6 Filmmaking Tips From Peter Jackson

By  · Published on December 12th, 2012

We can all hoist accolades on the filmmakers found in this series, but there are few who are as transparent about their process and actively engaging when it comes to including fans on set (at least via video) than Peter Jackson. Not just a minimal-effort chore for marketing, Jackson seems to relish with childlike abandon in making the Making Of videos and taking audiences behind the scenes of movies while they’re being made.

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising for a details-oriented storyteller who has built entire worlds for us to visually visit.

But he wasn’t always sitting on top of Middle-Earth. Before The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it was more likely you’d catch him with a lawnmower in hand and a bucket of fake blood close by. So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from someone who fought in the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Filming a Journey is Its Own Journey

“ It’s the last movie is the reason you do it, isn’t it? Any time you make a movie, it’s because you want people to see it and enjoy it… Every time you start a film there’s always a degree of excitement because you want to see it [in finished form]. That’s what you’re striving to do. The trilogy [is] all about the third film really. What’s the point of doing any of the others? The two films exist because you’re reaching that third chapter. That’s the one that defines the previous two, and puts them in context. Prior to now, they haven’t had a context. Fellowship was the beginning, Two Towers was the difficult middle chapter that everybody described it as and now you have the third film. Suddenly, everything has a context now. It’s the point of the whole exercise. It has closure too. It has a strong sense of closure.

It’s tough for the actors as well because they’re feeling emotional seeing the movie because the movie’s emotional. The movie finishes it off and it sort of represents the ending of all of our journeys. We’ve all become friends on this project. It’s all finishing at the same time, both on screen and off screen. It’s everything I hoped it would be. I hoped it would be sad, that it would capture something of that sadness of the book, but sadness in a way that’s not a downer. It’s just sad but you’re happy that they achieved what they set out to do but there was a price to be paid. “

Seven years is an extreme example, even if it covers three epic-length movies, but this rule applies from Return of the King all the way down to short films. There’s a process in place, and it’s easy to think of it that way, but it’s also a journey with a beginning, middle and end. Hopefully it’s a happy one.

Viewing the production process as a journey also reinforces that old idea that who you work with becomes your family. You might get a cake on your birthday at the office, but it’s different when a group of people endeavor through sweat and panic to create something together for themselves. Friendships have the great potential to be forged in a more lasting kind of Summer Camp way, but with tensions riding high, it also means you have to be careful how you treat others on set.

And be ready to tear up a bit when it’s all over. There’s a reason wrap parties exist.

A Duty to Self-Censorship

“[The Lovely Bones is] not a murder film and I wanted kids to be able to go and see it. Film is such a powerful medium. It’s like a weapon and I think you have a duty to self-censor.

‘There are some people who might enjoy watching a 14-year-old girl getting killed, a small minority maybe, but how could you live with yourself in providing that titillation? I wouldn’t want the movie defined by that.”

As the Telegraph piece adds, it’s a bit odd to imagine the director of Braindead saying something like that, but either by age or because he viewed those early splat-stick films as “harmless” in their silliness, Jackson recognizes that extreme elements (like the rape and murder of a young girl) can be handled in many different ways depending on the audience you’re looking to reach and the tone you’re looking to shape.

You’ll Always Wants to Change a Movie When You Look Back On It

But you’ll also want it to stay exactly the same:

Know the Physical Limitations of Your Camera

“A good example is the way in which, when we did Lord of the Rings, we built miniatures, so anytime you see a piece of architecture or an unreal landscape on Lord of the Rings — whether it’s Mount Doom or Minas Tirith or Helm’s Deep ‐ you’re looking at a miniature. Some of the miniatures are the size of this room. I mean they’re large, and the thing with miniatures is that you’ve got a couple of constraints. One is that you physically, you have a very large camera that you have to get close; if you want to do a shot where the camera’s flying over the rooftops of Minas Tirith, you literally can get the camera so close to the rooftops and sometimes you have to use a periscope lens to get them to be able to drift over the top of the roofs, but if I wanted to fly down between the roofs and go down to the street, I couldn’t because you physically, with a miniature, you couldn’t fit the bulk of the camera into that space. . . so you design the most interesting shots you can.”

Jackson goes on to talk about how, with The Hobbit, they used CGI instead of miniatures which meant he could do pretty much anything he wanted (even if that meant flying through someone’s keyhole).

This may seem obvious, but knowing intimately those physical constraints can help save time and money during the planning phase, especially if you can work to stretch those limitations without getting yourself into an impossible shot situation.

If You Can’t Finish Your Movie, Go Ahead and Finish Your Movie

“You’ve got to realize, that when I started doing Bad Taste, it was only a short film. In my mind the enormity of the project was restricted to ten or fifteen minutes, so we started shooting and it just sort of. . . spread. I never, ever dreamt that it would be a feature and I never thought it would until about a year into it. Until then, I hadn’t edited any of the footage ‐ I was just sticking it in tins under my bed ‐ so I took a week off work for editing and put together a 60 minute rough cut only to find it didn’t have an ending.

I thought, ‘Christ, there’s nothing I can do, other than just patch on and make a feature.’ It was actually scary at first, making a feature. I thought, ‘It’s impossible, you can’t just make a feature film,’ but then I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I wrote out this ending and we just started shooting again. Not to make this sound so quick though, the film took four years to finish.”

If You Can’t Hire Sony or ILM (or WETA), You’ve Got to Do It Yourself

What Have We Learned

There’s definitely a pioneering spirit to his work, and that might be a bit too “all in” for other filmmakers. After all, most of us probably can’t create a digital effects house from scratch just because we can’t afford Industrial Light and Magic. There’s also a bit of free-wheeling here, made possible by staunch preparation and a sincere passion for the subject matter. Jackson has said he makes movies that he wants to see, the ones he falls in love with as they play in his head, so it’s clear that despite the arduous labor and the time commitment, there’s real love there.

Ultimately, it takes a combination like that to make the world believe in your grand scale abilities after only making a few niche flicks far away from Hollywood.

Plus, having a lawnmower handy couldn’t hurt.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.