In the News: The Knight Shift - The Dominion

Not explicitly about Lord of the Rings, but there are quite a few references to the Peter Jackson production in this article... Thanks to Susan for emailing it over!

The Knight Shift
The Dominion - March 11, 2000

Knight hero Ivanhoe is about to come to life on television. The technically ambitious production is yet another project feeding Wellington's growing film industry, writes Alan Samson.

For Richard! For England! Though less well known to today's children than Robin Hood, noble Wilfred of Ivanhoe, son of Cedric, was just as passionately devoted to restoring the Saxon line to the throne of England.

Dedicated to the overthrow of bad King John and the return of Richard the Lion-Heart, Ivanhoe, the character in Walter Scott's 1819 book of the same name, is a swashbuckling knight and lover whose exploits are guaranteed to get readers' hearts pumping.

Best of all, the medieval "dark knight" and his men are flashing their swords at this moment in and around Wellington.

Filming of the $20 million, 13-episode series, destined for British television is well advanced at the Hutt's Avalon studios. It is one of three film and television dramas under production in the Wellington area. But alongside the fantasy trilogy The Lord Of The Rings and the children's post-apocalyptic television series The Tribe, Dark Knight has passed almost unnoticed. Except, that is, by startled passers-by at location shoots such as Kaitoke where a reader, who thought he was "seeing things", noticed a group of knights on horseback gallop past.

Other strange goings on have been noted at Belmont, Naenae, and the beaches beyond Wainuiomata.

"It's England being shot in New Zealand," says the producer, former Avalon general manager and Television New Zealand executive Phil Wallbank.

The production, a joint venture between Mr Wallbank's company, Palana, and British company Dark Knight Producitons, is notable for its computer wizardry.

With a permanent crew of about 100, it may be a much smaller production that Lord Of The Rings, but from the mind of Mr Wallbank's partner, Terry Marcel, has sprung a magical world of computer-generated elves, goblins and demons.

The special effects producer, and managing director of Sector 14 special effects company, Shaun Vize, says: "Everything you can think of, we've created. We don't use prosthetics, it's all full computer generated imagery [CGI]. It's the first time it's been used to this extent in this country."

The technology, similar to that being used by Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, is of such sophistication, that, according to Mr Vize, between the two productions most of the world's experts in their field have been attracted to Wellington.

The role of Ivanhoe is played by English actor Ben Pullen, best know as Minnie Driver's love interest in The Ideal Husband. He has just completed a new film, L'Intern in which he plays the romantic lead opposite Dominique Swain of Lolita fame.

His love interest, Rebecca, is a relatively new English actress, Charlotte Comer, who has a dance background and is a graduate of London's Drama Centre.

The comic relief comes from Royal Shakespeare Company actor Peter O'Farrell who plays Odo, the comic Dwarf and friend to Ivanhoe and Rebecca. The 1.4 metre (4ft 8in) former jockey has played numerous roles from Tom Thumb to Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew.

But the actor who may catch the imagination is Welsh-born Jeffrey Thomas of Shark in the Park fame. Thomas plays Mordour, the black magician.

Wellingtonian Cameron Rhodes, who has perfomed in a variety of local and international film and theatre productions from Xena: Warrior Princess to Sweeney Todd, is the evil Prince John. Todd Rippon plays the bald and brutish Norman knight, Falco. Rippon was Macon the Murderer in Xena and has had several roles in other local productions.

Another local on display is 21-year-old Auckland actress and model Marama Jackson, as Rowena -- Ivanhoe's love interest, apart, that is, from his simmering passion for Rebecca.

Desmond Kelly, who has appeared in several films from Smash Palace to The Navigator, is Fingal, the last of the Druids, who acts as a sort of spiritual guide to Ivanhoe.

Michael Wilson, a longstanding comedian -- also the voice behind the Y2K cockroach -- plays Friar Bacon, "a man of God and science" who also supports the good knight.

John Bach, the star of Duggan, is the fierce knight templar, Brian de Bois-Guilbert.

Behind the scenes is animal wrangler Caroline Girdlestone, internationally renowned for her skill in training animals. She coached the cute pigs used in the two Babe films. Watching her at work draws gasps of wonder as the actors repeat several takes involving the freeing of a pair of white doves: each time they fly gently on to the arm of a nominated actor. Oozing praise for Girdlestone, Mr Wallbank says: "There are a lot of animals . . . horses every day, donkeys, pigs and sheep. The animal wrangling is pretty key."

Just as impressive is the setting, a stark castle hidden in the middle of the Avalon studios. And, of course, it's not just a castle. In some computer-enhanced scenes, it becomes nine storeys tall to represent an entirely different fortress, in others scenes it is no longer recognisable as a castle. Nearly, a medieval village has been built among real, rather than computer-generated, pine trees. However, the collection of buildings is a facade. Only the stable doors open for a glimpse of barn interior suitable for rustic swordplay.

There are more gems. Inside the Avalon studios, a few metres from the What Now? Studio, there is a cavernous cathedral -- or fortress -- interior. There is also a peasant's house interior, the rough bed unlikely ever to be graced by hero Ivanhoe.

And Mr Wallbank alludes to some "caves" and "tunnels" at a site in Naenae. Mr Vize smiles; modular interiors can be squickly shifted and, anyway, as he later demonstrates, computers can turn rooms into anything he wants them to be.

"In the past, CGI has been treated as a post-production thing done offshore," he says. "Xena's was done out of Los Angeles . . . it's never been done on this scale in New Zealand before."

But what sort of production will viewers see? "Or catchcry is: 'The Sword in the Stone meets X-Files'," Mr Wallbank says. "It has more of a storyline than Xena or Hercules . . . it's more believable."

With the first two episodes finished, the producers are looking to an October release in Britain and, hopefully, soon after, in New Zealand. TVNZ has bought the programme which may screen before the end of the year.

Notes:
* Avalon studios -- TVNZ had a purpose-built multi-storey building at Avalon, in the Hutt valley. Very little of their studio work is done from there now -- it is done in Auckland. What Now? is a children's live tv programme based there, though.
* Y2K cockroach -- prior to 1st January 2000, there was a series of "informative" advertisements shown on New Zealand television encouraging folk to prepare for the start of year 2000 -- when there may be a need to have emergency supply of water and food, etc. The information was delivered by a "cockroach".
* Shark in the Park and Duggan have been two New Zealand-produced detective/police tv series.

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