Written by James Peak on Dec 24, 2009. Posted in Production News

Avatar filming in New Zealand

James Cameron’s hotly anticipated USD250 million sci-fi blockbuster Avatar has opened worldwide, with a record-breaking USD232.2 million dollar opening weekend, globally - putting it on course for a USD1.2 billion dollar gross.

Avatar is not just making headlines for these massive numbers, but also for Cameron’s groundbreaking use of new technology, including specially designed stereoscopic cameras, a new virtual camera system, and a 3D IMAX release. But alongside the 80% special effects, the shoot’s 20% live action principal photography took in such locations as Los Angeles, where Director of the California Film Commission, Amy Lemisch reports that Cameron “did a lot of stage work”, Hawaii, and particularly New Zealand.

So why did New Zealand get the nod for what has turned into the biggest film of 2009? Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy put New Zealand on the map as the go-to place for concept-SFX, through the envelope-pushing Weta Digital, owned by Jackson, and subsequently instrumental to the success of the King Kong remake, as well as X-Men 3 and I, Robot.

In the same way that George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch became an SFX epicenter in the 80s and 90s, the skills and talent at Weta rapidly attracted bigger and bigger shoots, and the New Zealand authority ‘Film New Zealand’ under Judith McCann, were quick to react to this success. Disney/ ABC’s 22 part TV series Legend of the Seeker is already shooting at the new Henderson Valley Studios soundstage, through Ghost House Pictures. Other recent features shot on location include Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones and Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as well as both Chronicles of Narnia features, and Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans.

The raft of robust and generous incentives available in New Zealand include the ‘Large Budget Screen Production Grant’ and ‘Post-Production Digital/ Video Effects Grant’- both as awesome in their scale as the New Zeland landscape itself. Grants are 15% of the New Zealand production expenditure, with no caps, which in blockbuster terms can mean enormous sums of bonus cash for the studios. The follow up incentive, for TV and features that have “significant New Zealand content” is the Screen Production Incentive Fund Grant, which is a grant of 40% of NZ production expenditure.

In addition, the versatility of the natural landscapes (snow, sub-tropical rainforest, farmland, beaches and reefs, modern cities like Auckland and period places like Wellington), the deregulated economy and the relaxed attitude and superhuman work ethic of the average NZ crew make a New Zealand shoot an effective way to extend a project past it’s budget. So whether you are shooting on the biggest scale imaginable, or you are an independent project with bigger dreams than pockets, New Zealand is a sensible place to look at.

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