Behind the scenes with 'The Hobbit Trilogy'

Jared Connon knows New Zealand better than most of his compatriots, has a job that is the envy of movie fans worldwide, and is a genuine, down-to-Middle-earth Kiwi.

Born in Auckland and now living in Wellington with his wife and young family, Jared Connon has worked in the film industry since he was 19 and knows New Zealand like the back of his hand.

The Hobbit

The eagle-eyed film locations expert is considered one of the best in the business, and his work with Sir Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit Trilogies, has not only given him kudos in the film industry but also made him a great ambassador for New Zealand.

Connon has seen more remote parts of New Zealand than most fellow Kiwis and is passionate about his home country. He’s also very dedicated to the Māori ethos of kaitiakitanga - treading lightly on the land, treating it with respect and leaving it unspoiled for future generations.

Just as well, since Connon’s work is as much about putting back as it is about setting up and he’s even named his own company Exit Locations. As supervising location manager he is not only charged with finding the right filming locations and carefully managing each one, but also running the unit, locations and craft services teams.

On location with 'The Hobbit'

At any one time during his work on location with 3 foot 7 Ltd filming The Hobbit Trilogy, Connon managed a team of up to 50 people across both film crews. He looked after the entire process including all the ensuing permissions and logistics required of any locations department on a film production.

The crew spent 10 weeks on the road filming in 40 different locations throughout the North and South islands. The Hobbit Trilogy was shot simultaneously.

It was a major operation with temporary roads constructed through private farmland for the fleet of trucks and vehicles to gain access. Marquees sprang up as each location became a temporary village to cater for cast and crew during filming.

Location pride

Connon worked closely with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and local authorities to obtain the necessary consents for filming in public areas as well as negotiating access to private land.

His attention to detail and sensitivities towards the environment have earned him a strong reputation with public and private land owners, and Connon takes pride in how each location is left.

"You can do all the good work you like up front but if you leave and don’t tidy things up and you’re not shaking hands and saying ‘can’t wait to see you next time’ then what was the point of it? You try and pride yourself that you can return to any site in the country at any time and you want those people to welcome you back," he says.

Engaging with Māori culture

Connon has always placed great importance on Māori culture and engaging with iwi / tribes, over access to land and the sensitivities around filming.

He was raised in a part of Auckland with a large Polynesian community, his family then moving to the far north where the strong Māori culture helped him develop an affinity and understanding of the people, their beliefs and tie to the land.

"I have always taken a lot of pride in engaging with iwi and it can be the most rewarding experience."

He says the cast and crew of The Hobbit Trilogy became very interested in New Zealand’s culture during filming and had a particularly powerful experience at Mt Ruapehu in the Central Plateau when iwi held a powhiri / welcome for them at their local marae / meeting place.

The schedule meant the crew had limited time at the location and bad weather threatened filming, but they were able to capture everything needed before a cloud bank obscured light and the heavens opened.

"It was uncanny, everyone felt it, there was a vibe of spirituality up there on the mountain and we all felt it was the blessing we’d had from iwi. It was the cultural and spiritual pinnacle for the film," he says.

Feature films

Over the years Connon has worked on a number of feature films but says the highlight of his career has been the award-wining The Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit Trilogy.

While the locations job has huge appeal, Connon admits that it’s a career that came about by chance. It was 1993 and he was in his first year at Whangarei Polytechnic in Northland, studying graphic design, photography and video.

Mid-year a group of friends asked if he would join them in Auckland to work on a drama series for Māori TV. They needed one more person to join their training group so they could retain government funding for the course.

"The person needed a driver’s licence and that was me. I was happy to make the move back to my home city and get my teeth into some film work, as it sounded like a bit of fun."

After an initial stint in the sound department, Connon was passed onto the location manager who began his training and, as they say, the rest is history.

"I believe that to this day, I am still training and learning from those I work with. If I'm not learning or challenging myself personally, I tend to find I don't enjoy the project. I have a thirst to grow, which is what I believe to be the driving force that has kept me at the forefront of my craft in this country."

Freedom to roam

Connon says a good location scout needs to be able to interpret a director’s instructions and transfer that into realistic filming options.

"They need to understand not only the director’s requirements but also the environments they are suggesting the director considers. These considerations range from the way the light works on a landscape, through to how noisy the neighbours may be, and often what risks each environment may pose to a production.

"Pretty pictures are just the start of location scouting. A great scout will offer fantastic pictures of locations that ultimately, offer total freedom for a director to work their craft unhindered by restrictions or limitations from outside influences."

Connon says the part of the job that he loves most, and has really kept him hooked, is getting out of the office and meeting people as well as having the freedom to roam the country’s landscapes.

"I also love photography which for me has been a constant hook through technology and craft development over the years. I love the logistics and planning that can really make a difference to a production and director - being truly effective at the sharp end of the shoot."

He sometimes refers to himself "a paid tourist", who then has to put on a huge party inviting all his friends over to visit the best spots.

And according to Connon, there are plenty of "good spots" included in The Hobbit Trilogy.

"Just what we saw in the trailer and seeing that in 3D on the big screen was amazing. There were two locations with big wide scenic landscape shots and even I thought ‘wow I didn’t think it was going to look like that’."

Sir Peter Jackson

Connon says he has huge admiration for Sir Peter Jackson, his perfectionism and ability to keep so much detail in his mind.

"He’s got a mind like a steel trap. It’s amazing what he remembers. He knows what he wants - he’s a perfectionist. You need to be proactive and concise in what you provide him [with].

"He’s great to work with and his creativity is astounding. On The Lord of the Rings we were all impressed with how he kept all three films going in his mind and knew exactly where he was at any given moment, in the story. To be able to leap in and out of that is so phenomenal. He just doesn’t seem to stop. I don’t know how he does it to be honest," says Connon.

Technical advancements have made the The Hobbit films even more epic than Weta’s previous blockbusters, he believes. "Especially following on from Avatar - I don’t think anything has come near to that since then and this is different again. Story-wise it is aimed at a much younger audience and is a much more lighthearted story than The Lord of the Rings ever was."

"The aim of this project was that it would be that much more epic with the 3D and 48 frames - that’s because it had to be bigger and better than The Lord of the Rings," says Connon.

Middle-earth tourism

Connon believes the effects of The Hobbit Trilogy will be huge for New Zealand tourism and business.

"I always refer back to my own experience with The Lord of the Rings when we were travelling overseas. The third movie hadn’t come out and it was halfway between The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

"We were travelling through Europe and when we met people and they found out we were from New Zealand about 25% would say ‘oh the All Blacks’ and 75% said ‘oh The Lord of the Rings’. It was completely the way New Zealand was identified.

"People think New Zealand is exactly what The Lord of the Rings landscape was - and it is!"

Connon describes the scenery shot for The Hobbit Trilogy as dramatic and he believes international visitors, in particular, will be amazed that these are actual places which really exist. .