By Gyles Beckford
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people packed New Zealand's capital city, clambering on roofs and hanging onto lamp posts on Wednesday to get a glimpse of the stars at the red carpet world premiere of the film "The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey".
Wellington, where director Peter Jackson and much of the post production is based, renamed itself "the Middle of Middle Earth", and fans with prominent Hobbit ears, medieval style costumes, and wizard hats had camped out the night before to claim prized spaces along the 500 meter (550 yards) red carpet.
Jackson, a one time newspaper printer and the maker of the Oscar winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy more than a decade ago, was cheered along the walk, stopping to talk to fans, sign autographs and pose for photos.
The Hobbit trilogy is set 60 years before the Rings movies, but Jackson said it has benefited from being made after the conclusion of the J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy saga.
"I'm glad that we established the style and the look of Middle Earth by adapting Lord of the Rings before we did the Hobbit," Jackson told Reuters from the red carpet.
Jackson, a hometown hero in Wellington, said the production had been on a "difficult journey", alluding to Warner Brothers' financial problems, and a later labor dispute with unions.
"Fate meant for us to be here," he told an ecstatic crowd, which hailed him as a film genius, but also a down to earth local boy.
"I came here to see the stars but also Peter (Jackson)...I loved the Lord of the Rings and that made me want to be here, without him none of it would be here," said teenage student Samantha Cooper.
The cast was no less enthusiastic about the Hobbit, especially those who had starred in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
British actor Andy Serkis, who plays the creature Gollum with a distinctive throaty whisper, said picking up the character after a near-ten year break was like putting on a familiar skin.
"I was reminded on a daily basis with Gollum (that) he's truly never left me," he said.
Most of the film's stars attended the premiere, including British actor Martin Freeman, who plays the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett, and Elijah Wood. Ian McKellen, who plays the wizard Gandalf, was absent.
Freeman, known for his roles in the comedy The Office and Sherlock Holmes, said he looked for a different, lighter, slightly pompous Baggins from the older, wiser character played by Ian Holm in the Rings movies.
"Between us - Peter (Jackson) and me -- we hashed out another version of Bilbo. There'll be others, but our version is this one and I hope people like it," he said.
The production was at the center of several controversies, including a dispute with unions in 2010 over labor contracts that nearly sent the filming overseas and resulted in the government stepping in to change employment laws.
The only sour note at the premiere came when animal rights activists held up posters saying "Middle Earth unexpected cruelty" and "3 horses died for this film", after claims last week that more than 20 animals died during the making of the film.
Event organizers tried to block out the protesters' posters with large Hobbit film billboards. Jackson has said some animals died on a farm where they were housed, but none had been hurt during filming.
The movies have been filmed in 3D and at 48 frames per second (fps), compared with the standard 24 fps, which Jackson has likened to the quality leap to compact discs from vinyl records.
The second film "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" will be released in December next year, with the third "The Hobbit: There and Back Again" due in mid-July 2014.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)