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How Peter Jackson changed the face of cinema

“Filmmaking for me is always aiming for the imaginary movie and never achieving it.”—Peter Jackson

One of the first things that we realise while scrolling through the comments section of the YouTube video showing Peter Jackson winning the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is the fact that almost everyone—including me, and especially the advocates of fantasy films—acknowledge rather unanimously that during its year, none of the other nominations could even come close to challenging it for the ‘Best Picture’.

That is indeed saying quite a lot considering the other films competing for the coveted prize included Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s Brazilian crime epic City Of God and Sofia Coppola’s magnum opus Lost In Translation, among many other greats. No wonder it does not come as an exaggeration now when it is rightly identified as one of the greatest and most influential films ever made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, based on the third volume of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel of the same name, swept the Academy clean that year, winning all eleven awards for which it was nominated: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup, Best Original Score, Best Original Song for Into the West, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects, therefore tying the record for the most Academy Awards won by a single film and holding the record for the highest clean sweep at the Oscars.

While the Lord of the Rings franchise will undeniably remain as his most famous and celebrated project until the world’s end, the legendary Peter Jackson has directed, produced, acted in, and written movies for more than three decades now in the industry, making for an immensely enviable and successful period in the cinemas.

Born and raised in New Zealand, in the nearby coastal town of Pukerua Bay; around the age of nine, Jackson had attempted to remake his favourite film growing up, King Kong, using his own stop-motion models. He grew up watching the films of Ray Harryhausen, as well as finding inspiration in the television series Thunderbirds and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He also mentioned Martin Scorsese’s crime films Goodfellas and Casino as inspiration, remarking on “something about those particular movies and the way Martin Scorsese just fearlessly rockets his camera around and has shot those films that I can watch those movies and feel inspired.”

He had no formal training in filmmaking but learned about editing, special effects and make-up largely through his own trial and error. As a young adult, Jackson discovered the work of author J. R. R. Tolkien after watching the animated adaptation of Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, a project that was a part-adaptation of Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy.

Renowned for being a perfectionist on the set, Jackson’s works are characterised by his attention to detail, a habit of shooting scenes from many angles, a macabre sense of humour, and a general playfulness—the latter to a point that The Lord of the Rings conceptual designer Alan Lee jokingly remarked, “The film is almost incidental.” However, his greatest contribution to cinema is perhaps in his early use of computer enhancement technology in which he provided digital special effects to many Hollywood films.

When asked about his art, he quipped: “As a filmmaker, I believe in trying to make movies that invite the audience to be part of the film; in other words, there are some films where I’m just a spectator and am simply observing from the front seat. What I try to do is draw the audience into the film and have them participate in what’s happening onscreen.” 

Earlier in his career, Jackson started with the “splatstick” horror comedy Bad Taste and the black comedy Meet the Feebles, before filming the zombie comedy Braindead. He then made the successful transition to Heavenly Creatures which marked a significant and important change for Jackson in terms of both style and tone. The film received considerable critical acclaim, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay which led to Miramax promoting the film aggressively in America and signing the director to a first-look deal.

A few years later, he fulfilled his childhood dream of remaking the 1933 classic King Kong—the film that inspired him to become a film director from childhood. Universal Studios signed Jackson for the second time for King Kong, reportedly paying him a fee of $20million upfront—the highest salary ever paid to date to a film director in advance of production.

Jackson’s other major directorial efforts include the documentary film about the soldiers of the First World War, They Shall Not Grow Old; an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestseller, The Lovely Bones, and of course, The Hobbit.

Awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014, one of Jackson’s most important contribution to cinema was probably through his digital visual effects company Weta Digital, an outfit which accelerated and ushered in major technological advancements in the industry. Steven Spielberg also chose to work with Peter Jackson for The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn due to the impressive digital work on the Lord of the Rings films, a decision which was influenced by the knowledge that Peter Jackson’s company Weta Digital would make his vision a reality. Naturally, It received positive reviews and was a box office hit.

Despite peaking relatively early in his career and proceeding on to become the third-highest-grossing film director of all time already; Peter Jackson, as he gets a year older, continues to pursue his two passions— filmmaking and aviation—contentedly, looking forward to enthraling the audience for many more years to come and asserting his undeniable influence on the industry of cinema.

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