Traveling through an international airport is inevitably disorienting, but for Richard Sharkey, entering New Zealand in 1998 was almost like going to another planet. He couldn’t simply beeline toward the baggage claim—passengers had to get rid of fruit, seeds, and food before entering the country. Airport staff took anyone with traces of mud on their footwear to have their shoes cleaned and sterilized.

 “As soon as you step off the plane in New Zealand, you get the sense that you’re entering a sort of bio-dome,” Sharkey says. “You’re immediately put on notice that they are doing all they can to protect their island status." 

Sharkey was supervising location manager during the production of the Lord or the Rings trilogy—a job almost guaranteed to disrupt the delicate ecological balance of New Zealand.  But with plenty of time to shoot and regulatory support from the New Zealand government, Sharkey and his team were able to ensure the films had minimal impact on everything from bird populations to moss cover.

Star Wars Filming Interrupts Bird Breeding

Not all films follow such a luxurious schedule. This summer, birders were up in arms as news spread that Star Wars Episode VII was filming during mating season on remote Irish island Skellig Michael, which houses several rare birds. While the film had all of the appropriate permits—and, according to Louise Ryan of the Irish Film Board, actually required fewer people to be on the island than tourism would normally bring—the timing upset BirdWatch Ireland. The group worries that vulnerable baby birds may have been hurt by the filming, and parents flying in to feed hungry chicks may have been obstructed by film equipment, says Niall Hatch, development officer at BirdWatch Ireland. Calculating whether filming affected breeding success will be difficult, as the Irish government hadn’t carried out a population survey of Skellig Michael in 15 years, Hatch says. 

“It’s difficult to know what damage, if any, has been done,” says Hatch. “Maybe no damage had been done, but we don’t know, which isn’t good enough.” 

So what could the Star Wars crew have done differently to better meld into the island’s ecosystem? Sharkey’s experience in New Zealand may provide some answers. In particular, Lord of the Rings’ long shooting schedule offered its team the flexibility of rescheduling filming if timing would have posed environmental risks.

“We had a tremendous luxury on Lord of the Rings, of time. We shot the show over a period of two and half years,” Sharkey says. “The majority of films—and I suspect Star Wars is amongst these—have not had that luxury.” 

Sharkey, who is British, was not familiar with the New Zealand way—that is, an intense devotion to conservation of the rolling green hills, jagged peaks, and diverse wildlife that make the country such a perfect setting for an epic film. So, he turned to Matt Cooper, location administrator and Kiwi, for regulatory support as the vast crew of actors, techies, and staff rolled in. 

“Matt really was my guide through the paperwork and the procedures and policies from the Department of Conservation that enabled me to function,” Sharkey says. 

With 2,400 crew members at the height of production, “it was the largest film project that New Zealand had ever seen,” Cooper says. The crew shot on over 100 locations, of which approximately 50 were under the purview of the New Zealand government’s Department of Conservation.

Morphing Mount Sunday into Edoras

Cooper had never worked on any films previous to Lord of the Rings, but was now tasked with, among other things, helping the production team transform Mount Sunday, a peak on South Island, into Edoras, the Rohan capital in the trilogy, all while protecting the natural environment. 

It took the team a year to acquire consent from local government councils to film at Mount Sunday, after which the crew worked for two months to build five kilometers of road for film crew trucks and the horses that would be on camera. To make room for the roadways, thousands of tussocks of grass were removed and transported to a nursery, to be replanted after the shoot. Culverts and bridges were installed at river crossings to maintain water velocity so that salmon and trout could continue to swim upstream. 

To protect the birds—including Black-Fronted Tern, Banded Dotterel, Pied Oystercatcher, Pied Stilt, and the New Zealand Pipit—the crew designated no-fly zones for helicopter shots to the west of Mount Sunday, where the birds roost. The unique film set-up becomes apparent while watching The Two Towers—all aerial shots of Edoras are seen from one angle. The crew avoided these areas entirely due to a bird survey commissioned during the consenting process. 

After another five months of set construction, the crew filmed for two to three weeks on Mount Sunday, only to spend another six to eight months doing repair work to bring the location back to pristine condition. 

Carpeting the Bio-Dome

Even with all the planning, the stringent environmental regulations consistently posed challenges for the crew. “The film was a very dynamic process and sometimes things change. You write an application and try to describe everything. But sometimes [director] Peter [Jackson] would get there and say he wanted to film two valleys over,” Cooper says. 

For example, partway through filming on another site—Mt Whakapapa in Tongariro National Park—the crew needed a quick solution to preserve moss and lichen from the hundreds of orcs scheduled to stampede across the reserve. They received word that an office building was remodeling and ripping up carpet, so they got in touch with the contractors. Before long, they had enough old office carpet to cover three to four soccer fields. It became standard procedure on the film to lay down used office carpet out of view of the camera to protect the moss and lichen underfoot.

Plenty of other measures were taken to protect New Zealand’s ecosystem. Before arrival, the horses were placed in quarantine and fed a strict weed-free diet, so weeds would not spread across the region and disrupt the native flora. Like travelers’ boots at the airport, all vehicles were steam-cleaned to make sure no traces of weeds were carried into the island. Cats and dogs were forbidden from the shoot, for fear that they would hunt for birds or other wildlife.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, spoke for the trees in his own way, using Treebeard’s forest uprising as an allegory for the environmental degradation he saw in Great Britain. “I would hope that if he was alive today, he would look at what we did and would be happy,” Cooper says. “One of our favorite sayings on the film was ‘Nothing but hobbit footprints left behind.’” 

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