TOUCHING down under grey and cloudy skies in Wellington ahead of the world premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there were signs of Middle Earth everywhere.
A giant Gandalf towers over the cinema where the first instalment of Peter Jackson's trilogy debuts on Wednesday night. Banners featuring Bilbo Baggins, Galadriel, Elrond and other characters snap in a stiff breeze at a roundabout. Shoppers trawl through Middle Earth artisan markets where they can buy special coins that shopkeepers are reputedly treating as real currency during premiere week - or so the story goes - near an outdoor screen showing The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the lead-up to the big night.
The first stop on a journalist's Hobbity tour organised by Warner Bros is Weta Digital, the visual effects company producing about 2200 shots for An Unexpected Journey, compared to 400 for The Fellowship of the Ring.
The Hobbit's visual effects supervisor, Eric Saindon, screens a handful of the 2200 shots and explains that with the new movie in 3D it has been much harder to fake perspective than on The Lord of the Rings.
''On Rings, all we had to do was put Gandalf closer to camera and Frodo further away and you got the scale,'' he says. ''In 3D you can obviously see that Gandalf is just closer.''
An innovative motion control system (using one motion control camera being driven by another one shooting simultaneously on a different scale) allowed Jackson to film the 13 dwarves in the Hobbiton set, with Gandalf in an identical set painted green nearby.
''Ian [McKellen] would act basically in the green screen while the other dwarves were in the full set,'' he says. The system allowed Jackson to see the combined view on screen as he directed.
A short walk away, swordsmith Peter Lyon, designer Daniel Falconer and props supervisor Alex Falkner show off examples of the Middle Earthian weapons.
Behind the scenes in Wellington, the latest Tolkien saga is about craftsmen and women using skills - some rare and self-taught - on an industrial scale.
Take Bilbo's famous sword Sting. Lyon and others needed to create multiple versions - a ''hero sword'', shorter and longer versions to make him appear taller or shorter, a flexible sword for horse riding so he won't injure himself if he falls off and just the butt of one for when the blade is driven into some creature.
Every one is crafted to be identical to the others. The self-taught Lyon was barely making a living producing swords for historical re-enactments when he got a call from future Oscar winner Richard Taylor, who said they were planning to shoot The Lord of the Rings.
''It meant I could eat,'' he says. It also meant there was suddenly a booming market for hand-crafted swords.
Garry Maddox travelled to Wellington courtesy of Warner Bros and Tourism New Zealand.