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A digital journey through Middle Earth

A two-year collaboration between Warner Bros., Google and North Kingdom reaches its climax with a stunning 3D interactive digital extravaganza

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A two-year collaboration between Warner Bros., Google and North Kingdom reaches its climax with a stunning 3D interactive digital extravaganza

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Project: The Hobbit – A Journey Through Middle-earth
Web: middle-earth.thehobbit.com
Agency: North Kingdom Web: northkingdom.com

J. J. R. Tolkien could never have envisaged how his classic novel The Hobbit would be brought to life in the 21st Century. Was his vision set in text the one that Peter Jackson brought to the big screen?

There is no doubt that every reader interprets a story in a different way, and there will always be those who approve and those who don’t. Success suggests that the film series was well conceived. But, the film is only one arena that expresses the book.

As we all know the web is now an integral part of any promotion and the last in the series of companion sites is ‘A Journey Through Middle-earth’, which complements the worldwide release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies movie. This is an interactive digital experience with the aim to capture the richness and dynamism of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. It represents the last chapter of a two-year collaboration between Google, Warner Bros. and North Kingdom (www.northkingdom.com).

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The objective for Warner Bros. with this project was to use the interactive web to celebrate the rich world of Middle-earth drawn from all six films. For example, a special legacy of a Middle-earth trailer was cut across all six films that directed to the overall experience. There were also two experience-driven trailers created to run across the world’s cinemas ahead of the movie. The filmmakers were brought in to early discussions regarding the project and the studio was able to get their blessing on creating this experience.

For Google, the goal of this experience was to show the power and maturity that open-web mobile technologies, when supported by modern browsers, had to offer. For North Kingdom though, their goal was to help showcase how a design-driven approach can shape all kinds of new possibilities in the field of entertainment and technology. Building on the success of the first experience that was based on The Desolation of Smaug, this final iteration enabled the team to close the circle and therefore connect the story from The Battle of the Five Armies back to the film releases of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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The engaging journey begins on a beautiful, interactive map of Middle-earth that has been built from the ground up, from which fans can explore 21 new locations from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies. The map is rich with 3D animations, highlighting the paths of eight key characters in the film series, including Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf and Aragorn. These maps are based on Tolkien’s original maps, and this marks the first time that technology has been used to enable users to explore the rich, immersive universe of Middle-earth.

To deepen the experience, North Kingdom created experience Heroes’ Journeys, an area of the platform that will enable people to relive all of their epic Middle-earth adventures, from Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings to Bilbo’s final battle in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

With the conclusion of the series going full circle how did it all begin for North Kingdom? The team explains: “It all started last year when we were approached by Google to create a world-class immersive experience leveraging the latest Google technology for the second installation of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
“Before we began, we questioned its value and intentions because we wanted to ensure that our experience would honour the film’s storyline and capture the imagination of the fans that would transport them to the vibrant world of Middle-earth, in a mobile-first web experience.

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“Our first perception of this project was that we wanted to challenge ourselves and to really push the boundaries of what is possible in a digital experience and bringing the world of Tolkien to life in the digital realm for the millions of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings fans all over the world.

“For the final film, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, we pushed ourselves to dive deeper into Tolkien’s incredible world to be able to give the fans an epic experience for the conclusion of the journey through Middle-earth. For eight months, our team worked on updating the initial site platform extending Middle-earth so that it can actually bridge the worlds between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Our focus was on showcasing what is actually possible with new creative techniques and the latest technologies for Google Chrome.


“Weekly, iterative check-ins between Sweden and LA were common place as we used our ‘Big Brain’ work method to think through challenges and opportunities together”


“To further challenge the fans we have developed an innovative, peer-to-peer, social battle experience. This is where anyone can challenge their friends to a test of their might and skill, and they will then become a part of the epic Battle.”
To get an epic such as The Hobbit films off the ground, there needs to be some serious and well-organised communication between all of the companies that are involved in the project. With such huge stakes involved, close-knit work was critical as the team at North Kingdom explain: “This was a very high involvement project with close collaboration between Warner Bros., Google, North Kingdom and the filmmakers. Weekly, iterative check-ins between Sweden and LA were common place as we used our ‘Big Brain’ work method to think through challenges and opportunities together.

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“Every project works in a four-step process where the phases are named Discovery, Definition, Development and Deployment. To assure the quality of the project from all perspectives the project should begin with a Discovery phase where North Kingdom, Google and Warner Bros. investigate the project from a creative and user perspective. “From here we move into Definition – this is when the workgroup define design, technology, wireframes, budget and time together. We create the blueprint for how we will develop the project.

“Once this blueprint is agreed by all parties the team move forward into a Development phase. This is the production stage where the blueprint and all preproduction decisions become reality. Finally, the team move to deployment where the process of delivery, testing and securing all functionalities of the experience can be completed.


“Above all, the efforts to speak more frequently and more collaboratively lend themselves to a more responsive, fun and engaging project process”


“A typical work process like this will use cross-office coordination tools such as Basecamp and Google Hangout to ensure the teams are in sync with each other. This is vitally important for quality control purposes and for managing all the sign-offs. Every decision is taken from a user-first perspective and the process of iteration helps make this decision-making process inclusive.

“The overall idea with ‘Big Brain’ is that North Kingdom and its partners are shaping what’s best for the project together – eliminating hierarchies and giving an agile focus to the workflow. “Above all, the efforts to speak more frequently and more collaboratively lend themselves to a more responsive, fun and engaging project process. These conditions mean that we can take learning forward on a long range assignment and task the team with getting better at being better.”

Before a project gets anywhere near the design phase there is a lot of conceptual work to do. Ideas need to be worked on and formulated before the design process can begin. With previous history already in the bank North Kingdom took a look back to move forward. “Everything we learned from working on last year’s The Desolation of Smaug experience we tried to bring with us into this year. The film is the epic conclusion to Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films about The Hobbit, and one of Warner Bros.’ most important theatrical movie releases for Q4 2014.”

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With a winning legacy in place, the launch needed to be spot on for the teams if the project was going to brought together for the end product. It needed to appeal to a cross-section of consumer and professionals. Here’s how it happened, “The experience had a PR plan attached to it and there were different players involved with the release.
“North Kingdom also created a cinema trailer for the interactive experience that would run before the film. In addition a special ‘Legacy Trailer’ was cut by Warner Bros. to tie all six films together – this resulted in a call to action that pushed to the experience also.”

For the developer community, Google released several blog posts co-authored by the team at North Kingdom. They wrote a helpful tutorial detailing WebGL, the inclusion of WebRTC, developing peer-to-peer gameplay, and working on the game and all its parts with the game engine (http://www.html5rocks.com/en/tutorials/casestudies/hobbit2014) as well as a blog post (http://chrome.blogspot.se/2014/11/walk-in-footsteps-of-heroes-in-journey.html).

In addition the project has been tweeted to millions of fans through Google’s account (via Chrome and the official Google account). Plus, key fan sites were recruited to support the social media activation too, such as theonering.net together with the official account from Warner Bros. The final part of the process is typically postlaunch and North Kingdom is no different. They look to provide support and aftercare until the project no longer graces the web as they explain here: “What we offer in terms of post-launch coverage is that the original team members who produced the site experience is available to consult, support and debug in the event any site bugs may come up postlaunch. We are wholeheartedly dedicated to ensuring the site is functioning properly and as intended as we have agreed in our scope of work.”

http://middle-earth.thehobbit.com

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