Loop profiles Peter Jackson’s visual effects company, WETA Workshop Ltd., and the challenges of such a small crew (by Hollywood standards) taking on as massive a project as Lord of the Rings.
Cauldron of Creativity
In March 2000, at the height of production on The Lord of the Rings, WETA Workshop Ltd is a sprawling rabbit warren of concentrated creativity. Peter Jackson’s massively ambitious trilogy of event movies, currently being made for Hollywood studio New Line Cinema, is generating big buzz on the streets of the capital. But WETA Workshop has been working under a veil of secrecy for nearly three years to bring the project to life. In nine months, the workshop will finish its extensive work on the trilogy and pass the torch on to WETA Digital, whose computer-generated effects work will guide the films through post-production in time for a staggered release kicking off Christmas 2001.
The workshop is, at present, as close to Tolkien’s Middle-earth as you’ll find in reality. Images and fragments of the celebrated medieval fantasy world are everywhere, and they’ve been defined not by an international conglomerate of Tolkien zealots intent on locking down a definitive rendering, but by a small team of young New Zealanders sequestered in a sleepy corner of Miramar.
It’s an environment driven by a massive collective enthusiasm for the task at hand: creative, collaborative and endlessly innovative, and made up largely of local talent. Creating such an environment, one in which young New Zealanders could find a haven for their creative abilities, has been the long-held ideal of Richard Taylor and his partner, Tania Rodger. “More than anything, I wanted the coolest workshop in New Zealand, a place where people who hadn’t really found a niche in New Zealand for their creativity could come and wield their immense craft,” Taylor says.
The result of their endeavours is a quantum leap from their beginnings, when Taylor, a recent design graduate of Wellington Polytechnic, and Rodger, who was working part-time in a hotel, found work art-directing commercials for stalwart Wellington production company Gibson Group. Their early projects were miles removed from the world of Elijah Wood, Liv Tyler and Sir Ians McKellen and Holm, among them a promotional video for the Meat Industry Board (for which Taylor fashioned his first severed finger out of Fimo) and a Tegel Chicken ad, on which Taylor was hired to ‘de-sweat’ the shrink-wrapped chickens, which would become hot under the studio lights.
This motley assortment of assignments led to their break: Taylor learned that Dave Gibson wanted to make a homegrown version of Roger Fluck and Peter Law’s satirical puppet show Spitting Image, and became determined to sculpt the puppets. After Taylor sculpted a latex caricature of Gibson and presented it to him, the assignment was his.
“Dave gave us free reign,” Taylor recalls. He and Rodger set to work along with a tiny crew, manufacturing the puppets under their Wellington flat. “At the beginning, we had the hair woman in the lounge and the wardrobe woman in the dining room. We sculpted the puppets, moulded them, made the skins, made the fibreglass and made the eye mechanisms out of roll-on deodorant balls.” The schedule was tight, and the team often found themselves burning the midnight oil. Often, the sleep deprivation would induce hallucinations, particularly disturbing when, as Taylor notes, “our little workshop space was filled with caricatures of New Zealand politicians, hanging by their necks from the ceiling.”
The show was a great success, and it was during their stint on Public Eye that Taylor and Rodger met fledgling filmmaker Peter Jackson, who was in the final stages of creating his cult classic, Bad Taste. Work followed on an early incarnation of Jackson’s splatter comedy Braindead, the funding for which fell through. But undeterred, Jackson was quick to offer the pair work on another project, Meet the Feebles.
“It was a gift that Braindead fell over,” Taylor says, “because Meet the Feebles would never have existed.” Taylor and Rodger were hired as puppet-makers to bring Jackson’s Muppet massacre to life, under what were often less-than-perfect conditions: “We made the puppets in a tiny room in an old railway shed, with no ventilation,” Rodger recalls. “There were fleas in the shed, and dead pigeons. Mrs Jackson used to turn up with afternoon tea.” One of the crew’s dog had puppies under the set to the sound of M-60 gunfire which, as Taylor puts it, “would make your lungs bounce in your body.”
“It was wonderful, because everyone was paid the same amount of money, regardless of their position on the film, creating a great sense of equality” Taylor says. “It was one of the happiest periods of our lives.” The team made 90 puppets in the tiny space, creating a perverse mix of characters out of fur and foam rubber and always working in the knowledge that their fuzzy creations were destined to be blown up, shot, eaten or vomited upon. “How did it feel making all these cute puppets and knowing that they were going to root each other and be mutilated? It was weird – very weird,” Taylor says. “Naivete played a big part in it for me,” Rodger adds, “because I just accepted that this was a cool thing to be on.” By the end of each day, the Feebles would be so encrusted with blood and vomit that Rodger would put them in the washing machine. “Those fluffy chickens used to drive me insane.”
Taylor and Rodger particularly recall one occasion, on which a rig designed to spew vomit from the mouth of a full-size Feeble suit malfunctioned. “We mixed up this huge bucket of really vomitty vomit out of yoghurt and chopped carrots,” Rodger recalls. Continues Taylor: “And Peter went, ‘Okay – action!’ And Tania threw the lever and nothing happened. Peter said ‘More vomit!’ and Tania pushed the lever more. Still nothing. And then we heard this muffled shouting: the force of the vomit had pushed the pipe out of the mouth, and it was shooting into the roof of the puppet and raining down inside. And the only thing the guy inside could do to stop himself drowning was fall over on his side… and all this vomit ran out of it.”
Meet the Feebles was another modest cult success for Jackson, who followed it up by reviving the Braindead project and hiring Taylor and Rodger to oversee all of the effects and miniatures work. They hired a young crew, only one of whom had any film experience; the result was a veritable classic of the genre.
During the Cannes film festival in 1994, where Braindead played to packed houses, Jackson revealed plans for a film that was to take Taylor and Rodger into the digital age. “We sat in his hotel room one afternoon, and he read us Heavenly Creatures,” Taylor recalls. “I didn’t know anything about these girls – it was so creepy.” As soon as the festival was over, they returned to New Zealand to begin work on what was to become Jackson’s most critically-successful picture. One of the biggest tasks facing Taylor and Rodger’s team was the manufacture of 70 ‘Borovnian’ plasticine body-suits to be used during the film’s fantasy sequences. All of the suits were sculpted in margarine, a medium that created its own unique set of problems: “It was a challenge to stop our seamstress’s Newfoundland puppy from eating the sculpts!” Taylor recalls.
In the wake of Heavenly Creatures, WETA Ltd was born, partly out of necessity – only by forming a consortium could the gear used to generate Heavenly Creatures‘s digital fantasy world be kept in the country – and partly out of a desire to create what Taylor refers to as “a one-stop effects shop”, where physical and digital special effects could be generated under one roof. The group bought Camperdown Studios, an old pharmaceutical facility in Miramar, and set up shop, proceeding to work on projects ranging from Scott Reynolds’ films The Ugly and Heaven through to Pacific Renaissance’s locally-produced small-screen powerhouses Hercules and Xena and Jackson’s first Hollywood-funded outing, The Frighteners.
The ghostly cast of spooks and spectres allowed WETA Digital to take centre stage. “Sadly, a proportion of the physical effects that WETA did for that film didn’t get used,” Taylor says. Objects languishing in the WETA Workshop vaults attest to this: a six-foot tattooed cherub with wings and a beautifully-detailed maquette of John Astin’s crumbling Judge riding his skeletal hound Rustler are just two creations that didn’t make it into the movie.
Nowadays, Taylor and Rodger, Rings post-production producer Jamie Selkirk and Jackson remain as partners in WETA Workshop, the many departments of which seem to spill through the haphazard workshop like a multi-tentacled watcher in the water. What appears from the outside to be a nondescript cluster of cavernous studio buildings houses a Tardis-like labyrinth of corridors and smaller workshop areas. Stepping inside for the first time, it is impossible to imagine how its layout could ever become familiar enough to allow navigation from memory. It’s an FX boffin’s paradise, and for the time being, a Tolkien fanatic’s wildest dream.
Racks hold suits of armour, masks and prosthetic suits for the hundreds of extras that will play Elves, Uruk-hai, Orcs and Rohan. An arsenal of weapons is spread throughout the workshop in various states of completion, from lightweight ‘background’ swords through to stunning steel ‘hero’ weapons. In the upstairs design room, designers who have been immersed in Middle-earth for three years continue to add to the many hundreds of conceptual drawings already undertaken for The Lord of the Rings. There are Balrogs and Fell Beasts, Orcs and Uruk-hai, Goblins and Mumakil spread wall-to-wall. And in the miniatures department, a massive replica of Minas Tirith, the glorious city of Gondor that will feature prominently in The Return of the King, stands floor-to-ceiling, towering over the technicians who work busily to embellish its already incredible detail.
In the mechanists’ area, gore and injury rigs that will simulate the grievous battle wounds demanded by Jackson’s strict dedication to realism lie in various states of completion, and from the tiny armoury comes the jarring ring of a steel blade being pounded on an anvil. It’s an ancient sound with a timbre that sends an icy shiver up the spine – a sound you would never, in a million years, expect to hear in Wellington circa Y2K. Technicians emerge grimy and blackened as though returning from a day’s work in the mine, and the unmistakable tang of steel makes the nostrils flare.
“The coolest thing about doing The Lord of the Rings at WETA Workshop is that we’ve been able to tackle so many different departments,” Taylor says. WETA Workshop has been responsible for the film’s creatures, armour, weapons, miniatures and special makeup effects; taking on so many different disciplines is an unprecedented move for a visual effects company: “It’s been an incredible challenge,” Taylor says. “WETA Workshop only averages 110 people over five different departments, which is a very small crew by world standards for such a massive film.” It’s a gargantuan task with logistics far beyond anything the company has attempted in the past, but the net result is that WETA Workshop’s output has a huge presence on-screen. “It’s a tribute to the collective passion and focus of our team,” Taylor says.
“I think the scale and scope of The Lord of the Rings has definitely given filmmaking a whole new dimension for us,” Rodger adds. She is quick to note that the rigours of making a large-scale Hollywood film on home turf means that many of their team currently spend the vast majority of their time in the workshop. “But they’re also really aware that we’re all making history – the scale of this project is something that has never been tackled before. It’s a privilege to be involved with it.”
If there’s a single downside to the company’s success, it’s at a personal level: where Taylor’s joy in his work once stemmed from “making stuff”, he now spends much of his time directing others to do the hands-on work while Rodger is largely desk-bound in a managerial role. But Taylor and Rodger find considerable consolation in the knowledge that the workshop is providing young New Zealanders with a creative outlet: “A lot of our satisfaction now is from looking at people in the workshop and realising that they’ve changed. Just having creative freedom and an environment that gives them room to develop their skills helps them become their own person.”