It’s been over two decades since the first instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, was released, transforming New Zealand into Middle-earth and propelling the nation into international stardom. Not only was the capital city of Wellington home to many filming locations, it’s also where Wētā Workshop created the props, costumes and special effects that brought Tolkien’s fantastical tales to life.
From red-carpet premieres to weather forecasts in Elvish, giant airport sculptures and airplane decals to themed passport stamps, New Zealand was well-and-truly swept by Hobbit fever. Twenty years on, this legacy lives on in the film mecca of ‘Wellywood’ – with many odes to the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies peppered throughout the region.
Fans from far and wide have flocked to New Zealand to experience their own slice of Hobbit heaven, so if you’re equally as mad about Middle-earth, curious about cinema, or simply want to immerse yourself in the movie magic that’s put Wellington on the map – here’s how to discover the Middle of Middle-earth.
As soon as you land in Wellington, you’ll be greeted at the airport with large-scale installations like Smaug and Gandalf riding a great eagle. Just a few minutes’ drive away, begin your adventure where it all began, at the Wētā Cave. Founder Richard Taylor tells of the first intrepid travellers who ventured to Miramar to get a sneak peek at the workshop:
“From the moment the movies came out, we started getting buses of people pulling up in front of our workshop, and I would wave at them through the window. If I had a moment, I'd pop down and get on the bus, give them a talk, or just chat with them and tell them about what we were up to and who we were and so on. But it became evident that we needed something rewarding for the people that dropped in."
What then began as a simple collectibles store in the corner of the workshop grew into a bigger display of creatures, models, and an immersive retail experience. Today, the Wētā Workshop Experience is a full journey through the workshop’s Oscar-winning creativity. The guided tour consists of two parts – the first an exploration of the costumes, models and creatures as seen in the movies, with plenty of recognisable pieces from Middle-earth accompanied by behind-the-scenes stories. Secondly, delve into the world of miniatures and modelmaking and learn how this unique filmmaking technique brings small worlds to the big screen.
Supercharge your experience with a hands-on workshop, where you can roll up your sleeves and channel your inner VFX artist by creating scars, scrapes, and movie make-up; or by sculpting characters and crafting with leather. Before you go, snap a selfie with the giant trolls who guard the front door and pick up a unique piece of movie memorabilia at the store.
Once you’ve soaked up everything you can from the experts, it’s time to buckle in and see the sights! Hit the road and relive movie history by journeying through the region’s filming locations. Hire your own wheels or jump aboard an Xplor Tour and let a knowledgeable guide lead you to the top locations in the city. Not only is Mount Victoria a picturesque photo opportunity, it’s also where the very first day of shooting for the trilogy took place. On a secluded trail is where Frodo and his companions hid under a tree from the Ringwraith in The Fellowship of The Ring. You can also run down the same hill Frodo and Sam did to escape their enemies!
"We found a really good, spooky-looking road for the scene where the four hobbits run and hide under the tree roots as the Black Rider approaches".
Head to Upper Hutt and roam through the enchanting forest that was transformed into the city of Rivendell, complete with a replica Elven Archway standing amongst the bush. Nearby Harcourt Park is home to the Gardens of Isengard, the location where Gandalf the Grey rode to meet Saruman the White to seek advice and discuss the predicament the ring posed. Wander down the Hutt River to see the spot that became the Great River Anduin, where the Fellowship set off towards Amon Hen to meet their destiny. Some tours also include a sneak peek at some of the lesser-known locations, like the quarry that was transformed into Minas Tirith and Helm’s Dee.
There’s plenty more to pack your day with – stroll through the capital city and you’ll see Wellington’s Sky Stadium where Peter Jackson recorded the iconic Orc Chant during the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers. The sounds of a 30,000-strong cricket crowd roaring and chanting during the lunch break of an actual BLACKCAPS event were a perfect match for the Uruk-hai army!
At the top of Courtenay Place lies the Embassy Theatre. This grand picture palace was originally built in 1926 and hosted the world premieres of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003 and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 2012. Be sure to check out the name plates with the actors and characters’ names adorning the leather seats. Or head to the boutique Roxy Cinema in Miramar in a stunningly restored Art Deco building. A star-studded re-opening party in 2011 featured the cast of The Hobbit – today it screens a mix of blockbuster and independent films. Say ‘kia ora’ to Gandalf as he greets you outside, and admire the Academy Award proudly on display.
Enjoy an Oscar-worthy dinner at one of Wellington’s top restaurants as you unwind and reminisce over a day well spent – and you’ll see why the city has deservedly earned its title as a UNESCO City of Film.
Heading to Auckland during your visit to Middle-earth? See how our movie-making magic and out-of-this-world creativity has evolved into the immersive Wētā Workshop Unleashed experience.