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FANTASY TV DOWN UNDER: NEW ZEALAND IS MORE THAN MIDDLE EARTH

LordoftheRings-NZNowadays putting fantasy fiction and New Zealand in the same sentence is hardly unusual. As the home of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the subsequent Hobbit movies, the country had been resoundingly stamped as a centre for fantasy film production and lovingly referred to by many as “Middle Earth”.

While these films and their director Peter Jackson (who also made King Kong and The Frighteners in New Zealand), have had a resounding impact on the country and its film industry, to suggest that they are its only foray into fantasy fiction would be to overlook other projects that call New Zealand home.

So, which fantasy film series and TV series have been shot in New Zealand, other than Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit?

TV SERIES

Image_HerculesHercules: The Legendary Journeys

This takes us back to the pre-Lord of the Rings days, and if you’re younger than 25, you probably won’t remember it. It was perhaps New Zealand’s first significant appearance on the international fantasy stage. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was an American TV show filmed in New Zealand between 1995 and 1999, and was popular at the time it aired. It was based on the ancient Greek legend of Hercules and his various exploits. It even spawned a spinoff that explored the Greek hero’s childhood years, Young Hercules, in which Hercules is played by a teenage Ryan Gosling.

Image_XenaXena: Warrior Princess

This was another Hercules spinoff, but it far outstripped its forerunner in popularity. Xena: Warrior Princess was once again shot in New Zealand, with Xena played by New Zealand actress Lucy Lawless. Set in an ancient Greece full of gods, heroes, warriors and villains, it follows the adventures of Xena and her best friend Gabrielle. The show was produced from 1995-2001 and garnered high ratings across the world, eventually gathering a cult following.

Image_SpartacusSpartacus

Now we’re getting into post-Lord of the Rings territory. However, the Spartacus TV series follows more in the footsteps of Hercules and Xena than Lord of the Rings, sharing many cast and crew with the two older TV shows. This gory, violent and gripping series was produced in New Zealand between 2009 and 2013, and ran for 4 seasons. It is based on the Greek story of Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator who led a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic. It also stars several New Zealand actors, including Lucy Lawless from Xena.

Image_PowerRangersPower Rangers

This long-running American children’s TV series has been shot in New Zealand since 2002 (it was previously shot and made in Los Angeles). If you watched this when you were a kid you may have fond memories… lots of costumes, super powers and teenage drama. Yes, the production values aren’t high, but children the world over have tuned in for over a decade to watch the Power Rangers fight evil.

Image_ShannaraChroniclesThe Shannara Chronicles

The Shannara Chronicles, a TV series based on Terry Brook’s Shannara fantasy novels, was also shot in New Zealand and recently premiered on MTV. Screen Auckland clearly helped to encourage the production’s filming in the region, as you can see in this FilmNZ article from the beginning of 2015, though New Zealand is already an attractive region for filming. It’s perhaps too early to say how well the show will do. This Variety review makes it clear it’s no Game of Thrones, and perhaps more in the light entertainment vein of something like Xena or Merlin, but the books on which it is based are popular in the fantasy community so it will be interesting to see how it progresses.

FILM SERIES

Image_AvatarAvatar

Principal photography for James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster Avatar took place in Wellington (and LA), and it’s been announced that the sequels will also be shot in New Zealand. It seems the government even increased tax rebate incentives for film production in the country to help win the project, and secured a deal for at least one world premier in Wellington.

Image_ChroniclesofNarniaThe Chronicles of Narnia

The first Narnia reboot, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) was shot mostly in New Zealand, as was much of the second film (2008), Prince Caspian. However, the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, was mostly shot in Australia.

WHY NEW ZEALAND?

New Zealand isn’t the only southern land playing host to fantasy and science fiction productions. Many have also been either wholly or partially shot in studios across the ditch in Australia too, for example Daybreakers, The Matrix, Mad Max, Nim’s Island, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even Star Wars (Episodes 1-3).

NZHowever, NZ has been a key filming and production location for some of the most popular and highest grossing fantasy productions of the last 30 years. And it’s easy to see why: it has beautiful, largely-untouched landscapes reminiscent of historic, medieval or fantasy worlds; it has grown its local talent and resources in the fields of special effects, props, sets, prosthetics, weapons, armour and costumes through productions like Lord of the Rings (WETA workshop has been involved with almost every single one of the above-mentioned productions); it provides a variety of tax incentives and financial advantages to filmmakers; and the value of the NZ dollar (usually lower than the American dollar) can also render production more cost-effective.

So in future, New Zealand’s love affair with fantasy film and television seems likely only to grow. With the two Avatar sequels set to shoot there the pattern is already continuing, and there’s little doubt we’ll see more of this island nation on screens across the world in the years to come. It seems in our modern age it’s one of those few real-world places where we can feel a little bit closer to fantasyland.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Great article, Nicola.

    Similar tax incentives from the UK Government right now: since Harry Potter did so well, The Forest of Dean area, for example, has seen inquiries on using the area up almost 50%. Star Wars was the most recent, with the filming and subsequent tourism bringing over £35m to their economy, but there are others like Assassin’s Creed and The Huntsman: Winter’s War both having parts of the movies shot there too, I believe.

    I worked for the Tourism Minister for a while and you get an insight into how important this kind of thing is. If it is too expensive to film in a certain area then the studio moves filming somewhere else and you lose not only the revenue from the studio using the area, but jobs for local people, the chance to showcase your scenery on a national stage, tourism revenue from people who want to visit the set, other studios seeing your area and deciding it is perfect for their future movies and so on.

  2. Avatar J says:

    You forgot Legend of the Seeker (which is, at least comparing the first couple eps of each show, remarkably similar to Shannara in looks and characters.) Another light and fun show, but I liked it better than I’m liking Shannara right now (though Manu Bennett is a standout there as he was on Spartacus) and FAR better than I liked the first book it was based on.

  3. Avatar Chrisanne says:

    Don’t forget Legend of the Seeker! Another gorgeous series.

  4. Avatar Patrick says:

    Tangenting to books (that’s allowed right) – worth mentioning Hugh Cook’s “Chronicles of an Age of Darkness”. NZ’s best fantasy series. Surely one of the most diverse fantasy epic creations despite only ever reaching 10 volumes. How many other fantasies feature a hermit crab deity, a unique magic system, newly formed religions and pirates.

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