By Piya Sinha-Roy
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Director Peter Jackson took loyal fans at Comic-Con on a journey back to Middle Earth on Saturday with footage of his upcoming film fantasy "The Hobbit," calling the new epic "made by fans, for fans."
Many die-hard loyalists from Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" series waited overnight at the giant pop culture showcase in San Diego to attend a panel where Jackson was joined by actors Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, script writer Philippa Boyens and surprise guest Elijah Wood.
The panel opened with a 15-minute behind-the-scenes video featuring interviews with the cast and crew as well as footage from scenes featuring explosions and fights, which the audience welcomed with deafening screams.
McKellen, who plays wizard Gandalf, earned a standing ovation as he came on stage for the panel.
Another 12-minute clip showed scenes from the film, including how hobbit Bilbo Baggins joined 13 dwarves on a quest to rescue a lost dwarf kingdom from the clutches of evil dragon Smaug, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and Bilbo's life-changing meeting with Serkis' Gollum, whose "precious" ring was the subject of the "Rings" trilogy.
"Rings" characters Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) also return, and the clips introduced a new female character, Tauriel played by Evangeline Lilly, who was not part of the books, but Boyens assured fans she stayed true to Tolkien's characters.
Wood, who shot to fame as Frodo Baggins in the "Rings" trilogy had yet to see any footage of the film and joined the audience in their enthusiasm. The trilogy - "The Fellowship of the Ring," "The Two Towers" and "Return of the King" - earned $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office and won 17 Academy awards.
"I was blown away, extraordinary, the footage was incredible but it has these emotional moments, and that's at the heart of what Peter does," said Wood. "It's beautiful. I was made to feel emotional watching that footage."
FIRST OF TWO-PART PREQUEL
British actor Freeman, who plays the reluctant hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins, said the director and old "Rings" cast welcomed him warmly to the new film, relieving any worries he may have had about playing such a well-known literary character.
"I honestly didn't feel a huge amount of pressure," said Freeman. "I had to find my way into it. I didn't just fall into the character of Bilbo. Peter and I had to develop that together ... but I wasn't intimidated."
Serkis, who returned to play Gollum in "The Hobbit," was also brought on as a second-unit director for the film, an experience which he said was "a dream to behold."
"It was a remarkable and extraordinary experience - one for working with Martin, it was great to work opposite him, and then I began a process of jumping into the director's chair. ... It was a huge film education for me, enabled by the greatest mentor possible. Peter's been an immense part of my life for the last 12 years," Serkis said.
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is the first of a two-part prequel adapted by director Jackson from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," the prelude to his epic fantasy trilogy "Lord Of The Rings." The film is due in theaters on December 14.
The story begins with hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who embarks on a quest through the treacherous Middle Earth, forming relationships with characters like Gandalf, warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) and Gollum.
Veteran actor McKellen, who also played Gandalf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, told reporters ahead of the panel that he was happy to reprise his character.
"It was lovely to be back in New Zealand with the people who make the films, many of whom were on Lord of The Rings 13 years ago, so it's been a little bit like going home," McKellen said.
(Reporting By Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Todd Eastham)