters

After the epic award-winning, crowd-pleasing and big-business – nearly $3 billion in worldwide box-office revenues – of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, writer-director-producer Peter Jackson wasn’t sure he wanted to get behind the camera again for another three-film run at the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

“The first of shooting,” the New Zealand director recalls to a Manhattan meeting room full of reporters, “I was completely happy I was there.”

Aside of the mammoth amount of work involved (266 shooting days; a string of legal delays with old-guard studios New Line Cinema and MGM that delayed shooting; having to shoot around the busy TV schedule of the new Bilbo Baggins, British actor Martin Freeman), Jackson felt it was time for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to herald a new visionary at the lens.

“I guess I thought that I wouldn’t enjoy it, is the truth,” the 51-year-old says. “Because I thought I’d be competing against myself to some degree, and I thought it would be interesting to have another director.

“Guillermo del Toro was involved for a while; for a year, probably. But after Guillermo left, because of the delays we were facing with MGM, it was still another six months or so before we had a green light after he left. And during that period of time, I just thought ‘Well, I am actually enjoying this a lot more.’”

Not only that, Jackson says, but “I’d come to realize something which I hadn’t really put my head there: I came to realize there was a lot of charm and a lot of humour in The Hobbit that The Lord of the Rings didn’t have. And I thought that returning to Middle Earth and telling a completely different story in a different tone – I thought ‘You know what? This is not The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to try and make another film exactly like that. This gives me an opportunity to do something a little different.’”

The arrival of the new trilogy – coming out of Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit, but prompting three films from a single work nonetheless – also allowed Jackson to see things through with more clarity than he had been allowed before. The obvious question, of course (and it’s picked up right off the bat by a reporter from Boston) is ‘Why stretch The Hobbit across three full-length features?’ An Unexpected Journey clocks in at nearly three hours as Bilbo, Gandalf and the displaced Dwarves trek back to Lonely Mountain to reclaim a home from Smaug the Dragon; the story picks up in 2013 with The Desolation of Smaug, and concludes in 2014 with There and Back Again.

“It’s a very good question,” admits Jackson, though he’s probably already heard it a thousand times by now. “It kind of surprised us a bit, too, I have to say. We were originally doing two films. But, you know, it’s really a question of what you leave out. It’s a misleading book. It’s written at a very ridiculous pace, so that, you know, pretty major events in the story are covered in only two or three pages by Tolkien. It was written sort of almost like a children’s bedtime story.

“Once you start to develop the scenes – and plus you want to do a little bit more character development and character conflict than what was in the original book, plus the fact that you also get the appendices of The Return of the King, which is 100-odd pages of material that Tolkien developed that sort of takes place around the time of The Hobbit, so we want to actually expand the story of The Hobbit a little bit more. And Tolkien himself wrote that material that ties in a little bit more to The Lord of the Rings, which he wrote several years after The Hobbit. All those factors combined give us the material to do it.”

Through the appendices, there is some new character inclusion – come The Desolation of Smaug, Evangeline Lilly will arrive as Tauriel, a female elf from Mirkwood – and a lot of room to explore the detail technology provides. Gollum, for one, gets a more specific update already in An Unexpected Journey, and Bilbo’s home of Bag End in its entirety is similar, but much more (at first) disarmingly different.

The use of a high-resolution system – doubling speed at 48 frames per second on hand-built, state-of-the-art Red Epic digital cameras – gives the 3D of An Unexpected Journey a hyper-real look, one not seen before. Jackson knows the world he’s presenting is a foreign one, but he doesn’t want viewers to stand on the border merely peering in.

“Well, listen,” he says. “The levels of detail in the movie – they’re similar to The Lord of the Rings. I mean, the High Definition cameras, you see more. So, I think you probably had an apparent sense of more detail. Fortunately, the team that we have in New Zealand – we have a workshop who design a lot of the make-up and the effects – and our wardrobe department and our art department, we’ve always wanted to put a lot of detail in. A lot of detail that’s never been seen by the cameras. To me, fantasy should be as real as possible. I don’t subscribe to the notion that because it’s fantastical, it should be unrealistic. I think you have to have a sense of believing the world that you’re going into. The levels of detail are really important in that.”

This is where the new camera technology takes its greatest hold.

“It’s interesting, because 65-mil films that people used to shoot in was officially a high-definition in the film world,” Jackson says. “It was like, actually, in a way, very fine-grain film stock. I’ve always been fascinated by that. When we were setting up to do The Lord of the Rings back in the late 1990s, we explored the idea of shooting them in 65-mil…”

The director scours his memory.

“Was it Far and Away?” he asks himself. “The Ron Howard movie? The cowboy film? That was about the last film shot in 65-mil at that stage, and the camera equipment was very cumbersome. We were going to have to develop the film in America even though we were shooting in New Zealand. We were going to have to send the negative to America and back. It just ended up being not a good idea for us to shoot. But it was something I wanted to do at that time….”

“It’s never easy,” adds visual-effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who led a creative team of 850 people. “But Peter is absolutely right. Our whole idea is to just put as much detail – to make the fantasy as real as possible. That obviously happens in the live-action part of it. It happens with what we do because we’re trying to match the feelings of that world.”