Repurposing Paradise

New Zealand’s top location scouts discuss how they seek out and reframe paradise.

“Locations are not just wallpaper,” says New Zealand location scout and photographer, Dave Comer. “They have an emotive part to play in an image or film. It’s about how to see a landscape, and how to visually explore it; how to move through it and evoke emotional power.”

Sir Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy repositioned New Zealand on the world stage, and it was Comer who unearthed much of Middle Earth for the Tolkien narratives, researching and developing locations for The Lord of the Rings, and more recently, The Hobbit trilogy.

Comer has been scouting locations since before the term “location scout” came into usage in New Zealand. Having studied fine art photography at Canterbury University, he paired freelance photography and working with helicopters and jet-boats during the heyday of Fiordland’ wild venison industry. But it wasn’t until he was engaged to shoot stills as part of commercials in the Queenstown region in the 1980s that he moved into finding locations on a professional basis.

“Previously directors would have done their own scouting, or perhaps the art director might have stepped in,” says Comer. “What I seemed to offer was not only a photographer’s eye, but also a logistical and geographical sensibility. I knew the terrain, but I also had a particular curiosity. What seemed to be useful was a beachcombing mentality; finding treasures.”

So when it came to scouting for Jackson, Comer already had an array of locations found during years exploring the wild places of the New Zealand. The project presented an excuse to investigate further.

The site for the The Lord of the Rings hill-top fort of Edoras, for example, was a location squirreled away for years. “I knew that there were particular landforms in the Canterbury valleys, glacial remnants rising up out of the wide, braided, high country rivers. The moment I drove over the rise looking to Mount Sunday, I knew that this was it, a little hill on Mt Potts Station in the midst of the Rangitata Valley—Edoras, just as it was drawn in the book.”

Not every location was so straightforward. Hobbiton, for example, required thorough research across the entire country. Once Comer had narrowed down the Cambridge area, he hired a light plane to fly over areas inaccessible by road, followed by judicious door knocking—confidentiality was essential, such were the difficulties surrounding media and public attention.

“There are two aspects to documenting locations while scouting,” says Comer. “One is to provide information about the place—different angles, geography and surrounds, aspect to the sun. The other is to show the visual possibilities relating to the kind of shots that can be achieved. The balance of these two depends on the working relationship with the director or photographer.