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Ghost in the Shell filmed on location in New Zealand

Ghost in the ShellHigh-profile sci-fi movie Ghost in the Shell filmed New Zealand capital Wellington as a futuristic city inspired by Hong Kong.

Scarlett Johansson stars in the story of a human/cyborg hybrid who battles criminals in a futuristic metropolis. The film is based on a Japanese animated feature of the same name that was first released in 1995.

The producers of the new Ghost in the Shell movie scouted Hong Kong and Shanghai for visual inspiration, but decided that another city with a similar look was needed for their new adaptation of the story.

“It came down to two key production decisions - where in the world could double for Hong Kong, and studio availability,” says Jared Connon, the film’s supervising location manager, in comments to KFTV.

“Wellington has a surprisingly similar geography to Hong Kong, with it being built on a harbour surrounded by steep forested hills.”

In addition, US studio DreamWorks had previous recent experience of filming in New Zealand – on period romance The Light Between Oceans, which Connon also worked on – and so the production team knew the terrain. 

Stone Street Studios in Wellington was used as the production base for Ghost in the Shell and Peter Jackson’s visual effects company WETA Workshop was involved with the design of the movie before Wellington was even confirmed as the main filming location.

“Building facades and street surfaces were utilised [in Wellington], but all were heavily enhanced with set dressing, set construction and of course visual effects for all the amazing holographic imagery intrinsic to the story,” Connon says.  

Wellington

“It was pretty surreal at times driving through downtown central Wellington and seeing a couple of blocks being transformed firstly into Hong Kong, and then further embellished with strange and wonderful science-fiction street furniture.

“One of the best additions was the street lighting. The designers really went to town here, with amazing LED lights installed in some great street furniture. The lighting and its programming was certainly a highlight for a lot of us working on the project.”

The producers selected a specific two-block section of the city and Connon and his team spent weeks planning a complete closed-set shutdown over two weekends. A perimeter barrier was set up to prevent bystanders taking photos of the costumed cast.

“We closed pubs, had gunfights in front of the central police station, kept all the surrounding office towers under full lockdown where possible and when not possible had people sign NDAs (Non-Disclosure Agreements) to not take photos of the filming in action.  

Ghost in the Shell“It was a mammoth task, and especially having to dress the streets overnight on a Friday in preparation for filming the next day, then pack it all down ready for business as usual on a Monday morning – then repeat the whole process again the following weekend.”

The team faced a major challenge keeping local residents and business owners happy, but everything was organised without any problems.

“Our 1st AD said it almost felt like a backlot as we’d set up such tight controls at every point,” Connon says.

New Zealand offers a base 20% filming incentive for international productions that can rise to 25% for productions that have particular economic benefits, which included Ghost in the Shell. Paramount Pictures spent $120m on production in New Zealand, including $60m on location filming in Wellington.  

The country has also recently hosted location filming for Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon and filmmaker James Cameron is scheduled to shoot multiple Avatar sequels from a Wellington base.  

Film production in New Zealand is generally based in the capital, but a new facility – Kumeu Film Studios – has now opened in the northern city of Auckland and offers the country’s first water tanks. 

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

Ghost in the Shell images: Paramount Pictures. Wellington image: iStock by Getty Images.