Weta Workshop presentation at AGIdeas Conference in Melbourne

At the end of Day 1 of the AGIdeas Conference in Melbourne, Australia, Daniel Falconer, one of the 6 in-house designers at Weta, gave a presentation on what Weta Workshop is all about and how he came to be there.

Daniel opened his presentation by showing the Fellowship of the Ring trailer before starting his speech. Daniel¹s role within Weta is to draw all the conceptual pictures for the creatures, armour, weaponary, costumes, sets etc. before they are rendered and constructed by the Workshop. He started working for Weta about a year before they commenced work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which Weta has now been working on for 5 years.

Daniel then moved on to a short history of Weta Workshop and showed us an interesting photo of Richard Taylor¹s head appearing out of a cow¹s behind. After that, he gave us an overview of the all the different special effect services that Weta offers, such as prosthetics, weapons, ³bigitures²/miniatures etc.

During the overview Daniel gave us some interesting details on the various prosthetics and weapons that are found in Lord of the Rings. Lurtz, had full prosthetics on his face and body, dentures, contacts, wig and a 1 inch thick body suit to make the actor to appear even larger than he already was. Gimli¹s face was also a full prosthetic job, the only part of John Rhys-Davis¹ face that was his own were his eyes. Aragorn and Boromir were the only two in the Fellowship who didn¹t require some form of prosthetics.

The weapons were all hand forged and they normally made at least two of each sword; Lighter versions for stunt sequences and heavier versions for the other scenes. Their was a large amount of detail (not only in the weapons) in the pieces that Weta produced for Lord of the Rings and some of it isn¹t even evident on screen. But, it is this level of detail which adds culture to the movie.

There was so much information in this presentation that I didn¹t manage to get all of it. But here are some quick facts that Daniel gave us on the production of Lord of the Rings.

* Weta Workshop was hired 2 years before the Wardrobe department

* John Howe one of the two Tolkien artists who was on set is also an expert on Medieval Weapons.

* Peter Jackson didn¹t want to alienate the audience with fantasy elements that the audience couldn¹t comprehend. He wanted to give the movie a historical feel, as if the events in the movie actually happened in very early times. PJ gave movies such as Braveheart, Rob Roy and Elizabeth as examples of the historical feel he was trying to achieve.

* Creatures, such as the Cave T roll for example, were built from the ground up when they were animated. Starting with the skeleton, then the muscles, skin etc. instead of just animating an empty skin. This gave the creatures a more realistic look to them.

* All the pieces Weta designed for the movie went through the process of first being drawn as conceptual/finished art drawings by Daniel and the 5 other in-house designers at Weta. Once the drawings were approved (sometimes it took about 300-400 drawings to create the perfect design!) they were turned into Marquettes, (sp? I¹m not even sure what they are… I think I might have missed that bit!), then mini-sculptures before being made into full-scale prototypes before going onto the screen.

We were then shown two show reels, one of all of Weta¹s work prior to Lord of the Rings and one specifically for Lord of the Rings. The show reel prior to LotR showed a number of films/scenes that I didn¹t recognise, so I can¹t really tell you what they were. One of the few I did recognise was the ³wormhole² effect from the Jodie Foster movie ³Contact².

In the Lord of the Rings show reel we were shown snippets of only 1/3 of the digital effects that were in the movie. The show reel covered the Fireworks at Bilbo¹s party, the birds that Legolas spots while the Fellowship are taking a rest, the Balrog, the Cave Troll, the Ringwraiths, Lothlorien, Rivendell, Cadaharas, Lurtz, the Eye of Sauron, the Lake Creature outside of Moria, Orthanc… you get the idea!

Daniel then moved onto where Weta goes next after Lord of the Rings and here we were then given an overview of the Sideshow/Weta LotR merchandising arm of the Workshop. Weta¹s philosophy behind the move into the merchandising for the movie is that they are the ones that are best qualified to make the toys, figurines etc. (in association with Sideshow) for LotR after working on the movie for so long. Weta also wants to prolong the experience of LotR for as long as possible (who doesn¹t?!) and they see merchandising as a way of doing this.

To get the rights (I think that¹s what you¹d call them) to make merchandise for LotR, Weta sent off a video of the cast/crew from the movie to New Line in which the actors etc. talked about how Weta could do this, how great it would be and so forth. The video worked, and New Line gave approval.

Richard Taylor has had an interest in sculpture and fine arts, so this was the perfect opportunity for him to get into this sort of thing. Sideshow/Weta have made over 200 times so far. As most of the designers work for Lord of the Rings has been completed they have been participating in the sculpting and production of the merchandise.

We were then shown another show reel, this time for Sideshow/Weta, which showcased some of the items they have produced and a look at ³behind the scenes² of production. We saw various pieces, such as Aragorn, Saruman and the Palantir, Gandalf, Orthanc, armour sets and so on. We also saw the various designers and sculptures working on a variety of pieces. The designers actually work from photos of the characters on all different angles which are stuck up on the wall in front of them.

The best part for me, was seeing the actor¹s reactions when they saw the various sculptures of their characters, for what I assume was the first time. Orlando Bloom was jumping around in costume with his figurine repeating ³it¹s like Christmas!² We also saw Orlando a little later on inspecting the bow that came with his figurine and discussing it with the designer. Sean Astin, Dominic Monaghan, and Elijah Wood were also all featured looking and posing with their sculptures. Billy Boyd was the funniest though. He was in costume, and he turned so he was in profile with the bust in front of him in the same position, before turning around the opposite way. All the actors seemed to be quite amazed, almost in awe, at the level of detail and the realistic look of the sculptures.

Finally, Daniel wrapped up his presentation by saying that Weta had a ³desire to make and create.² As the conference was attended by mainly Australian and New Zealand Graphic Design students he pointed out in his closing remarks that there is no reason why any of us from this side of the world couldn¹t achieve what he did if we pursued our dreams. Daniel pointed out the ³Gumleaf Mafia² domination at the Oscars as an example and then went on to say that Australians and New Zealanders can do it better than anyone in the world. 😀

Also, at some point during the presentation, I don¹t remember exactly where, Daniel mentioned that he had wanted to show some of his design work from LotR. Unfortunately, he couldn¹t because later in the year an artbook of is going to be released featuring his and the other designers works. So keep your eyes peeled for that one. I got the feeling from the presentation that even now New Line and Weta are still very conscientious in keeping things under wraps until their release.

Overall, I really enjoyed the presentation by Daniel from Weta Workshop. I went into the session with two minds. I wanted to see the presentation but in another way I didn¹t. I was afraid that LotR would lose it¹s magic after seeing how certain special effects were created. Knowing how certain shots and scenes are achieved tends to spoil the effect and impact, in my opinion. Luckily, I came out of the session none the wiser and I enjoyed my fourth viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring as much as the first later on that night.

Thanks to Daniel for one fantastic presentation.