The Hobbit Trilogy Comes to Life with Media Composer Magic

Breaking New Technological Ground with Media Composer

Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series is one of the most highly anticipated film trilogies in recent memory. To bring the beloved story to life, Jackson utilized groundbreaking technology and the combined effort of a seasoned band of pros. Helping Jackson to achieve his bold vision was longtime collaborator Jabez Olssen, who first worked with the director in 2000 as an assistant editor and operator on the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Olssen has now been tapped to be sole editor on all three Hobbit films—and Media Composer is his key to success.

Five Months to Lock the Cut

As with the Rings films, production for the three Hobbit movies was shot in a single eighteen-month stretch. The huge technological undertaking involved as many as 60 RED Digital Cinema EPIC cameras rigged for stereoscopic (3D) filming. Ultimately, the schedule only allowed Olssen five months after the production wrapped to lock the cut and get the first release—The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—ready for theaters.

To deliver on time, Olssen relied upon a post production infrastructure built around Avid gear. Thirteen Media Composer stations, including 10 with Nitris DX hardware, served as the workflow for editing. All production facilities were networked via fiber and connected to an Avid ISIS 7000, which provided 128TB of shared storage. And storage was critical—the three films totaled 2200 hours of footage, or the equivalent of 24 million feet of film.

The editorial team consisted of eight assistant editors, including three visual effects editors. The pipeline they used was similar to a film project. “We think of the RED camera media files as a digital negative, Olssen explains. “Peter’s facility, Park Road Post Production, functioned as the digital lab. They took the RED media from the set and generated dailies for the Assistant Editors—who then synced, subclipped and organized clips into the Avid projects. Since we were all on ISIS shared storage I could access the bins and the footage, even when I was on set, as soon as the guys had it ready. Thanks to the Avid workflow, working with RED files was no different than a standard film production.”

Cutting in Comfort

 Thanks to the Avid workflow, working with RED files was no different than a standard film production.
Jabez Olssen
Editor, The Hobbit trilogy

During production of The Hobbit trilogy, Olssen enjoyed the flexibility that the Avid system provided. “The fiber channel connection to ISIS allows us to run much longer distances,” he relates. “This enabled me to work on the set with a portable Media Composer system.”

The latest-generation technology offered creature comforts as well. “We had a camper van outfitted as a comfortable mobile editing room,” continues Olssen. “We called it the EMC—‘Editorial Mobile Command’. It allowed us to quickly screen edits during production breaks.”

The main editing room featured a full-blown Media Composer system with Nitris DX hardware connected to a 103” plasma screen for Jackson. The original plan was to cut in 2D and then periodically consolidate scenes to conform a stereo version for screening in the Avid. Instead they took a different approach. “Peter was comfortable cutting the film in 2D,” explains Olssen. “This was equally important, since more theaters displayed the 2D version of the film, but every few weeks, Park Road Post Production would conform a 48fps stereo version so we could screen the cut. Although you often have to tweak the cuts after screening a film in 3D, I found we had to make far less changes than expected. It helped that we could judge a cut straight from Media Composer on a 103” screen, instead of relying on a small TV monitor.”

Diving Deep into Media Composer

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey features several computer-generated characters, including Gollum (played by Andy Serkis) and Azog (played by Manu Bennett). The characters were created via performance capture technology, which involves filming the actors live, then using CGI to animate the character models. Editing the Gollum and Azog scenes was a complex job for Olssen, but Media Composer proved ready for the task.

“It was easy to visualize the Gollum scenes because Andy Serkis was captured in the actual live action footage,” says Olssen. “However other characters like Azog were shot separately on a performance capture stage, which required us to layer separate material into a single shot. We were cutting vertically in the timeline as well as horizontally. In the early stages, many of the scenes were a patchwork of live action and placeholder animations, so I used PIP effects to overlay elements to determine the scene timing. “Naturally, I had to do a lot of temp green-screen composites,” he continues. “The dwarves are full-size actors, so for many of the scenes we had to scale them down and reposition them in the shot.”

One Down, Two to Go

 The stability and reliability of Media Composer allows us to deliver challenging films like The Hobbit on a tight schedule and know the system won’t let us down.
Jabez Olssen
Editor, The Hobbit trilogy

Hobbit fans are eagerly anticipating the next two films in the series, which means the adventure continues for Jabez Olssen. Many editors would be reluctant to update their software on such a long-term project, but not Olssen. “I actually like to upgrade, because I look forward to the new features,” he shares. “Other nonlinear editing software packages are fine for one-man bands, but Media Composer is the only software that works for a huge visual effects film. You can’t underestimate the value of enabling all assistant editors to open the same projects and bins. The stability and reliability of Media Composer allows us to deliver challenging films like The Hobbit on a tight schedule and know the system won’t let us down.”