Principal photography of The Lord of the Rings film series

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Principal photography for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was conducted concurrently in New Zealand for 274 days from October 11, 1999 through to December 22, 2000. Pick-up shoots were conducted annually from 2001 to 2003. The trilogy was shot at over 150 different locations,[1] with seven different units shooting, as well as soundstages around Wellington and Queenstown. Peter Jackson directed the whole production, while other unit directors included Alun Bollinger, John Mahaffie, Geoff Murphy, Fran Walsh, Barrie Osborne, and Rick Porras. Jackson monitored these units with live satellite feeds, and with the added pressure of constant script re-writes and the multiple units handling his vision, he only got around 4 hours of sleep a night.[2]

Jackson described the production as the world's largest home movie, due to the independence and sense of family.[3] Producer Barrie Osborne saw it as a traveling circus.[2] Fran Walsh described writing the script for the production as laying the track down in front of a moving train. Jackson also described shooting as like organizing an army, with 2,400 people involved at the height of production. Due to the remoteness of some of New Zealand's untamed landscapes, the crew would also bring survival kits in case helicopters couldn't reach the location to bring them home in time.[4]

Schedule of Principal Photography[edit]

Late 1999[edit]

October 11, 1999 -- the first scene filmed for the trilogy was the scene in which the Hobbits hide from a Ringwraith

The first scene filmed was the Wooded Road sequence where the Hobbits hide underneath the tree from a Ringwraith. The focus was generally on The Fellowship of the Ring when the Hobbits try to reach Rivendell, such as a single night in Bree exteriors; this was done with the hopes that the four actors playing the hobbits would bond. Second units also shot the Ford of Bruinen chase and the deforestation of Isengard. Liv Tyler generally came to New Zealand for stunts, and spent five days on a barrel for Bruinen whilst riding double Jane Abbott got to ride on horseback.[4]

During the first month of filming, Stuart Townsend was deemed too young to play Aragorn, and within three days Viggo Mortensen became his replacement, just in time to film the Weathertop sequence. Mortensen, who decided to take the role in part because his own son was a fan of the series, became a hit on set, going fishing, always taking his "hero" sword around and applying dirt to his costume to improve costume designer Ngila Dickson's makeshift look.[4] He also headbutted the stunt team as a sign of friendship,[2] and bought himself his horse, Uraeus, as well as another horse for Abbott.[3]

Sean Bean began filming in November for most of his scenes. Despite the focus on Fellowship, floods in Queenstown prompted the crew to shoot mountain interiors from The Return of the King for Elijah Wood and Sean Astin: a single day (November 24) of Astin's coverage from a pivotal scene. This would become a general failsafe measure if the weather disrupted the shooting schedule.[2] Wood's coverage wouldn't be done until November 30, 2000.[3] After this scene, when the flood ended, it was during this time shooting became focused on the battle of Amon Hen.[4]


A Christmas break followed, and filming resumed on January 17. Ian McKellen, fresh from filming X-Men, arrived to film scenes in Hobbiton and the Grey Havens. McKellen did not become that close to the lead Hobbit actors, as he generally worked with their scale doubles, but when Christopher Lee arrived in February, they became very friendly.[4] Shooting the fight sequence in the Orthanc interiors, without air conditioning (for atmosphere) but with heavy wigs and robes, was described by the actors as "murder".[1] The Grey Havens sequence, which takes place at the end of The Return of the King, was shot three times due to Sean Astin forgetting his vest after lunch and, then, an out-of-focus camera.[3]

While the Hobbit leads had scenes in Hobbiton interiors and Rivendell exteriors in Kaitoke Park with new arrival Ian Holm, Mortensen, Orlando Bloom and John Rhys-Davies filmed scenes involving the Rohirrim countryside. Mortensen broke his toe kicking an Orc helmet on camera, Bloom fell off his horse and broke a rib, and Rhys-Davies' scale double Brett Beattie dislocated his knee. They spent two days injured during the "orc hunting" sequence seen in the second film. Soon after, they spent a month of day shoots at Helm's Deep and another three months of night shoots handled by Mahaffie, in Dry Creek Quarry outside of Wellington, during which Mortensen's tooth was knocked out and Bernard Hill was hit on the ear with the flat of a sword. The extras insulted each other in Māori and improvised stunts, partially because those dressed in Uruk-hai prosthetics got extremely cold.[2]

The production then got larger, with Wood and Astin shooting scenes in Mount Ruapehu for Emyn Muil and Mount Doom. On April 13, 2000, Andy Serkis joined the cast. During this shoot, cross coverage was used for a pivotal scene in The Return of the King. In the meantime, prologue scenes[1] and the Battle of the Black Gate were shot, during which Sala Baker wore the Sauron armour. The Black Gate scene was filmed at a former mine field in the Rangipo Desert, and soldiers served as extras.[3] With the return of Sean Bean, the Fellowship reunited and proceeded to shoot the Moria sequence[5] and the Rivendell interiors, including 5 days of coverage for the Council of Elrond.

In June they began shooting scenes on soundstages with Cate Blanchett for Lothlórien,[6] as well as a week of exterior shooting for the Lothlórien farewell sequence.[4]

Scenes shot in June were the Paths of the Dead across various locations, including Pinnacles. In July the crew shot some Shelob scenes, while another unit shot in July to August and September time was spent on the scenes in Fangorn Forest and Isengard. Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd tried numerous takes of their entrance, stressing the word "weed" as they smoked pipe-weed. Christopher Lee spent his part of his scene mostly alone, though McKellen and Hill arrived on the first day for a few lines to help.[5]

Edoras exteriors were shot in October. The Ride of the Rohirrim, where Théoden leads the charge into the Orc army, was filmed in Twizel with 250 extras on horseback. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields has more extensive use of computer-generated imagery, in contrast to the more extensive use of live action in the Battle of Helm's Deep in the second film. Also filmed were scenes in Osgiliath, including attempts by Faramir to retake the city.

At this point production was very hectic, with Jackson moving around ten units per day, and production finally wrapped on the Minas Tirith sets, as well as second units shooting parts of the siege.


Pick-ups were conducted from 2001 to 2003 for six weeks every year to refine each film's edit. For the first two films they often returned to sets; for the third, they had to shoot around the clock in a car park full of set parts. Pick-ups provided a chance for cast and crew to meet in person again, and during The Two Towers pick-ups, Sean Astin directed a short film entitled The Long and Short of It.

Notable scenes filmed in the pick-ups included The Two Towers Extended Edition's flashback with Boromir, and the reshot Witch-king scenes with his new helmet design for The Return of the King, the latter with improved Orc designs and the new character of Gothmog. Théoden's last scene was reshot just after he finished; Bernard Hill was still in New Zealand. Andy Serkis also had to shoot a scene in Jackson's house during post-production.

The final and only pick-up in 2004 were shots of falling skulls in The Return of the King as part of an extended Paths of the Dead scene. Jackson joked that "it's nice to win an Oscar before you've even finished the film".[3]

Environmental impact on conservation areas[edit]

The filming was not without some level of concern over the environmental impact on the many film locations within national parks and conservation areas managed by the Department of Conservation. Wingnut Films Limited required and were granted a permit or 'concession' from the Department of Conservation to film within national parks and other conservation areas. The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand and the Tongariro/Taupo Conservation Board considered the concession was questionably processed by the Department of Conservation. The concession permit (granted to Wingnut Films Limited) incorrectly allowed activities, such as fantasy filming and vehicles off roads at Tongariro National Park, that were not consistent with park management plans. The ecological significance of an internationally important wetland was ignored. The process was rushed through without public involvement in spite expressions of concern from the Tongariro Taupo Conservation Board. Considerations of effects and their mitigation were not rigorous. The process facilitated access to public conservation lands for a large-scale operation that ultimately had nothing to do with conservation purposes the Department of Conservation is required to promote.[7]

The filming of parts of Lord of the Rings in Tongariro National Park caused enough disturbance to some areas of the Park, (including one known locally as 'Orc Road') that contractors had to be hired to restore the areas later. In December 2005, a contractor won an award from the Department of Conservation for their restoration work.[8]


  1. ^ a b c The Making of the Movie Trilogy by Brian Sibley, 2002, ISBN 0-00-713567-X
  2. ^ a b c d e The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers "Appendices" (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2003. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King "Appendices" (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2004. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Appendices (DVD). New Line Cinema. 2002. 
  5. ^ a b Davidson, Paul (2000-05-29). "The Fellowship at Moria". IGN. Retrieved 2006-11-14. 
  6. ^ "One Year of Principal Photography". The One Retrieved 2006-10-15. 
  7. ^ Johnson, S (2002). "The Lord of the Rings and Vertical Limits Film Concessions and the Conservation Act 1987". Butterworths Resource Management Bulletin. 4. Wellington, New Zealand: Butterworths of NZ. 11: 125–129. 
  8. ^ "Russell and Trevor Le Quesne, trading as TPP Contracting, are local earthworks contractors who have completed work in a very sensitive and effective manner on Mt Ruapehu over the last five years. Their first job in Tongariro National Park was the restoration of areas such as ‘Orc Road’ disturbed during the filming of parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’."Tongariro/Taupo Conservation Awards 2005, Department Of Conservation Regional Awards, retrieved 1 February 2008.