Iain Blair
Issue: December 1, 2009


HOLLYWOOD — New Zealand-based writer/director/producer Peter Jackson was born on Halloween in 1961, and at an early age began making movies with his parents’ Super 8 camera. At 17, he left school and, after purchasing a 16mm camera, began shooting a science-fiction comedy short.

Since then, his projects have grown somewhat in terms of scope and budget. After all, he spent most of the past decade creating arguably the most ambitious and technically-impressive epics in cinema: the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which he then followed up with King Kong.

So how do you top those Oscar-winning blockbusters? If you’re Jackson, who personally won three Oscars for LOTR’s The Return of the King, you don’t even try. As he told me after completing the Rings trilogy, “I sort of know, in my heart, I’ve made the biggest thing that I’m ever going to do in my life. I might as well retire.”

Happily, Jackson didn’t retire, and while he didn’t take on another epic, his new film, The Lovely Bones, isn’t exactly the sort of “small, low-key project” he went on to say he was “looking forward to doing.” Based on the 2002 best-seller by Alice Sebold, and with a reported budget of $70 million, it tells the harrowing and intensely-emotional story of a raped and murdered 14-year-old girl (played by Atonement’s Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan), who watches from above while her family on Earth mourn her loss and try to find her killer.
Here, Jackson, whose credit also include directing Heavenly Creatures, producing the recent sci-fi hit District 9, producing Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn, the first of a planned trilogy (one of which he plans to direct), and co-writing the screenplays and producing Guillermo del Toro’s two-film adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, talks about making the film, creating the heavenly world of The Lovely Bones with CGI, and his love of post.

POST: What sort of film did you set out to make?
JACKSON: “We wanted to make one that really evoked the book, that was very emotional, and we knew it’d obviously be on a much smaller scale logistically than the films we’d been making like Lord of the Rings and Kong. And, I have to say, that was also one of the most appealing things about making it. The reality is, as filmmakers, we find one of the most enjoyable experiences is when you have a big challenge, when you have something difficult to try and achieve. At the time, Lord of the Rings was supremely difficult, and then Kong was also very difficult, but by the time we did Kong we had a very well-oiled pipeline in place for doing these huge, big-budget, spectacular films. So if we’d gone and made another one of those, with this pipeline and all the digital technology in place, it wouldn’t have been nearly so challenging as The Lovely Bones was.
“This film demanded a very different type of filmmaking, so we deliberately decided to walk away from those big-budget fantasy types of films and tackle something very different. You have to keep challenging yourself as a filmmaker, or you just get stale. It’s good to work outside your comfort zone, which this definitely was.”

POST: What were the biggest challenges of creating the “in-between” world where Susie is?
JACKSON: “It was a very long process of conceptual art with Weta Workshop, who basically had about six people working on it full-time for several months. They did a lot of drawings and design work to help bring it all to life. The ‘in-between,’ which is what we call it, is the world Susie finds herself in after she’s killed, but it’s not heaven. She hasn’t reached heaven yet. It’s more a case of being trapped in this limbo world, and she’s trapped there until she comes to terms with her own death. In a way, she’s imprisoned by the guy who killed her. He still has control over her.
“In many ways this ‘in-between’ world represents her subconscious desires, an aspect of her mind. And it was very difficult to film as it’s one of those intangible things that’s terrifying when it comes down to figuring out exactly what and how you’re going to film it. And then we went for a very surreal, very weird approach to get the look, with lots of bluescreen and compositing and CGI in post.”

POST: Where did you do the post?
JACKSON: “All of it was done in New Zealand at Park Road Post Production in Wellington and at Weta Digital — they are literally just a hundred yards away on the same street — who did all the visual effects. The great thing for us is that the local city council dug up the road for us a couple of years ago and laid this big fiber pipeline down the street, so Weta are now linked to all our mixing stages [at Park Road] by fiber optics.
“And what always happens with the sound mix is that as you’re in the middle of it, the last visual effects shots are also being done at the same time, and the soundtrack is affected by these shots. So we can be mixing a film, and because the movie’s playing off the digital hard drive, Weta Digital can replace the shots on the hard drive almost instantly, and as they complete a new version of the shot, they can send it across on the fiber line to replace the old version on the hard drive in the projection room. So then we can mix to the new shot, which is fantastic.
“Basically, we built this very sophisticated post production pipeline where we’ve got editorial, sound, mixing stages and digital effects, all linked together, all talking to each other. This means we can have a film with post production being done at all these different places, and it’s all being managed by the same overall pipeline.”

POST: How long was the process?
JACKSON: “We shot the last bit of bluescreen in June of 2008 and we were planning on delivering the movie to the studio at the end of last year, and they were going to release it in March this year, so we had about five months of post. But when we screened the film for Paramount and DreamWorks in November last year, they decided that they’d hold it until this December instead, which was great for us, because our films have always been down to the wire in terms of post. We’ve always had to rush the post in the end and we worked on Lord of the Rings and Kong right up to the last minute, so with this, we suddenly had the gift of time.
“With those extra eight months or so for post, what we did was stop work on it, put it on the shelf, came back to it in April of this year and sat down and watched it again. And being able to come back to it and see it with fresh eyes was fantastic, and that never ever happens in this business. So we then went back to the cutting room and did some more trimming, and after suspending Weta Digital for a few months they came back online and we all picked up where we’d left off. And we feel that the film benefited enormously from this break and extra time for post production, and we wished it had been the same on Lord of the Rings and King Kong.”

POST: The film is edited by Jabez Olssen. Tell us about the editing process.
JACKSON: “He’s been with us on Lord of the Rings and Kong as the first assistant, and this time around we moved him up, and he did a great job. We did all the editing at Wingnut Films, which is my company where I have offices and an editing suite all set up. What was different this time ‘round is that the suite is set up with the new 103-inch Panasonic HD plasma screen, which is absolutely fantastic, and I’d recommend this set-up to anyone who’s editing. We sit on the couch and Jabez is in the corner of the room with the Avid, and the quality of the image is just great. I was able to look right into the actors’ faces and eyes and see every nuance of emotion that you wouldn’t notice otherwise, and we found that we never had to go back and redo anything.”

POST: How many visual effects shots are there and how did it break down?
JACKSON: “I honestly don’t know the final count, but I think there’s around 500, and Weta Digital did them all. We had teams of compositors, CG modelers, texture artists, digital matte painters and so on, and some of the effects are very basic. The great thing about visual effects is that you can use them for some pretty crazy things now, like removing a blink. So if an actor blinks at a time when it feels distracting, we’ll just take it out.
“I’ve even used visual effects to combine different performances. If it’s a two-shot and we have two actors on screen and I like the performance of one actor in take three, but I like the other actor better in take seven, then I’ll give both takes to Weta and get them to split the screen and seamlessly combine the two performances into the same shot. I do end up using visual effects for a lot of things that they are not normally used for, and sometimes, because we shoot with multiple cameras, you use visual effects to paint out a camera. So if the B camera pokes its nose into the frame or the Steadicam appears in a corner, you can take them out so easily. So I use them a lot for cleaning up shots as much as creating them.”
POST: What was that the most difficult effects shot to pull off?
JACKSON: “We had quite a few, but there were a couple that were really tricky to do. Stanley Tucci plays the villain, and when he dies, he tumbles down a cliff, and I had simply filmed it by having him disappear off the edge of the cliff, and then we go over the edge and see him lying there at the bottom, obviously dead. But what happened is that everyone who saw early screenings ended up hating this guy with a passion — far more than I’d expected. So we came up with the idea of doing a digital fix on it, and as he falls down the cliff, I threw in two or three shots in where he bounces against the cliff face on the way down and then breaks bones against trees as he falls and then cracks his head against a rock. And it had to be a digital solution as we couldn’t get Stanley back for more filming.
“The other really tricky digital effect was one where we just get a quick glimpse of heaven. Most of the movie’s in the ‘in between,’ which isn’t heaven, but at one point we get a look at what’s beyond there, and Weta Digital used a lot of CGI.”

POST: How important was the DI?
JACKSON: “It’s crucial, and we did it at Park. It’s a very creative process, and fortunately Andrew Lesnie, our DP, is incredibly upstanding and not at all precious with the footage he’s shot, and he tries to be as involved as he can be in the DI, even though he’s often quite busy shooting other films. So we sit down with our colorist, Dave Hollingsworth [who uses the Quantel kit], and Andrew and Dave spent a lot of time working out the look of the film. In fact, for me, you create the look of the movie far more in the DI than you do on the set.
“That’s what I’ve found out, and that’s the way Andrew and I like to work. We do a certain amount of creation of the look on set, with all the lighting and so on, but you can achieve a lot more in post, and you can achieve it in a more controlled manner as you now have the time to really look at the film as a cut film, and think of each scene and the tone of each scene. Do you want the scene to be warm or cool? And you don’t want to be locked into some of those choices when you’re still in the middle of shooting. You may edit the scene and sequence in a different order than what you imagined, and in post you might combine two scenes that you never thought of combining when you were shooting.
“So we always want to give ourselves maximum flexibility, as you’re still creating the movie in post. That way, you can look at it and say, ‘We should warm up this section and cool down this section,’ and sometimes it’s not the same thought you might have had while shooting it, so you’re glad you didn’t put all kinds of gels on the lights or use various filters on the camera. That way, you can always change your mind in post, and that’s why I love post so much.”