The Shire sets from Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies are available to visit in Matamata, New Zealand. It’s located on a farm and surrounded by other sheep and cow farms. The interesting part is the sign out front that says “Tourist Farm”. Because I don’t speak Kiwi (it’s English but it’s not English. That’s a bit of cricket, yeah?), I can’t really tell if they are trying to be funny or not. Whatever the case, the sign is pretty accurate: they grow tourists here.
The tour is relatively well planned out. The guides give a lot of background information about the making of the films, the set, and the people that worked on it. Unfortunately for us, our guides were not great at their jobs. We had to edge closer to another group because their guide was far more informative than ours. The bus driver couldn’t seem to speak without getting horrible feedback through their microphone, so the bus ride vascillated between silence and screeching. What we were able to hear or get was pretty good.
The Hobbit holes come in three sizes: 60%, 90%, and 100% scale. They use the smaller ones to make Gandalf look bigger when he’s in the Hobbits’ home. Fun fact: Gandalf bangs his head on the light in the home, but then smashes into the doorways’ beam as well. The first was in the script, but the second was not. Peter Jackson left it in because he thought it was funny. The normal sized homes were used with the Hobbits onscreen to make them seem normal size to them. It’s good to think that in a movie filled with CGI, they still use old fashioned movie making tricks.
The attention to detail was also on display. Clothes on the drying lines were changed daily to wear in natural walking paths from the home to the lines, so if the washing every came into the shot it would look as natural as possible. All of the wood around the Hobbit holes was chopped into Hobbit-sized pieces over the course of two months. It was someones’ full time job to chop wood. The wood was then aged with vinegar.
Peter Jackson had many problems with trees around the area. First, the tree above Bag End (Bilbo’s Home) is fake. It is made with steel, foam, rubber bark, and 250K fake leaves. The Hobbit series was filmed after Lord of the Rings. This is a slight problem because in the LotR universe, the events of The Hobbit take place 60 years earlier. So they made the tree above Bag End to look a bit younger than it was in Lord of the Rings. Also in the books there are many references to Hobbits sitting underneath apple and plum trees. Well, Peter Jackson didn’t like the scale of these trees in relation to the hobbits so he dismantled them and pieced them back together in the size he wanted. In New Zealand, trees over a certain age or of a certain type cannot be removed. Here are NZ palm trees that were hidden with the leaves of other trees and/or cut out of the film. Middle Earth doesn’t have New Zealand palm trees, you know. And lastly, the party tree. This was what lead the team to pick this site for the set. It was spotted by helicopter, and then the crew went to find out who owned the land it was on. They soon struck a deal.
The wildlife caused some headaches as well. Middle Earth doesn’t have native New Zealand wildlife. So there was a trained American Eagle and handler that were tasked with keeping the local birds and rodents away from the set. In the man-made pond, a crew of frogs took up shop. They were quite noisy and had to be removed from the pond. But since New Zealand is hippie country, someone actually housed the frogs in their bathtub during the day and put them back in the pond at night. HIPPIES!
The original set was actually made to be temporary. After the success of LotR, Kiwis came out to the farm to see the set. This tipped off the owners there was money to be made. So for The Hobbit, the sets were rebuilt and made more permanent. And since the first movies were such a success, barbed wire had to be put around the farms to insure curious fans didn’t sneak in. But now you are able to visit the Shire any time you’re in New Zealand, and maybe have Second Breakfast in their cafe.