Imagine Peter Jackson in a general’s cap, planted wide-stanced in front of a huge New Zealand flag, teeth clenched around a cigarette holder as he rallies his troops of CG artists. While the reality is less Patton-esque, designing and creating the 45-minute fight at the climax of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is much like preparing for an actual full-scale assault. “There’s a lot of logistics that have to be thought through,” says Jackson. “We have dwarves and men and elves and orcs, all with different cultures, with different weapons, and different shields and patterns and tactics.”
The mega-melee takes place at the foot of the Lonely Mountain as various armies vie for the newly reacquired dwarven treasure of Erebor. Like so much in Jackson’s Middle-earth, it represents filmmaking on the largest possible scale. “Before we could loose the first arrow, we had to design the landscape itself and figure out, ‘Okay, if we have 10,000 orcs, how much room are they going to take up?’ ” Jackson says. “ ‘Are they going to fill up the valley or look like a speck?’ Then we could start drawing the arrows on the schematics.”
You’ll notice that some of those arrows are labeled “EAGLES.” Indeed, the gargantuan birds of prey that helped save the day in both the final Lord of the Rings film and the first Hobbit will return, this time led by the never-before-CGI rendered Lord of the Eagles. (No, it’s not Don Henley.) Jackson acknowledges that the creatures have a habit of being a bit of a deus ex machina, something he tried to avoid this time around.
“Tolkien uses eagles in a way that can be kind of awkward because they tend to show up out of the blue and change things pretty quickly,” says the director. “So here they’re just part of the plan, not the saviors. I mean, I do realize that if the eagles had just been able to bring Frodo to Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings and let him drop the ring in, those movies would have been much shorter.”
After making the Lord of the Rings trilogy and two previous Hobbit films, Jackson has learned that epic warfare can be surprisingly boring, especially if you’re not watching people you care about. “We have a rule that we’re not allowed to go more than two or three shots of anonymous people fighting without cutting back to our principal characters,” he says. “Otherwise the audience just ends up with battle fatigue.”