Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins in the <i>Hobbit</i> films, arrives in Wellington.

Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins in the Hobbit films, arrives in Wellington. Photo: Maarten Holl

"As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him."

- JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit

Touching down under grey and cloudy skies in Wellington before the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there are signs of Middle Earth everywhere.

A giant Gandalf towers over the cinema where the first instalment of Peter Jackson's trilogy debuts tomorrow night.

Banners featuring Bilbo Baggins, Galadriel, Elrond and other characters snap in a stiff breeze at a roundabout. Shoppers trawl through Middle Earth artisan markets, where they can buy special coins that shopkeepers are reputedly treating as real currency during premiere week - or so the story goes - near an outdoor screen showing The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In the hotel foyer in the city that is calling itself the Middle of Middle Earth are posters of Gandalf and Bilbo, and the Wi-Fi password is "Hobbit12".

A Gandalf cut-out stands in the foyer of a hotel.

A Gandalf cut-out stands in the foyer of a hotel.

If you'll forgive a jet-lagged pun, it seems everybody's Tolkien about The Hobbit in Wellington this week. You half expect the TV newsreaders to be wearing elf ears and furry feet and for room service to be delivering second breakfasts.

The first stop on the Hobbity tour organised by Warner Bros is Weta Digital, the visual effects company that has produced about 2200 shots for An Unexpected Journey, compared with just 400 for The Fellowship of the Ring.

Weta and related companies have been responsible, as Tolkien wrote, for many "beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic" for the trilogy.

<i>Hobbit</i> banners line the streets of Wellington.

Hobbit banners line the streets of Wellington.

The Hobbit's visual effects supervisor, Eric Saindon - an American whose successful assimilation into New Zealand society is shown by the way he wears "Kiwi casual" of tropical shirt, shorts and thongs - screens a handful of those 2200 shots and explains that with the new movie in 3D, it has been much harder to fake perspective than on Lord of the Rings.

"On Rings, all we had to do was put Gandalf closer to the camera and Frodo further away and you got the scale," he says. "In 3D you can obviously see that Gandalf is just closer."

An innovative motion control system (using one motion-control camera being driven by another one shooting simultaneously on a different scale) allowed Jackson to film the 13 dwarfs in the Hobbiton set, with Gandalf in an identical set painted green nearby.

"Ian [McKellen] would act basically in the green screen while the other dwarfs were in the full set," says Saindon. The system allowed Jackson to see the combined view on screen as he directed.

A short walk away, Rob Gillies, the workshop supervisor for Weta Workshops, and Tim Launder, the general manager of Weta Ltd, are talking in that likeable, no-fuss, no-hype Kiwi way about their contributions to other aspects of the Hobbit enterprise in a boardroom that is like a treasure house for Lord of the Rings fans.

The cabinets lining one wall are jam-packed with the most beautifully detailed sculptures of characters - Gollum, dragons, Legolas, Gandalf, orcs, Frodo - that sell to collectors. Nearby, no less spectacular but not quite so easy to collect, are a clutch of the Oscars won by The Lord of the Rings team.

And down a flight of stairs and through a corridor, swordsmith Peter Lyon, designer Daniel Falconer and props supervisor Alex Falkner show off examples of the Middle Earthian weapons required for the shoot.

For two Hollywood studios, the Hobbit trilogy might be a $1 billion investment to make and market. For Peter Jackson, it's a monumental creative challenge to capture what he did on Lord of the Rings. But behind the scenes in Wellington, the latest saga from Middle Earth is about craftsmen and women using skills, some of them rare and self-taught, on an industrial scale.

Take Bilbo's famous sword, Sting. Lyon and others needed to create multiple versions: a "hero sword"; shorter and longer versions to make Bilbo appear taller or shorter depending on whether he is appearing on screen with Gandalf, the dwarfs or the elves; a flexible sword for horse riding so he won't injure himself if he falls off; and just the butt of one for when the blade is driven into some hapless creature.

And each one is beautifully crafted to be identical to the others. The self-taught Lyon was barely making a living producing swords for historical re-enactments when he had a call from future Oscar winner Richard Taylor, who said they were planning to shoot The Lord of the Rings.

"It meant I could eat," he says. It also meant there was suddenly a booming market for handcrafted swords.

The world's keenest Tolkien fans were surprised when Jackson and Elijah Wood dropped unexpectedly into a pre-premiere party organised by TheOneRing.net in the city on Monday night. More than 600 people - most dressed in Middle Earth costumes - heard the director say he had finished the film on Sunday and screened it for select cast and crew that night.

But, without a ticket and having left the Gollum costume at home, I saw Wellingtonians engaging with the film on an entirely different level at a bar. Two Kiwi women were overheard gushing about "the hot dwarf". Now there's a line you don't hear much in Australia.

Garry Maddox travelled to Wellington courtesy of Warner Bros and Tourism New Zealand.