A Fantasy Fan Visits The Hobbit

TIME's Lev Grossman sees where the magic happens

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In the middle of an empty lot in a movie studio in Miramar, New Zealand (it's a suburb of Wellington), a bunch of people are standing on a rock. Some of the people are famous--Martin Freeman, for example, who at the moment is doing a little dance to keep warm between takes. It's June, but New Zealand is opposite-land, so it's winter here.

These are most of the principal cast of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the second movie in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, to be released Dec. 13. Freeman plays the hero, Bilbo Baggins; the other actors play a band of dwarfs out to reclaim their homeland. Everyone is dressed in full Middle-earth regalia. I'm hanging around watching them work.

Being on the set of The Hobbit is an exhilarating and almost indescribably weird experience, especially if you are, like me, not just a journalist but also a fan. Most people grow up reading fantasy; some, like me, never grow out of it. I still read fantasy novels; I've even written a couple. So visiting the set of a big-budget fantasy movie is both enchanting and disenchanting. This is where the magic gets made, but making magic turns out to be like making sausages or laws: not always a pretty sight.

Take that rock. It's not a real rock; it's a meticulous full-scale model of a rock that is 100 or so kilometers west of here, on the Pelorus River. But that rock was in a gully that flooded before they could finish the scene. So--as one does--Jackson caused to be built an exact replica of the rock, back at the studio, and he's shooting on that. The final scene will be a digital blend of real and unreal.

The actors are not in Middle-earth; they're barely in regular earth. There's nothing behind them except, at the edge of the asphalt, a four-story Day-Glo green wall that will be digitally painted over with lush green landscapes. Around them are concentric rings of tents, craft tables, folding chairs, milk crates full of gear, cameras, tripods, monitors and cables, cables, cables--the entire set is veined with them. Fantasy, it turns out, comes with a lot of infrastructure.

Every few takes, a small army of technicians bearing compacts and spray bottles descends on the actors--two or three per actor--to primp and groom them. The weather is too sunny to match what's already been shot, so far overhead vast fabric screens are being winched back and forth on cables to simulate a cloudy day. Obviously when you see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug--and I fully intend to--you know it isn't real. But somehow I hadn't quite realized how unreal it all was.

Here's how you turn a human into a dwarf. The dwarfs in the Hobbit movies aren't played by actual dwarfs, à la Tyrion Lannister or Time Bandits. They're played by regular-size people who are made, by numerous cinematic sleights of hand, to look smaller than they are. But dwarfs aren't just smaller; their entire bodies are differently proportioned. Their hands, feet and heads are larger relative to their bodies. So the human actors must be rebuilt.

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