I had two days in Wellington and I knew I had to spend one of them getting my geek on. There are Lord of the Rings tours offered all over New zealand; I did a half-day one in Queenstown years ago. But Wellington is home to Peter Jackson, Weta (his special effects company), and dozens of filming locations, so this is one of the best places to hop on a tour bus.
One of the few signs that point out filming locations.
I chose a full-day Rover Ring Tour because it was highly recommended by Lonely Planet, and the girl at the YHA who booked it for me. Our tour guide, Laura, picked everyone up at their hostels and hotels and took off for the first filming location, Mt. Victoria.
On the way there Laura shared photos of the film premieres in Wellington, where the stars were forced to parade through town in front of tens of thousands of people. she said there was a buzz in town for days before the event, as all the red carpet was laid out and people camped out for a good spot on the parade route. She said there are plaques in the Embassy Theatre showing where each star sat for the premiere – all except for Orland Bloom, whose plaque was stolen so many times that they gave up replacing it.
Laura, our awesome tour guide.
From the top of Mt. Vic you can see Wellywood, the area where the film studios are across the bay from downtown Wellington. You can also watch the planes land and take off at the Wellington airport, which is located on the only low, flat land around, and is therefore sure to be completely wiped out in the event of a tsunami. (Wellington lies right on top of a fault line, one of the reasons it’s a sister city to San Francisco.)
"Get off the road!"
We walked down the hill a bit until we were standing on a dirt road, right in the place where Frodo shouts, “Get off the road!” as the Black Riders chase the hobbits out of the Shire and onto the ferry.
Throughout the day Laura showed us video clips on her iPod and had photos from the films to hold up at each location so that we could see who stood where. After a while it did feel a little silly hiking through the woods to get a picture of a tree just because you could see a certain branch behind Elijah Wood in one scene, but the stories Laura had about each spot, and her anecdotes about the stars, was really what made the day interesting.
Celeb hangout, Scorch-O-Rama
We stopped for morning coffee at Scorch-O-Rama, a cafe down the street from Peter Jackson’s house, close to the homes where the rest of the cast was staying. The cafe used to be called Chocolate Fish, and was a favorite hangout for the actors, so you can sip a latte and picture Billy Boyd and Dominic Moynahan goofing off at a table in the corner.
I’ll leave the rest of the locations for you to enjoy yourself, but I will tell you a little about the Weta Cave, one of the places I was most excited to see. Weta is the place that built all of the miniatures, created all the CGI, did the live action capture stuff that turned Andy Sirkis into Gollum, and had two guys who did nothing for more than a year than create faux chainmail – a job that made them both wear off their fingerprints.
The Weta Cave
Weta was around long before the Rings trilogy, working on Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” and “The Frighteners” plus smaller, New Zealand productions. They’ve also worked on “The Chronicles of Narnia”, “King Kong” and some children’s animated films.
For some reason, even though fans have been poking around Weta for the past ten years, it was only about eight months ago that they opened a shop and museum for people to come in and look around. Before that, the most you could do was stand outside and try to peek in a window or hope to get a look at someone coming in or out.
Now, there’s a small gift show that sells things for films and TV shows that Weta had nothing to do with (“Harry Potter” and “Doctor Who”) and almost nothing for “Lord of the Rings”. It’s a little bit odd actually.
You would think you’d be able to buy shirts and figurines and soundtracks and posters and hobbit feet and elf ears, but they only had some of the books and a few expensive sculpted pieces. There are some very cool props and statues though, and you have to see the 20-minute behind-the-scenes video about what goes on at Weta.
As we were walking out, we passed one of the head make-up artists who we saw in the video, and driving down the street passed one of the sculptors. If you’re someone who’s watched all the interviews and extras on the DVDs, you could probably hang out at the cafe down the block and just watch all of these people come in for their morning coffee.
After Weta we went on to look at some shipping containers. Sexy, eh? These shipping containers are stacked three high in a U shape to hold up a massive blue screen. This screen has been the backdrop for the boat in “King Kong” as well as many LotR scenes.
We actually spent a lot of the day talking about shipping containers. At the end of filming all three Rings films, New Line Cinema had 240 containers full of props and costumes. They didn’t know what to do with them, so Peter Jackson said, “Sell them to me.” They did. At first people thought maybe he would create a museum or wait and auction things off. There was a touring show of props and things from the films, but that was less than 3% of what he had.
Then, it was announced that, after a long legal battle with New Line over money, Peter Jackson had agreed to produce “The Hobbit”, with Guillermo Del Toro directing. Ah ha! He’s already got 240 containers worth of props and costumes that he won’t have to pay for again, depending on how much of it is still good. Laura thinks she’s identified this stack of containers in a local shipping yard, but she’s not sure yet.
We stopped at a quarry where Minas Tirith and Helms Deep were both built, and where trucks were coming and going. This wasn’t sacred ground for them, just a place for business as usual.
Rivendell is that-a-way.
In the afternoon we had lunch in Rivendell, then moved on to Isengard for trees, trees and more trees, then a river. Laura kept the stories coming, telling us about her own role in the fil, playing the voice of an orc. Sort of. To get the sound of a full orc army, Peter Jackson went to a cricket game and asked the crowd of 28,000 to stamp their feet, beat their chests, and chant. Pretty clever, getting all that free labor.
I would highly recommend this tour if you want a truly geektacular day. Along with the LotR highlights, it’s a great way to get out of Wellington and see some of the areas outside of town.
Next: More sightseeing around Wellington.