Arguably one of the most sought-after panels in a stacked Hall H schedule Saturday at Comic-Con International in San Diego, audience members camped out in line overnight and packed into seats for a glimpse at The Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson's return to the J.R.R. Tolkien universe, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
To mark the occasion, widescreen TVs at the front of the room were revealed from behind curtains, displaying behind-the-scenes footage, photos and promotional artwork. Before anyone took the stage, the lights dimmed and Jackson appeared on video, introducing a featurette documenting the final days of shooting. The video included Comic-Con-specific greetings from the cast, shots of the lush Shire, glimpses of Lake-town and Rivendell, Orlando Bloom's Legolas in front of a green screen, Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins (most impressively, in a scene where he scaled mountains of gold and hidden treasure), Ian McKellen sauntering on set as Gandalf, and Andy Serkis dually reprising his role as Gollum and acting as second-unit director. But, more than any other detail, it also captured the family-like bonds of the cast and crew, their constant humor and spirit, and the poignancy ushered by their confetti-covered last day on set.
After the reel finished, Jackson walked out, phone in hand as he filmed the audience's roaring welcome (to be featured in an upcoming video blog). His one request from the audience: to yell, in unison, "Hi from Comic-Con!" All 6,500 in attendance acquiesced, in booming fashion, to which Jackson laughed, "No need for take two -- that was bloody good!"
Shortly afterward, co-producer and co-writer Philippa Boyens joined him, and Jackson cut right to the chase, introducing never-before-seen footage, with caveats. "The music tracks that you'll hear are just temp tracks -- Howard Shore hasn't started to record his music for this yet,” the director said. “I think he starts recording with the London Philharmonic in about five or six weeks. Most of the effects shots aren't finished. And also, even though at the end the title comes up The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there's a bunch of clips and shots in here from the whole story. It's not just the first movie -- just for Comic-Con!"
The lights dimmed to cheers, and the footage opened with the famed scene in which the wizard Gandalf recruits hobbit Bilbo to join a band of Dwarves on a quest to the Lonely Mountain to defeat the evil dragon Smaug (the nervous Hobbit is made to read through a funeral arrangement sheet, including a contract stating the crew cannot be liable for "lacerations, eviscerations, incineration ..."). Gandalf gallops over sweeping vistas and, at one point, admits the undertaking is "undoubtedly a trap." Another notable scene includes Bilbo and Gollum head-to-head in a game of wits, where we're treated to Gollum's burgeoning dual personalities, and also see Bilbo discover the One Ring (eventually hiding its existence from Gandalf).
Another scene features Gandalf and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) in her quarters looking out onto a heavenly setting as the queen asks, "Why the Halfling?" Gandalf responds, "It's the small things that keep the darkness at bay ... it's because I'm afraid, and he gives me courage." She comforts him, saying, "You're not alone. If ever you need help, I will come." The goblin tunnels, Legolas donning his bow and arrow, and various fight sequences with monsters of unusual size were also glimpsed.
Andy Serkis (Gollum), Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield), Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf) and special guest -- Frodo himself -- Elijah Wood (who returned to the set "to do a bit of work") joined Jackson and Boyens. The rest of the panel was handed over to the questions from fans, who eagerly asked about what they can expect out of Jackson's two Hobbit films (the second half of the story, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, is slated for release in December 2013).
Pressed for details about his trademark cameo, Jackson admitted, "I actually haven't shot my cameo yet, but I'm going to shoot it tomorrow when I get back to New Zealand!"
One fan admitted she made her father change a bunch of the male characters to females when he read her Tolkien's stories as a child, and asked how large Galadriel's role would be, as well as whether other female characters were added to the story. Boyens described Galadriel as "the most powerful being in Middle-earth at this time," and said Blanchett "immediately brings a very powerful female energy into the room." Although she also admitted, "We did feel the weight of it being a bit of a boys-only story." To this end, they created a character not seen in Tolkien's original text, an elf named Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly.
When asked what it was like acting in prosthetics, Freeman divulged of his oversized Hobbit feet that, "For the first few days it's a little bit like a fledgling duck sort of finding your flippers." Armitage said of being covered by Thorin's features, "You really have to work your face harder to portray what you're trying to express -- but by the end of the journey I couldn't work without it, and I didn't recognize the person underneath." Regardless, he admitted, "Managing the heat and stench of sweaty dwarf was a challenge."
McKellen's admirers were out in full force. One fan, who traveled all the way from Brazil for the panel, brought the actor a T-shirt signed by Brazilian MMA fighter Anderson Silva. He went on to ask Jackson if he'd adapt Tolkien's The Silmarillion for the big screen. The director said it's unlikely, as the collection is owned entirely by the Tolkien estate, unlike The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are owned by Warner Bros. and MGM. He also noted, to the surprise of a few, "I don't think the Tolkien estate like these movies at all, so I wouldn't imagine that The Silmarillion is going to go anywhere for quite a long time." A grateful fan thanked McKellen for paying a surprise visit to the folks camped out in line the night before, gushing, "You're totally awesome." McKellen, ever the gentleman, bashfully responded, "It was nice for me, too!"
Serkis was asked to do the voice of Gollum, to which he sighed dramatically and said -- in perfect pitch -- "For fuck's sake, do I have to do it?" The crowd roared at the treat of hearing the beloved character's voice dropping the F-bomb. He continued, "You said you weren't going to whore yourself, you said it!"
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens Dec. 14.