When it comes to war, Peter Jackson is a true veteran. If Middle-earth gave out campaign medals, his would be engraved with names like Hornburg, Isengard, Pelennor Fields and Morannon.
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The Lord of the Rings films delivered some of the biggest battle scenes ever committed to screen. He looks set to outdo himself once again for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which promises a climactic conflict so gargantuan, the film's title was changed - from the decidedly less exciting There and Back Again - to reflect it.
Flashback: It's the last chunk of shooting on Jackson's sixth Tolkien-derived epic. TimeOut has joined the director and his cast and crew on the outdoor set of the Smaug-desolated town of Dale to witness the filming of a particularly critical moment in the titular conflict.
Without spoiling anything major, the scene features Martin Freeman's Bilbo, Ian McKellen's Gandalf and Luke Evans' Bard The Bowman in the midst of battle.
After fighting off some goblins (who, pre-Weta Digital-wizardry are stuntmen in black leotards), Bilbo addresses a crisis of faith in his compatriots by giving a short, inspiring speech and symbolically planting an acorn.
The act speaks directly to Tolkien's theme of greatness coming from the smallest of things, and it's fascinating to witness Jackson and Freeman's discussion of the scene between takes.
They're cycling through various tonal interpretations - the first take is deadly serious. The second, a little more comically exasperated on Bilbo's part. The third take has a poetic solemnity.
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"Sometimes it needs that," Freeman later says about the scene's evolution. "Ideally, it's a collaborative process, and I think it works best when it is. Because [the scene] did get better. So, yeah, there's a lot of that.
"If there's something not working, I will always say it. Pete wants to hear it, and I certainly want to say it. Something that works okay when you read it to yourself is very, very different from playing it out."
The scene is one of the more intimate moments in what promises to be a Middle earth-shattering throwdown: The vast treasure of the Lonely Mountain (aka Erebor) that featured so heavily in The Desolation of Smaug is up for grabs, and everyone wants a piece.
The dwarves have been planning to reclaim it from the get-go, but that doesn't stop the Mirkwood Elves (led by Lee Pace's Thranduil) and the Men of Lake-town (led by Bard) from setting out to get theirs.
Once the goblins enter the picture, epic hell breaks loose. As for who (or what) makes up the fifth army - well, you'll just have to see the movie. Or read the book.
Although it takes up barely 10 pages in The Hobbit (including flashbacks), the "very terrible" Battle of the Five Armies is reportedly to be 45 minutes of screen time in the finished film. Once again, greatness is destined to come from something small. But there was plenty to work from, according to Jackson.
"Tolkien described the battle in its strategic terms quite well and we're sort of reasonably following his blueprint," he says. "Dale is a city outside of Erebor and it's a strategic location in the battle. It's almost like one of those situations where the forces that control Dale will control the battle. So the fighting's sort of fiercest in this city." That's not to say there'll be any lack of large-canvas warfare - quite the opposite in fact. And Jackson and his collaborators are applying the lessons learned on The Lord of the Rings to ensure the conflict remains captivating cinema.
"When we were doing the battles of Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith, when we are actually in the cutting room editing a battle together, you don't want to go for more than two or three shots without seeing one of your lead characters. Once you're just watching extras, or stunt people or CGI fighting, fighting, fighting ... Two or three of those shots, you really feel like you need to go back to the story.
"And the characters also have to be driving the story. So just having Gandalf or Bard or whatever fighting, that's okay to a point, but it doesn't carry plot. So what we do try and do is to have our storylines of the film carrying on through the middle of the battle, because at least then you are still following the story even though there's suddenly a battle raging around, there's still characters on a journey, and relationships and conflicts."
Freeman agrees that the conflict can't succeed on spectacle alone: "The battle is the size of London, it just goes on forever, involving hundreds of thousands of combatants. But the fun bit for me is when you see it's the human or hobbit moments within that you make a connection with.
"It's what I always think Peter is good at. He will cut away from a huge action scene to actually see what the human cost of something is, so that you're actually relating to a character as opposed to just a guy doing fighting."
Readers of the book will be aware that Bilbo is knocked unconscious early on in the battle, missing most of the action. Which was never going to be appropriate for the protagonist of a movie.
"Yeah, I think you see Bilbo a bit more [in the film's version of the battle]," says Freeman. "He definitely gets involved. Yeah, because he's covered in blood, orc blood, so he has been amongst it. He's been making himself known. Yeah, so he has clearly got better at fighting. I think he's still shaky, but miraculously, he has learnt how to defend himself."
The artistic licence extends to what threats Bilbo will be defending himself against - things never before glimpsed in Jackson's Tolkien films.
"Huge battle trolls, massive warmongering creatures. Insane levels of military-bred creatures," Weta head honcho Richard Taylor tells TimeOut.
"Some would argue, 'Yeah, but that wasn't written about in The Hobbit.' You have to go deep into Tolkien's literary history and all of it has basis in his writing. None of it is not touched by what he described at some level. This is a journey movie that culminates in an epic battle of significant proportions, possibly one of the bigger battles ever seen on screen. It will be the most complex battle scene on screen, and I would imagine because Tolkien wrote of such a unique piece of military stratagem."
Now that the cinematic saga is finally coming to a close (nobody mention The Silmarillion), Jackson's mind is on the films' legacy.
"I think that making these films in the order that we did, I'm glad that we didn't do The Hobbit first, because if you took that book on by itself, you would tend to naturally make a children's story because it's very much a children's book. And if you went on after that and tackled The Lord of the Rings, there'd be a sort of a difference. You'd be suddenly going into something much darker. But because we've done it back-to-front it's actually quite interesting the way that we can start The Hobbit with that slightly more whimsical, you know, lightweight tone at the beginning but we can slowly, as the story progresses, be taking it to where it's going to be: naturally a successor to The Fellowship of the Ring. At the end of the day, people are going to look at six movies and a box set, in years to come. So I sort of wanted consistency."
Who: Peter Jackson, Martin Freeman and others
What: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
When and where: Opens at cinemas on December 11
Also: World premiere in London on December 1 (Dec 2 NZ time)
Photos: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
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