A Utah professor helped hobbits find their voice

Dialect coach • Working on "The Hobbit" was "really quite amazing."
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Elves speak with Celtic or slightly Welsh accents, dwarves sound more Yiddish or Germanic, and hobbits are as British as Queen Victoria.

Those are the lessons that Sarah Shippobotham, assistant professor in the University of Utah's theater department, imparted to the actors during an eight-month stint in New Zealand as a dialect coach on the movie "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," now playing in theaters worldwide.

"Orchish was my favorite," Shippobotham said from Bristol, England, where she's spending the holidays. "There's something about the guttural short sounds. It's quite an aggressive feel to it. It would be difficult to tell someone you love them [in Orchish]. It's quite ugly, but beautifully ugly."

Shippobotham, director of the U. of U.'s Actors Training Program, got the job after exchanging emails with an old classmate who had landed a job as a dialect coach on "The Hobbit," the prequel to Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The production was looking to hire another dialect coach, and Shippobot­ham got the nod.

Teaching the dialects of an invented language wasn't too difficult, Shippobotham said, because the rules for Elvish, Dwarfish and Black Speech (the language of the Orcs) had been established by the language experts who worked on Jackson's original "The Lord of the Rings."

"They taught me the rules of how the languages work," she said. "I had a recording so I could go away and learn them."

It was Shippobotham's first time on a film set, which she called "really quite amazing." "I've never worked amongst so many people before," Shippobotham said of the crew, which numbered more than 750. "There's a real sense of camaraderie, considering it's such a huge enterprise. In the film world, there's a lot of sitting around — waiting for sets to be built, or lights to be reset, or shots to be set up."

The experience gave her an appreciation for all the minutiae behind the scenes. While in New Zealand, Shippobot­ham went to a movie and stayed through the credits "to look for titles like 'Transport Coordinator.' I know that person now."

And even before "The Hobbit" opened in theaters earlier in December, Shippobotham could hear her handiwork. In the trailer for "The Hobbit," one can hear a hobbit say "Where you off to, Mr. Bilbo?" in a Gloucestershire accent to the film's hero, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman).

When Shippobotham returns to Utah in January, she will start work on cultivating another accent — this time for herself. She will be acting in a U. of U. production of the musical "Spring Awakening" set for April at the Babcock Theatre. "I have to polish my American accent," she said.