Weta Workshop is Made Up of Wellington’s Eclectic, Equal-Rights Designers

Weta Workshop is the oldest of Peter Jackson’s five companies, and the hardest to define. And that’s the way they like it.

Richard Taylor, who runs Weta Workshop with his wife, Tania Rodger, believes in creative diversity. He has won Oscars in three categories: two for makeup, two in visual effects and one for costume design. It reflects his philosophy, “We can only survive if we innovate every day.”

The company built 48,000 individual items (props, costumes, etc.) for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. For the “Hobbit” trio, the team produced 11,862 prosthetics, with 5,493 of these just for the Dwarves. Approximately 4 tons of silicone was used to make facial prosthetics for all the characters. In the past year, WW has worked on 30 projects, including six films, plus numerous TV shows and videogames. “It adds to the tapestry of our staff’s lives,” says Taylor. “It’s added to the richness.”

Recent projects include the final “Hobbit” film; costuming and prosthetics for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”; designs for “Godzilla” and “Hercules”; merchandise for “DOTA 2”; and materials for films based in China, Hungary, India and the United States.

In association with ITV and Pukeko Pictures, WW is working on the TV relaunch of “Thunderbirds.” There will be 26 half-hours to bow in 2015; scripts are written in the U.S., with voices recorded in the U.K., filming miniatures in New Zealand and animation in Taiwan.

Jackson is a third shareholder in the company, with Taylor and Rodger as the management and creative force behind it. Taylor is managing director.

During Variety’s visit, WW staffers were working on museum installations, a sculpture garden, film projects and books (designed and written inhouse, with 16 published so far). Conducting Variety on a tour through the multi-level maze of workshops, Taylor introduces each space matter-of-factly: “This is the sword-grinding room; this is the sculpting department; this is the paint department,” and he points out machines that do robotic 3D milling, printing, laser-cutting, plasma-cutting and foam latex, urethane casting and riveting machines. “We built machines that  can build components,” he says simply.

There is a room devoted to facial castings, with walls lined with face masks: the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” actors, Meryl Streep, Vincent Price and dozens of others.

It may be matter-of-fact to him, but to a visitor, it seems like a labyrinth designed for people with ADD: Diverse, high-energy and magical. Asked how many square feet/meters in the building, Taylor laughs, “Oh, I have no idea.”

When Taylor started on 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Weta Workshop had a staff of 158, only 38 of whom had any film experience.

He promotes the “Jack and Jill of all trades” mentality. There is a roughly 50-50 split of men and women among the core crew of 55. That’s also true when the staff is augmented to work on multiple projects, with the additions ranging from 70 to 240.

Taylor is proud that no one had formal training. Some are first-time sculptors he trained. And he’s also self-taught: He started sculpting margarine, then moved on to clay.There is also Weta Cave, a shop that sells objects and offers a $20 tour of the workshop. It’s the only public access to the five companies. Taylor says it was inspired “by watching busloads of people looking at this old dilapidated warehouse. I couldn’t stand it,” so he wanted to give them a positive connection.

Among other key staffers at Weta Workshop: General manager David Wilks, Workshop supervisor Rob Gillies, head of production Grant Bensley, head of design Rik Athorne, head of consumer products Mike Gonzales, head of tourism Jake Downing and executive assistant to Taylor plus g.m. Ri Streeter.

Rodger also supervises the Roxy theater, a refurbished cinema in the Miramar neighborhood that shows first-run films and classics. Taylor describes the interior as “sci-fi deco with a Rockefeller twist” (as in Rockefeller Center).

Weta Workshop also designs and produces collectibles with 500-800 copies of each piece, having made 1 million in all over the years. “It’s a tiny collectors market,” he says, but enough that “it lets us do fine-art sculpting for a living.” Enough to justify the cost, “but I would probably do them anyway. You’re interacting with the fans. Fans is almost a misnomer. These are people who are driven by a love of literature, the arts and creativity.” Many of them go to seven or eight conventions a year.

He appreciates the Oscars he and the others at Wellington have won because the wins are an exclamation mark to their work. “It’s endorsing our team and showing that we have a showing that we have a place in the world.”

New Zealand definitely has a place in the world, and as the Weta brand expands, its global footprint gets even larger and more impressive.

 

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