Movie-Making Tourism In New Zealand

Columbia Hillen

With its gorgeous landscapes and kind weather, New Zealand has become a popular venue for movie-makers leading to Wellington being named a UNESCO City of Film, and helping create popular entertaining tourism experiences.

Here are a few of the movie attractions.

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The Hobbiton Movie Set

Directed by Peter Jackson based on a novel by J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings trilogy of epic adventures is one of the most successful movie series ever made and it continues to attract visitors wanting to see the ‘real’ shire home of the hobbits. 

When scouting around for suitable natural settings for the fictional Middle-earth, Jackson found just what he was looking for in the green rolling hills, rugged limestone outcrops and underground caverns of the Waikato region of upper North Island.

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And now thousands of people every day make the journey to a charming 1,250 acre sheep farm, 45-minutes from the town of Cambridge, to see it.

After arriving at The Hobbiton Movie Set, my companion and I lingered at the cafe and ice-cream stall at the charmingly-entitled ‘Shire's Rest’ before departing by bus for the 15-minute journey to the outdoor set, with an onboard television enroute showing key scenes from the movies.

Even after six years as guide, Briton Luke Edwards continues to show genuine enthusiasm for hobbit-land and combines his comprehensive knowledge of the mammoth movie-making project with amusing asides and inside stories. 

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For over an hour, we meandered with him along narrow pathways crisscrossing rolling knolls dotted with rotund, earth-mound hobbit houses with their colorful arched doorways, including Bag End, home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, until we reached the highlight of our trip - recently-furnished hobbit homes at Bagshot Row that you can actually enter. 

Inside, attention to detail by designers is truly impressive with rooms and hallways constructed with intricate furniture suitable for a hobbit’s size, as well as fascinating wall decorations. We were then invited to enjoy a complimentary drink at The Green Dragon Inn, the social gathering place of the hobbits reconstructed to appear as it did in the movies, with drinks of the so-called Hobbit Southfarthing ranging from ales and apple cider to non-alcoholic ginger beer.   

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Weta Workshop

Founded in 1987 by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger creators of special effects, costumes and weapons for various productions including Avatar and The Lord of the Rings, the couple now offer film-studio experiences and hands-on creative workshops. 

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At Weta Workshop Unleashed in Auckland, my companion and I went on a special tour through interactive and immersive film sets with costumes and futuristic gadgets focusing on the worlds of horror, fantasy and sci-fi. Highlights included using computer-assisted software to transform our facial features, confronting life-sized robots and gargantuan monsters, including Azog, the evil white orc and crawling under a miniature city from The Chronicles of Narnia. We also learned about the ‘paper-to-plastic’ process of building exotic helmets for characters and were able to ask questions of an artist at work.  

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The Weta Workshop in Wellington is more a learning experience than a tour. Here we were tutored by a special effects expert in the art of make-believe — in our case, creating realistic-looking gory wounds on our hands and arms using glues and special dyes as fake blood, as well as crafting creatures out of everyday materials.   

Sean Hillen at Rivendell. Photo by Columbia Hillen

Rivendell in Kaitoke Regional Park

Outdoors lovers can walk an easy guided trail through this lovely park chosen as the film setting for Rivendell, home of Elrond and the Elves during the first movie in The Lord of the Rings series. After crossing an attractive walkway over a gently-flowing river to a forest of tall beech trees, we followed a path lined by wooden pillars festooned with movie scene photos and the faces of main characters to the specific setting that was Elrond’s house where Frodo was taken after being stabbed. 

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An impressive decorative arch donated by the movie-makers which stands beside a riverside bench is a popular place for photo taking. Information signs along the way provide detailed information and maps about the making of the movie and Rivendell’s role in it. 

If you want an all-in package tour that brings you to most of the main sites associated with the Lord of the Rings locations in and around Wellington, Nathan Clear’s tours, Wanderlust Tourism Group Limited are a good option.

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Superhero Exhibition

With movie-making being so strong in New Zealand, full credit goes to Takina Wellington Convention Centre for hosting the world premiere of ‘Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Exhibition,’ the largest of its kind in the world. 

Curators Ben Saunders and Patrick Reed filled the center with a comprehensive mix of original artifacts and props, interactives, trailers and immersive installations exploring Marvel’s film and comic world throughout its 85-year history.

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Superheroes such as Spiderman, Supergirl, Captain America and Ant-Man whose comics have inspired a multi-billion dollar Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, one of the highest-grossing film franchises of all time, are all featured. I’m not a superhero film fan but I enjoyed a fascinating two-hour experience.

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Chocolate Factory

While it doesn’t feature actors Gene Wilder, Johnny Depp or Timothée Chalamet as fictional chocolate-maker Willy Wonka, you can enjoy a taste of what it might feel like to spend a day with these film stars by taking a workshop at the Wellington Chocolate Factory. Co-owners Gabe Davidson and Rochelle Alagar established the first craft bean-to-bar factory producing certified organic chocolate in the country and are both deeply involved in the process including sourcing high-quality ethically-traded cocoa and helping provide a better standard of living for farmers.

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During our half-day workshop, my companion and I learned the elaborate process of ‘tempering’ the chocolate, adding extra ingredients, foiling and gift-wrapping. We also enjoyed a complimentary hot chocolate and took our ‘homemade’ chocolate bars away with us for our own self-indulgence and for friends and family to enjoy.

Sean Hillen

During an international media career spanning several decades in Europe and the US, Sean Hillen has worked for many leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Times London, The Daily Telegraph, Time magazine and The Irish Times Dublin, as well as at the United Nations Media Center in New York. Sean's travel writing for and has taken him across A...(Read More)

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