We were treated last week to the first official images from the set of The Hobbit, currently filming in New Zealand, and got our first look at Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins and Sir Ian McKellen reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey.

Then at the start of the week, we saw the cover of Empire magazine with Gandalf sporting a sneaky, knowing smile, and now Empire have given us two new images from the film’s first part, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, inside the August issue.

The first picture is very similar to last week’s first look at Freeman as Bilbo with the Company of Dwarves in the background, but it’s a little brighter, and it has the added bonus of being taken from a little further back than last week’s, revealing that Freeman is in fact wearing a rather excellent pair of shorts. And the second picture shows Gandalf in a dimmed Bag End, with a look on his face that McKellen does so very well, contemplating something of great import that’s troubling him. It’s a look we saw often through The Lord of the Rings, but it still doesn’t get old for me.

Peter Jackson began working on The Lord of the Rings more than a decade ago, with the project beginning back in 1997 ahead of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King being released in 2001, 2002, and 2003, respectively. And he sounds happy as ever to be returning to Middle-earth:

““I’m exactly the same filmmaker as I was ten years ago,” says Jackson. “I’m trying to nail the same thing that I did before. I’m just telling the story.” The only difference is that this time he has a bunch of snarky dwarves to corral. “They don’t know what to make of Gandalf, they think Bilbo is a wuss, and Elrond a prissy headmaster type,” laughs Jackson.”

Filming for the two-part film is currently underway over in New Zealand, and we can look forward to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on 14th December, 2012 and The Hobbit: There and Back Again on 13th December, 2013. It will see the return of many of the cast from The Lord of the Rings, like McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom, Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, and Christopher Lee, as well as some excellent new additions for the new characters, including Freeman himself, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Evangeline Lilly, and Benedict Cumberbatch. These new images are reminding me just how brilliant The Lord of the Rings films are, and I can’t wait to see what Jackson makes of Tolkien’s earlier novel.

Without further ado, here are those great new images. As usual, click to enlarge.