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Pete’s Dragon filmed NZ as US Pacific Northwest

Disney’s loose remake of its 1970s adventure Pete’s Dragon doubled New Zealand for America’s Pacific Northwest.

The film tells the story of an orphaned boy raised in a remote forest by a friendly dragon he names Elliot. After several years in the wilderness the boy is rediscovered by local townsfolk who want to return the child to civilisation. Actors Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard lead the adult cast.

America’s Pacific Northwest may be picturesque but the region does not easily support Hollywood production due to a lack of filming incentives and studio facilities. 

Pete's Dragon behind the scenes

The Pete’s Dragon team considered Australia and Canada as alternative filming locations before opting for New Zealand’s visuals. Producer Barrie M Osborne already had extensive experience filming in the country, having worked on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. New Zealand also has a generous filming incentive programme.

“My primary objective was to find forest locations that matched as closely as possible to the forests located in the Pacific Northwest of America,” says Clayton Tikao, the film’s location manager, in comments to KFTV. 

“In the Rotorua/Tokoroa region of the North Island, there are extensive pine forests and road networks that are a good match. The pine forests in New Zealand are mostly farm plantation forests which allow us flexibility in terms of being able to manipulate the location for the look we are after.”

New Zealand forestElliot and Pete live in a treehouse in the forest, a location that was built both as a set in the woods and also on sound stages at Stone Street Studios and Avalon Studios in Wellington.

Plantation trees are grown specifically to be cut down for lumber and other resources, so the team arranged to clear trees for their set that were already mature and scheduled for ‘harvesting’. 

“We cleared over 50 mature pine trees to create the filming area and allow for rigging of sails, silks and wires for stunt work,” says Tikao.

“In total, we removed over 100 mature pine trees for the overall filming and for our unit bases.

“We were assigned expert loggers from the forestry company who were able to drop the trees in such a way as to minimise the damage to the surrounding trees.

“The central North Island of New Zealand has one of the largest manmade forests in the world and is approximately 1,000 square miles in size. The forests also have fully sealed private roads running through them.”

Tapanui in the Otago region of South Island stood in for the fictional Pacific Northwest town of Millhaven and a nearby timber mill, closed for two decades, became a key location.

“This proved to be an absolute gem as it contained numerous large interior spaces for filming which proved invaluable,” says Tikao.

New Zealand mountains

“All of the small-town exterior elements were filmed in Tapanui town and we closed the central part of the town for a week. Three hundred crew descending on a town of 900 people for over four weeks had a significant visual and economic impact on the area. The local pub did very well out of us!”

The New Zealand Screen Production Grant offers a base 20% cash rebate as a filming incentive for international producers. Pete’s Dragon qualified for the base rate plus New Zealand’s formal 5% Uplift support as a high-spending shoot that was largely crewed by locals and completed extensive visual effects work in the country.

Other recent high-profile movies to have filmed in New Zealand include Scarlett Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell, which shot in Wellington in April.

For more on filming in New Zealand see our production guide.

BTS image: Eric Zachanowich / Walt Disney Studios. Landscape images courtesy of Clayton Tikao.