I got to go on a tour of the Weta Workshop—the special effects and prop company made famous for their work on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy—because I was in New Zealand and it seemed like a good way to spend half a day. I’m
Founded in 1987, Weta has worked on television and film projects from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to the upcoming Mad Max: Fury Road. You can’t take pictures inside the Weta Cave—since the projects that they work on are owned by film companies, and also because you might get a picture of something upcoming—but I learned some pretty incredible things, mostly about what you can achieve when depicting the impossible is your job.
Some interesting stats for starters: According to my guide, Weta’s staff is 50/50 male-to-female. 37% are dyslexic and 76% are left-handed. Pretty much everyone is a contractor, which means that they get paid per project. Sometimes the sculptors and other artists are commissioned privately by individuals to create pieces for events or people’s homes.
We were informed that many of the Weta employees have clauses in their various contracts preventing what they create from being bought and used by other parties. This is because the company is so innovative that their creations are often considered for practical development. While everyone is content to see their designs on film, the last thing they want is a fantasy weapon they designed getting created in the real world and distributed via a private security firm.
One such example came from HALO, of all places. There was a point in time when HALO movies were in development (the plug was later pulled due to lack of funding), so Weta Workshop went ahead and built the Warthog from the game, with all the mobile capabilities it has in-universe. Once the project was scrapped, the vehicle was tested by the military… though they found that it was too complicated to operate for standard use and thankfully passed on it. (Two people who work at Weta were subsequently married in the thing, which seems a much better use for it.)
Some of their innovations are being used to make incredible advances, however. Sir Richard Taylor, one of the company founders, is self-taught in robotics. He put those skills to good use in a niche horror/comedy film called Black Sheep. The fuzzy farm animals outnumber people in New Zealand six to one, so it was called up as the perfect subject for a zombie film. But the robotics developed for the sheep in that movie turned out to be far more useful; they are being adapted for robotic limbs for people. They think that such devices will be in wide use in a matter of decades.
Basically everyone at the company is self-taught in whatever skills they need for their work. And when they don’t have the materials they require, they often invent them. For Lord of the Rings, a light plastic chain mail was created for all but the closest shots, preventing actors from having to spend time in pound upon pound of heavy armor. (Unless you’re Viggo Mortensen and insist on having the most realistic materials on hand.) The motion capture technology used for characters like Gollum, Smaug, Tintin and Caesar was their own software, and they’ve continued to improve it to the point where the process has a speed that would have been unheard of fifteen or twenty years ago.
To create models, they used to use standard concrete, but the material became too rigid too quickly and was heavy to boot. As a result, Weta has developed a new type of concrete that can be shaped for an extended period of time and is extremely lightweight. We looked at the model of a house, a hollow structure created with walls less than an inch thick, and were informed that the structure could take around 400 pounds of weight. Apparently, they are looking to put it in schools for art classes; the concrete is also non-toxic.
And their swordsmith? The one responsible for all the hefty weaponry that Weta brings to the big screen? Peter Lyon is the only living sword maker recognized by the British Royal Armory. He is so good at what he does that he’s one of the few in his profession who is allowed to purchase special antique metals to make his swords. And he started out doing it as a hobby while he was making horseshoes.
The evolving technology has not eliminated Weta’s need for artists—quite the contrary, in fact. Our guide told us that Weta employs more artists than ever as the technology gets more entrenched in the business. Photoshop is a prop or costume designer’s best friend. It allows them to make minor or major changes to their designs with relative ease, and have all of their variations on hand.
There is one disadvantage to how films are made lately, however. Apparently the time brackets for making these movies get shorter and shorter, as studios want the films churned out at breakneck speed. We were told that where months—even years—of planning would go into film a decade ago, now they’ll get calls for props they weren’t supposed to have on location for six months. Suddenly, they’re required to create the item on the spot and send it over (with wet paint on it and everything). That little glimpse provides a keen awareness of how the Hollywood machine is working these days, and might go far in explaining why some films aren’t presenting the polish that the original LOTR trilogy had, for example.
The tour was a thrill, for sure, but what strikes you most as you walk out the door is how much these people achieve simply by being employed to create the very best that their imaginations can supply. If you’re not bogged down by too much realism, your ability to change the world seems to increase tenfold. Perhaps we should all take a page out of Weta’s book and remember that possibility is truly an infinite thing.