100% filmed in New Zealand

74 principal photography days filming in New Zealand

1040 crew (810 New Zealanders)

40 cast (31 New Zealanders)

Screen Incentives

Disney’s Pete’s Dragon qualified for the New Zealand Government’s international screen incentive, the New Zealand Screen Production Grant (NZSPG), which offers a 20% cash rebate on Qualifying New Zealand Production Expenditure (QNZPE). Qualifying costs include most New Zealand goods and services, cast and crew remuneration (including for international personnel, under certain conditions) and travel. Overall, Pete’s Dragon brought over $87million in qualifying spend to New Zealand by choosing to locate here.

Feature films with QNZPE of NZ$15million or more may be eligible for the NZSPG. Options for television, other non-feature formats and post/VFX work are also available. Click here for more information.

Disney’s Pete’s Dragon was also successful in securing the NZSPG’s 5% Uplift. The production provided opportunities to showcase New Zealand’s creative ability as a screen production location while also providing major economic benefits and a significant boost to the country’s thriving screen industry and tourism industry.  

Key elements included: 

  • A collaborative marketing partnership agreement between Tourism New Zealand, Film New Zealand and Walt Disney Pictures for Pete’s Dragon;
  • At least 90 per cent of the shoot will be located in New Zealand, and six key personnel roles and 75 per cent of the crew roles will be filled by New Zealanders;
  • Walt Disney Pictures will provide a skills and talent development programme, including creative mentorship for a team of New Zealand writers and an associate producer role for an emerging New Zealand producer.

Keep reading for more on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon’s time in New Zealand.

On location

Disney’s Pete’s Dragon was filmed entirely in New Zealand, at Stone Street Studios and on location in Wellington, Rotorua, Tapanui and Queenstown.  

Director David Lowery said New Zealand had a variety of landscapes and a "timeless quality" that meant it could be easily transformed into 1980's small town America for the film.

“New Zealand was the perfect place to film Pete's Dragon because it feels timeless in the same way that the movie does. It doesn't feel like it belongs to any specific era, you can walk outside, walk fifty feet down the road, and feel like you're in the middle of a forest that's been around since the beginning of time. We wanted to tap into that, we wanted to utilize that.” David Lowery (director)

Production began with two weeks at Stone Street Studios in Wellington, the studio founded by filmmaker Sir Peter Jackson.

The rest of the shoot was based on location, beginning in Wellington at Hutt Hospital, Heretanga, Rata Rd, Hutt River and Battle Hill Farm Park. 

The forest scenes for Disney’s Pete’s Dragon were shot in a forestry area near Rotorua and Tokoroa in the Central North Island. The forest is home to giant Californian Redwoods, which made it the perfect double for America. 

Three days was also spent filming in a house on the outskirts of Rotorua (Ngongotaha), with cast and crew based largely in Rotorua during the duration of the shoot.  

In the South Island, the quaint town of Tapanui (West Otago) population 900, was made into Millhaven. Many of the local businesses were transformed and the town's main street was closed off for a week, with several locals acting as extras. The crew also utilized the nearby Conical Hill sawmill.

Queenstown’s mountainous landscape was captured both on the ground and from above. Aerial footage taken by helicopter was used to depict Elliot’s flight and the film's final scenes took place at Deer Park Heights, overlooking lake Wakatipu.

The unique light in New Zealand was a major drawcard for Director David Lowery.

“As you make films in different parts of the world, you realize that light everywhere is a little bit different. And in New Zealand it definitely is a little bit brighter, it feels like you walk outside, and you can feel your eyes adjusting to the light in a different way and the cameras have to do the same thing. And it just gave those redwoods that we were shooting in a majesty that they wouldn't have had otherwise. And when you look at the raw footage of this kid running through the woods, it feels like it’s got special effects, but it was just the light- it felt completely surreal and beautiful and we just turned the cameras on and captured it.” David Lowery, director

Visual Effects

  • 150 WETA Digital staff involved (30 core)
  • 20 million CGI hairs created for Elliot (20x more than King Kong)
  • Most shots took 2 days to render
  • 50 million hours to render entire film

Weta Digital, the visual effects company founded by filmmakers Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor, utilised the latest in digital effects to bring Elliot the dragon to life. 

Filmmakers wanted Elliot to connect emotionally with the audience despite being 50-foot long, 3 tonnes, with 20 million hairs with 8” claws.

Weta Digital’s animators worked to make him expressive but still deeply rooted in animalistic behaviours. This helped the audience relate to him, much like they would a pet.

To do so Weta Digital used extensive real-world reference to come up with his movements—cats, dogs, elephants, lions, foxes, eagles, albatrosses and meerkats. His flying style, “paddling” through the air, was inspired by footage of a polar bear swimming. His “invisibility”, blending into the background, has its basis in the way a cuttlefish uses camouflage to hide in plain sight.

Finally, Elliot had to be slimmed down, so he could fit into the New Zealand landscape, particularly the forest scenes.


New Zealand crew

Over 800 crew worked on Disney's Pete's Dragon.

Director David Lowery said the New Zealand crews’ professionalism and positive attitude left him wanting to film all his movies in New Zealand.

"I would love to make every movie I make in New Zealand just to work with the crews there, because they were just phenomenal.” David Lowery, director.

Executive producer Barrie Osborne shared this sentiment, believing the combination of the landscapes and people make New Zealand a desirable destination to make films.

“New Zealand was the perfect place to film both for its environment but also for the people and the attitude of the place. There are beautiful forests, incredible untouched land. “You know, working on Pete's Dragon just reconfirms what I know and love about New Zealand. People are innovative, enthusiastic, and it feels more like you're working with a really collaborative group of people that all have one interest, and that's to make the best possible film we can make.” Barrie M. Osborne, executive producer.

Choosing New Zealand was easy, according to President, Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production Sean Bailey.

“New Zealand was ideal for a number of reasons.  The scenery is unique, the crews are of the highest caliber, the New Zealand people are amazing, and the actors just love coming here.”

About Disney's Pete's Dragon

A reimagining of the 1977 Disney classic, Pete’s Dragon is the adventure of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon. 

The film is directed by David Lowery and stars Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), rising young star Oakes Fegley (This is Where I Leave You), Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games), New Zealander Karl Urban (Star Trek), Oona Laurence (Southpaw) and Oscar® winner Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier). 

© Walt Disney Studios