UPDATE 1-Thousands celebrate Hobbit premiere in New Zealand

* Costumed fans and Hobbit devotees turn out

* Peter Jackson says movie was a "difficult journey"

* Animal rights protesters claim cruelty

* Two more Hobbit movies in next 18 months

WELLINGTON, Nov 28 (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 metre (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 labour 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.

OLD FRIENDS

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 centre of several controversies,

including a dispute with unions in 2010 over labour 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 organisers 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.

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