It’s late September 2011 — springtime in Wellington, New Zealand. After six months of production on The Hobbit, the cast and crew have naturally settled into some routines. Martin Freeman — who stars as the reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins in this epic two-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel — has whittled down the time it takes to put on his furry, oversize hobbit feet to just five minutes. (”I shave my legs, because if you’ve got hair on your legs it’s agony,” he says.) The 13 actors who play the film’s company of dwarves have grudgingly grown accustomed to waking up at 4 a.m. to start the three-hour process of having their makeup and prosthetics applied. Close friendships have formed, and in the cavernous room where everyone gathers for lunch each day, you’ll see elves sitting with elves, dwarves sitting with dwarves, and Lake-men sitting with Lake-men, like some Middle-earth version of a high school cafeteria. Still, after so many weeks of intensive, nearly round-the-clock work — with 10 months of shooting ahead and more than a year until the first installment, An Unexpected Journey, hits theaters on Dec. 14 — it’s not surprising people sometimes seem a bit punchy. For instance, ask the usually low-key director, Peter Jackson, about the guys walking around the soundstage this afternoon dressed head to toe in pea green, formfitting, bondage-gear-like motion-capture suits, and he gives a boisterous response: ”Those are green gimps!” he jokes. ”This is a whole scene that Tolkien didn’t write, when the green gimps rush out of the forest and attack the dwarves.” He laughs. ”The Attack of the Gimps — it could be a whole other movie, couldn’t it?”
In fact, the guys in the green tights are giant spiders — or rather, they will be once the digital-effects wizards are done with them. Today Jackson is staging one of The Hobbit’s many complex battle sequences, with a group of elf warriors joining the dwarves to fight off an arachnid attack in Mirkwood Forest. What makes the scene particularly challenging is that the dwarves are supposed to be much shorter than the elves, yet the actors are all roughly the same height. To solve this problem, Jackson has placed the two groups far apart at opposite ends of this massive stage and given each of them painstakingly choreographed fight moves, which he is filming simultaneously with separate synchronized cameras. When the images are combined into a single shot, everyone will appear to be fighting together, with the dwarves coming up only to around the elves’ elbows. That’s the idea, at least, but it’s incredibly tricky to pull off — in 3-D, no less — especially since the actors playing elves and dwarves can’t see one another. ”It’s like you’re playing half a chess game in the Southern Hemisphere and the other half in the Northern Hemisphere, and each player doesn’t know what the other is doing,” Jackson says.