New Zealand's film star landscapes

Over the past decade, New Zealand has developed a reputation as the perfect backdrop for big-budget movies.

Kiwi director Sir Peter Jackson deserves plenty of credit for placing New Zealand on the global filmmaking map with his The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. But, so also do a cast of other Kiwis, from special effects company Weta Digital to government film agencies.

The New Zealand Film Commission and Film New Zealand combine government funds with a raft of incentives that have attracted filmmakers worldwide.

Diverse landscapes

In the film world, New Zealand ticks all the boxes - with stunning and diverse landscapes, technical masters, an environmentally friendly attitude, and a strong tourism industry that supports film making and now thrives off it.

New Zealand is renowned for having a unique and varied landscape with untouched forests and wilderness, wild beaches and volcanic marvels - all in a close proximity to civilization and modern resources.

International films productions including The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, River Queen, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Last Samurai and The Hobbit Trilogy have cast the spotlight on New Zealand's breathtaking scenery.

The North Island has been used in films such as The Last Samurai and Whale Rider for its diverse locations, from majestic mountain backdrops to picturesque beachside locations. Just an hour north-west of Auckland's ‘City of Sails’  the dark trees of Woodhill Forest were transformed into the dreaded camp of the White Witch of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and a horror-lovers dream for the 2013 remake of Evil Dead.

The South Island is attractive to filmmakers as it is home to rare wildlife, ice-age glaciers, rugged mountains, deep lakes, meandering rivers and native forests - much of it unchanged since ancient times - all within a short distance of civilization and modern facilities. Scenes for The World’s Fastest Indian were filmed in Oreti Beach at the very bottom of the South Island on its vast and desert-like sands.

Hollywood-based Kiwi film director Andrew Adamson says New Zealand offers grand and unspoilt landscapes.

"There's very few places left in the world where you can point the camera and not see houses or hotels for 270 degrees in the frame," said Adamson.

Sir Peter Jackson chose New Zealand to film The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy because he believed it bore an uncanny resemblance to Tolkien’s fictional Middle-earth.

The director used more than 150 different locations throughout New Zealand for his epic Middle-earth films, including the volcanic region of Mt Ruapehu in the North Island for the fiery Mt Doom, and Queenstown - New Zealand's adventure capital - for numerous scenes such as the Pillars of Argonath in The Lord of the Rings.

The Hobbit Trilogy countinued Peter Jackson's tradition of showcasing stunning New Zealand landscapes, with the likes of the beautiful Lake Tekapo and the splendor of the snow-capped Aoraki/Mt Cook in the South Island being featured.

Technical masters

Weta Workshop / Digital is a New Zealand-based Oscar-winning special effects, costume and make-up company, in Miramar Wellington - also home to Sir Peter Jackson’s Stone St Studios.

Founded in 1987 by Sir Richard Taylor and his wife Tania Rodger as RT Effects, Weta Workshop has produced creatures and makeup effects for the movies Heavenly Creatures and Avatar, among others.

Weta Workshop rose to worldwide attention with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, producing sets, costumes, armour, weapons, creatures and miniatures, and continued to shine through work on Avatar. Sir Richard Taylor has won five Oscars, four BAFTAs and numerous other awards for Weta's success in make-up, costume and visual effects.

Wellington has thrived from Weta and Sir Peter Jackson’s successes and now has more than 700 businesses connected with the feature film industry.

Queenstown is known for its stunning landscapes but also has had a strong innovative production industry for over 20 years. Companies such as Shotover Camera Systems hire out gear to production crews including a new 3D camera which was recently used for the movie Walking with Dinosaurs.

Environmentally friendly

The natural environment is important to New Zealand and, in turn, to filmmakers who bring work into the country.

New Zealand has 13 national parks featuring relatively untouched landscapes that are home to ancient forests and landforms, rare birds, and creatures that have survived since prehistoric times.

The Department of Conservation is a government agency with a mandate to protect New Zealand’s natural and historic heritage. DOC administers a lot of land used for filming and closely controls how production crews use and respect the landscape. Because of this and the country’s stance on sustainability a lot of crews choose to bring productions to New Zealand as they admire the 'untouched feel' of the land.

Sir Peter Jackson built sets in more than 150 locations for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy - including 30 Department of Conservation (DOC) sites. The DOC land was so important to Jackson he had crew lay vast areas of red carpet, to protect native flora and fauna during fight scenes.

Green Screen

New Zealand’s sustainability and zero waste policies also attract film crews to the country.

All film projects in Queenstown are handed a ‘Green Screen Guide’ with detailed information on how to recycle in the various departments of a film production - from art and construction to special effects.

Actor Hugh Jackman, who was in Queenstown in August 2008 for Wolverine spoke out about how proud he and the movie’s cast and crew were to be part of an initiative to reduce waste during their production.

"The cast and crew really got behind this initiative, and we are proud to be a part of the new generation of sustainable filmmakers," Jackman said.

Film tourism

The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogy has turned New Zealand into a key film tourism destination. Well over a decade since the first film was released, fans continue to travel to New Zealand to experience the movie’s real life mountains, lakes, rivers and valleys.

Tourists can travel by helicopter, car, 4WD, boat, bike or foot to many of the locations that provided the most dramatic scenery.

From adventure capital Queenstown, companies such as Nomad Safaris have guides who worked on the movies, and locals such as pilot Alfie Speight from Glacier Southern Lakes helicopters who can captivate tourists with their insider knowledge gained while working on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies.

Wellington - home of Jackson’s production studios - has also turned into a film tourism feast with Weta Cave and Workshop open to visit and buy film memorabilia, and tours operating year-round to locations such as Mt Victoria (escape from the Nazgul) and Kaitoke Regional Park (Rivendell).

Background: A selection of feature films shot in New Zealand

  • 1949 - Sands of Iwo Jima
  • 1957 - Until They Sail
  • 1982 - Battletruck / Warlords of the 21st Century
  • 1990 - An Angel at My table
  • 1993 - The Piano
  • 1994 - Heavenly Creatures
  • 1996 - The Frighteners
  • 2001 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  • 2002 - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  • 2003 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King / The Last Samurai / Whale Rider
  • 2004 - Without a Paddle
  • 2005 - King Kong / The World’s Fastest Indian / The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • 2009 - Avatar / The Lovely Bones / Wolverine
  • 2010 - Yogi Bear
  • 2011 - The Adventures of TinTin: Secret of the Unicorn
  • 2012 - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • 2013 - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  • 2014 - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies