On my recent visit to New Zealand, I had the honour of visiting the renowned Weta Workshop, a leader in the field of design and manufacture of practical special effects. Perhaps most well-known for their contributions to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, their work spans far beyond into many recognizable blockbuster films and TV series; Weta Workshop has risen high since its humble birth in 1987 in the founders’ very own flat.
The talent and creativity involved to produce consistently breathtaking art is incredible. Whether it’s realistic props or costumes, entire rooms or even worlds, truly great special effects help to make new realities. Weta Workshop’s team of almost 200 is doing just that. I admit, I was half expecting to walk into another realm full of exotic flora and lurking creatures as I prepared to interview Weta’s Senior Communications Manager Erik Hay (yep – the palm trees and giant trolls outside of Weta Cave had stirred excitement). Yet, I was shown into a normal office with an impressive display of newspaper articles cut out and pinned up onto the walls. It quickly became clear that Erik’s laid back yet enthusiastic manner perfectly suited the core ethos of Weta Workshop. It is a place of creation, a place of adaptability, but above all else, it is a place of unity… where talented creatives work together without losing their individuality.
I chatted with Erik to find out more about Weta Workshop and their current plans.
Natalia: Thank you for taking the time to talk. So let’s get straight to it; would you describe what you do Weta Workshop as ‘art’?
Erik: *laughs* Yes, absolutely! Well, that’s my opinion anyway! I’d even go so far as to say we are living through an arts and crafts movement related to practical effects design, similar to the arts and crafts movements you learn about in Art History class, you know? I’d like to think that one day my kids, or my kids’ kids, might read about the incredible work that’s happening in film and entertainment at the moment in their text books. Who knows? Anyway, the crew here does terrific work. It’s all about ideas, design, craftsmanship, collaboration… Sure, it has a commercial beat to it. It kind of reminds me of those endless debates in design school: ‘Can art be commercial?’. For me the answer is definitely yes, it always has been! The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
N: Can you tell us more about what you do at Weta Workshop?
E: Here at Weta Workshop our focus has been concept design and practical effects for 20-odd years. Our friends down the road at Weta Digital cover visual or digital effects. [Practical effects are] stuff like creatures, costumes, special effects makeup, prosthetics, armor, weapons, vehicles, miniatures, bigatures and props. That said, there’s a real diversity to what we do here. It’s not simply a matter of ‘oh what film are you working on right now?’
Film is a huge part of it, sure, but we’re a well-diversified and multifaceted company. We do consumer products, tourism, design for public spaces and exhibitions, media production and behind-the-scenes, publication, IP development… we even have an interactive department that is working with mixed reality technology company Magic Leap on a game. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
N: Films these days seem to use both practical and digital effects. How does it work merging different aspects of special effects between Weta Workshop and Weta Digital when you’re working together on a project?
E: It’s definitely a team effort. Design work often starts here at the Workshop. Sometimes even prior to that; sometimes concept design comes from the director and the production company, sometimes we collaborate with them, and sometimes they leave it pretty much in our hands. The blue guys in Avatar, the Na’vi, their design… their entire culture were collaboration between our concept design team and Director James Cameron and his team… Interestingly enough, it started with designing their eating utensils. You can tell a lot about a culture from those. What they hunt. How they hunt. The materials they have on hand. Their way of life. Do they sit to eat? Do they eat on the run because they never feel safe to sit? All that stuff.
The cross over between Weta Workshop and Weta Digital is best, in my opinion, when there is a grey area of close collaboration, particularly in regards to creature design. Those guys are masters of breathing life and emotion into a character digitally. It’s great when early thoughts can be passed back and forth… built upon and refined. There’s A LOT that can be added to a character in the animation phase. How does it move? How does it emote? Often, Digi will also work to build out environments, or create whole environments from scratch. Then there’s all the atmospheric effects that help to bind a scene together.
Of course, we don’t work together on every project. We’re independent companies, and we collaborate with other special effects companies all over the world. It’s always nice when we can come together to work on something though. Krampus, which came out at the end of last year, was a good example of that.
N: So talking of the new Krampus film, did you do much of the special effects?
E: Yep, though much of the concept design came with the director, Michael Dougherty. He had a very clear vision for the show. We helped to refine it, and provided some additional characters and props. It was a very well conceived show on the part of the production company! Michael was clear from the outset that he wanted to use practical effects and puppetry wherever possible. Always a great brief for us! A real throwback to the company’s roots, and Richard and Tania’s early effect film projects like Meet the Feebles.
So, to answer your question, we manufactured all the creatures, save for the gingerbread men, who were done by our friends at Weta Digital. That sequence could not be easily achieved with puppets. I reckon it’s great that filmmakers have that choice these days. It’s not one or the other, it’s both in a measure that suits the tone of the film, and Krampus has a lovely tone, in my opinion.
We also designed and manufactured props, like Krampus’ sleigh. Man, that thing was enormous!
N: I have to say although I love CGI and I think some of the things it can do are amazing, there is certainly something different about more traditional special effects that you can feel with your own hands.
E: I reckon an interesting thing about digital effects is that, often, when they’re done well, you don’t notice them. It often seems a bit of a thankless art in that respect. You don’t think, that’s digital, that’s practical. There’s not that delineation. It all just works together. For instance, the new Star Wars film – not ours, by the way – felt like an extremely good marrying of practical and digital effects. Mad Max: Fury Road is another example. Filmmakers are getting clever at playing to the strengths of both disciplines, and that’s really exciting.
N: That’s a good point! Moving back towards you guys at Weta Workshop; you have your own design team in-house. How does the artistic process work when you do have the chance to input on design? Do you get much freedom?
E: As the Communications guy, I can’t speak as an expert on the subject. But from what I can gather, it ultimately depends on the director. As I mentioned, sometimes they come to us and the film is concept designed, storyboarded, and ready to roll. Other times, the team gets the script and then gets to work bringing the world to life. Then there’s a million shades of grey in between. There’s no one set terms of engagement when it comes to this type of art. Ideas can come from anywhere. I think that’s one of the wonderful things about it.
N: With our love of art here at beautiful.bizarre I have to say I’m just as curious about the people within your Design department as to the works of Weta Workshop as a whole! Can you tell us a bit about their particular backgrounds?
E: They come from all sorts of backgrounds! That’s true of the whole Workshop really. We get many questions from students asking, what should I study to get a job at Weta Workshop? And it’s always such a hard question to answer! I really couldn’t tell you *laughs*. I mean, I have a graphic design degree, but I’m not doing much of that these days! This place seems to run on passion, enthusiasm and tenacity more than one golden qualification! To that end, a lot of our team is not formally trained, they just really like to draw and make stuff. They had an affinity with it, and kept drawing, building, making until they got good at it!
This place has been grown, in part, from one massive production: The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t here back then but, from what I can gather, it wasn’t a matter of ‘let’s cherry pick from the best in the business’, it was more a matter of ‘good grief, we have this huge mountain to climb, better start climbing’. There wasn’t a huge glut of expert filmmakers in New Zealand at the time. Richard often speaks about how one of the things he’s always loved to do is empower young people to do whatever they want to do; it’s about taking away the ceiling on achievement, you know. That’s how he approached The Lord of the Rings; people learned on the job. It’s a really Kiwi way of doing things: turn a hand to the problem at hand. They learned to do one job, mastered it, and then moved on to another job. It’s made for a really multi-disciplined crew.
With that in mind, there’s not really a specific answer to your question – the Workshop crew come from everywhere!
N: So how does that work then within a department? I imagine there are many different artistic styles under the one roof. Do people design something then meet in the middle?
E: Yes, I guess they do. It works in a number of different ways really – sometimes a job will come in and it is so clear from the outset which designer or design team should be on it. They each have their strengths, you know. Sometimes it is more of an exploration; the project is thrown open to a group of designers, and they all come up with their own personal takes on the brief. Eventually the path forms itself, and it tends to lead to an individual or team who share an affinity with what the director wants to achieve.
N: Film seems to be your main focal point but how involved are you in the process for games? Naturally the game creation itself is digital, yet there is all of the commercial aspect surrounding them, for instance.
E: You know, a little known fact about the Workshop is that we’re growing an interactive division right downstairs, and a pretty crazy one at that! They’re doing some pretty neat stuff for a new technology called Magic Leap. A computing platform will enable people to combine seamlessly their digital and physical lives. We’re helping to provide creative input for the Magic Leap interface, and we’re also well-advanced on a game for the Magic Leap’s Mixed Reality Lightfield™ hardware based around the world of Dr. Grordbort’s, a bit of IP that was developed by Weta Workshop’s Greg Broadmore. The game is named ‘Dr. Grordbort’s Invaders’, but the rest is top secret at this stage *grins* – watch this space!
N: Going from design level to the finished pieces I couldn’t do an interview without mentioning the giant Gollum at Wellington Airport (which is amazing!). Do you often get commissions for public art?
E: We’re getting more and more, which is really exciting! Personally, I reckon it’s a real growth area, and it’s something the crew are really interested in. The Gollum at the airport certainly isn’t the first. Back when the crew was working on The Lord of the Rings they dressed the Embassy Theatre in Wellington for the premieres of each film. A giant cave troll one year, a dark rider on a fell beast another… they were remarkable installations! We also do public sculpture; there are a few pieces around Wellington, there’s a Rugby World Cup sculpture, and a giant tripod and camera at the end of Courtenay Place that’s formed out of found objects. Most recently Richard and the crew designed and manufactured the Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa Museum [on until 2018]. They’ve brought stories and characters to life through giant life-like models at 2.4 scale, all created here in the Workshop. Every hair punched. Every pore sculpted. Every freckle painted. It’s an incredible and incredibly haunting experience.
Who knows what’ll come next?
N: We’ll watch this space! Keeping local, you’ve worked on both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Did you find working on the two trilogies different in any way?
E: That was before my time, I’m afraid. The Hobbit films had a lot more CGI to them. The Hobbit films also has a tighter turnaround, so things that may have otherwise been achieved practically – well, it just wasn’t practical to do them that way.
Another thing Richard often says that for The Lord of the Rings, 100% of what we did here at the Workshop was handmade. For The Hobbit, 60% was built by robots. That’s a pretty big shift! We’ve still got as many skilled workers as we ever did, but with the invention of 3D printing, we’re finding new ways to automate and work faster. That’s pretty exciting.
N: So on visiting your shop I can see you able to keep a lot of the props…
E: Sort of… we are asked about this a lot. People often ask if they can borrow pieces and, for the most part, they can’t, because we don’t own them. The film companies who commissioned them generously loan them to us. Other times they stay here because it’s simply not cost effective to ship them half way around the world, or store them for indeterminate periods of time. Sometimes, things are destroyed to stop the IP from informing other projects. But yes, we have been fortunate to have been able to put some remarkable pieces on display. You can see them on our tours.
N: Have you found a change at all in your business since the growth of Weta Digital?
E: The companies really have grown side by side. Practical and digital effects working hand in hand. That’s a winning combination.
N: On the Weta history page, Project Born from 2012 particularly stands out from the crowd of recent activity – how did this come about? Would you like to do more of this type of project?
E: Project Born was a stage production. A spectacular show of audio-visual arts, acrobatics, theatrics, body painting and costume. It was put on by Weta Workshop to raise money for New Zealand’s Neonatal Trust, a charity of which Richard and Tania are patrons. There’s certainly no reason why we wouldn’t look to do more stage productions in the future. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a diverse company, and the crew can turn a hand to most things, including the theatre!
Special Effects make-up and body paint by Weta Workshop Artist Sofia Bue for the World Body Art Championships.
N: Considering you have so many independent artists working at Weta, have you ever considered some sort of combined charity event promoting their personal works?
E: I know many of Workshop’s artists have independently donated works to charitable events and auctions in the past. I’m not sure about organised shows for charity though. Outside of Project BORN, that is. That said, one of our Senior Designers, Paul Tobin, has done a lot of great work pulling the Weta Artists, and other concept designers, together for a book and exhibition series called White Cloud Worlds. There are now three volumes of White Cloud Worlds, and they’re all terrific. They do a fantastic job of giving profile to these talented artists and their work.
N: The volumes look amazing! It’s great to see Weta Workshop staff collaborating on so many fronts and with so much versatility. We’ve been talking a lot about the other folk at Weta, but what about you? Do you personally have a favourite project that’s come about since you started working at Weta Workshop?
E: Yeah, I’ve loved seeing the kids’ TV series Thunderbirds Are Go coming together. It’s been produced by ITV and our friends down the road at Pukeko Pictures. It’s just been picked up by Amazon in the Unites States, which is ace. The show has been a huge exercise in model making and miniatures building, and it’s been great to see the design team reimagining the craft, characters and environments from the original Gerry Anderson production. Our tourism team has even got involved. They’ve opened a Thunderbirds Are Go Behind-the-Scenes Experience that takes people on a tour of the authentic miniatures. Kids love it! It really demystifies the model making process. They come away thinking, ‘yeah, I can do that!’ It’s the sort of thing I’m looking forward to taking my boy through, when he gets old enough to appreciate the Thunderbirds. We’re at a bit more of a Wiggles stage at the moment!
Personal sculpture, ‘Himba’, by Sofia Bue
N: OK so last question: Can you give us a sneak peek into any of your upcoming projects?
E: We have a lot in the pipeline. At the moment, the crew are super busy on Ghost in the Shell. Seeing what they’re working on down in the workshop, that’s shaping up to be a remarkable show. We’re also looking forward to the release of Warcraft in June. That features armor and weapons made here at the Workshop. We also have a range of Warcraft collectibles coming out to line-up with the release. They’re pretty cool!
N: Thank you Erik and Weta Workshop, it’s been a pleasure talking with you and finding out more from behind the scenes. We can’t wait to see what you all come up with in the future!
Whether you are interested in finding out more about Weta Workshop, keeping up to date with their projects or seeing what exciting collectables they have for sale, be sure to head over to the Weta Workshop website for this and much, much more!