Richard Taylor (Visual Effects Supervisor is head of the Weta Workshop) and turned out to be one of the great surprises and delights of the entire press junket. Richard’s eyes sparkle as he discusses what he loves and he’s immensely passionate much more so than (where I must admit I felt he was a bit of a windbag, since every interview seemed to catch him in stern and stoic mode, sounding somewhat like he was practising an Oscar speech sorry Richard! It was for this reason that I, and so many others, fell under his charm so quickly). I just like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Richard for being so generous and personable.
Since we’ve done the round table, how’s about taking a different focus for this one-on-one interview?
“Now’s your chance,” Richard grins.
You’re about to work on a remake of King Kong. I would imagine that for you, as head of FX, this would be a mighty challenge. Were you, like stop-motion guru Ray Harryhausen or even your mates Peter Jackson and bigatures’ king Alex Funcke inspired back in the early days by the original (Funcke revealed his excitement to me personally about working first on a movie trilogy of his favourite books and now an as faithful as possible’ remake of his favourite movie; and especially creating the great gate which protects the natives of Skull Island from Kong. , after a chance meeting of all places – at the toilet door of the Wellington Howard Shore symphony)?
“Unfortunately I can’t talk about Kong, contractually! But I can tell you that I didn’t actually see Kong until much later in my life because we had no access to it on the TV and had no access to the movie houses. I didn’t actually see my first video on a video player until 21 years-old; so I was fairly unaware of it. Other Ray Harryhausen movies, most definitely inspired me [it’s a common misconception is that Harryhausen was the FX genius behind Kong. He wasn’t. However it was during his childhood first viewing that he made his critical decision to pursue stop-motion filmmaking as a career].
“My biggest inspiration in fact came from the Thunderbirds. The works of Derek Meddins, who was the special effects technician that made the models and effects on the Thunderbirds. That was a huge inspiration I had a real crush on Lady Penelope for a while little hottie that she was [laughs].”
It’s great you can umm, admit that (actually I did too when I was knee high to a grasshopper but I thought that was a purely English thing).
“So King Kong came later in life. Peter introduced me to King Kong.”
Did you enjoy the rest of the Gerry Anderson series, like Joe 90, Captain Scarlett et al?
“Oh yeah, without out a doubt. Absolutely. I was a Space 1999 buff. I was so into that show and so loved the technology and the models. So I didn’t ever really relate to how I could be a model-maker in the TV or film industry when I was a teenager but I just knew I wanted to make models for a living. I thought it would end up being more to do with the theatre or shop-window displays, things like that. I really was inspired to make models for a living never thinking I’d ever end up here [laughs].”
Can we go over some of the initial steps that brought you along this path?
“Sure. I’ve always enjoyed making things. I’m not wildly artistic. I’ve made an artistic life from hard work as opposed to artistic genius.”
Richard’s characteristic modesty doesn’t necessarily carry over to testimonials from friends and associates. I bumped into a Uni-mate friend of Richard’s on the way back to the airport, who freely described Richard’s college/Uni work as outstanding, amazing and incredibly diligent noting one particular occasion when he turned up with a project he’d made overnight for an assignment that left everyone else’s work for dead and unintentionally made them all seem very amateur hour. That Uni-mate is now a daring, photographic reporter who makes his living travelling to and shooting some of the most thrilling and/or unseen wilderness of NZ.
But I digress
“But I’ve enjoyed making things. And if you’ve got a mind full of fantasies, growing up in New Zealand and you want to realise them, you’re going to have to make them with your own hands. You’re not going to find them at the corner store. So that gave me the impetus to start doing things. I met my partner, Tanya, when we were 13 but ultimately, at the age of 15, we decided that we would try building a career out of making things. So we were making models, though we didn’t know what they were for.
“But when we went to Wellington and discovered the television and film industry, it was a revelation and realised there could be an outlet for our efforts. We were captured by the idea of creating models for film and about three years into our careers we met Peter Jackson. And he, likewise, was utilising miniatures, models and puppets to create the worlds in his head. I would like to think that we saw in each other a very similar and interest in trying to realise these ideas.”
Would you say there was an instant person-to-person chemistry between you? I imagine it would’ve been great to find another like-minded person after all that time.
“It was. He was the first person we’d met that was just INTO it, that sat and watched cool movies and really introduced us a great deal to the world of special effects and the special effects industry. He was so intrigued by the history of special effects and knew so much about it. Unlike ourselves, he had been a filmmaker since the age of eight and had the intention of, one day, becoming a special effects technician. I don’t think he had ever originally thought he might be a director.
“But there was a wonderful feeling that we had found someone who could inspire us and, in turn (hopefully), we would assimilate that inspiration into the product Peter needed to tell his stories.”
It’s easy for us in journalist land to wax rhapsodic about how you were always meant to work together because working relationships with long-term filmmaking buddies rarely go back as Tanya, yourself and Peter’s does but can you put your finger on an early moment when you realised you really had to hang onto this relationship?
Well we never really talked about that. We never would it’s not quite like that as such. But we just knew by the fact that we were in the same vicinity, we had no intention of ever leaving Wellington and we had exactly the same goals; which were: using our creativity and technical ability to the highest levels that we could that ultimately our paths would cross. And 10 years ago, we cemented that by going into business together: Peter, Tanya, Jamie [Selkirk] and I, all set up Weta as a company and then Camperdown Studios as a company which has really given us the tools to realise the film projects we want to work on.”
And that’s grown exponentially.
I now live in Adelaide and it’s given me a theory about smaller, more remote cities. Do you mind if I sound you out with it?
In isolated places, you tend to do things only because you want to not peer pressure or for fame, but because it’s what you want to do. And genuine, original voices tend to emerge a lot better in that isolation. But also the amount of determination you need to have is enormous, because if you are going to for some reason make it, it’s going to be against all odds.
“Correct. That’s exactly it and very well put; because we went seven years before we met another person that did what we did. So we were working in a vacuum and a vacuum to the world that was Wellington, New Zealand and never reckoned that we could possibly do it some other way or even that this was unachievable. I never stopped to say, “gawd, this is harsh. Should we really do this?’ We just did it. And it was bloody hard at times and it still is hard. We do challenge ourselves all the time, but we never, ever thought that we shouldn’t be doing it because we hadn’t been told how to do it.
“Ignorance is often a great ally. Embracing the unknown and just charging in is a good way to work in life. You can come unstuck or trip yourself up but it’s better that you trip yourself up occasionally than that you never get on the road at all. And the people we continue to hire from New Zealand predominantly come from rural upbringings; outback New Zealand where they’ve developed a culture of giving it a go. There’s a cliched New Zealand phrase that describes the mentality: you grab what you’ve got and you give it a go. There’s a New Zealander called Richard Pierce that arguably flew before the Wright Brothers [perhaps this provided the inspiration for Colin McKenzie’s flight’ in Peter Jackson’s excellent mockumentary Forgotten Silver, which starred Thomas Robins aka Deagol]. I think that that the immensity of him has been lost in the debate over whether or not he flew before them.”
“That’s right. Forgotten Silver suggested it. Good, I’m glad you saw that. But what was truly great about Richard Pierce is the Wright Brothers were living in an aeronautical community, discussing aeronautical concepts and theories with other people, the world over. They were collaborating and were well financed and all tribute to them, they got off the ground. This guy, Pierce, woke up one morning in New Zealand and decided that he would throw himself into the sky and stay there. And endeavoured, therefore, to build a contraption that would do just that with no influences; in fact the opposite: he had extreme levels of uncertainty around him. Was he completely mad or foolhardy? But he did indeed achieve it. And that’s the testament to that kind of tenacity and vision that exists in the Perths, Tasmanias, Adelaide, New Zealands, and the outback areas of both our countries.”
That leap of faith can be assisted by that fact that, you mightn’t know if what you’re attempting is possible but you don’t know you can’t do it either.
“No. Until you fall on your face, you didn’t know it was going to hurt. We’ve always operated on that mentality.”
I’ve been so proud that these movies have been made in our part of the world by people from this part of the world. But I always had a suspicion that with you guys, it was a case of discovering you had the chance to make The Lord Of The Rings so you just went for it and worried about the gravity of it later; if at all.
“No we never went into it with that mentality. It’s hard to believe it today, but we never thought, this is a great chance for New Zealand to showcase itself, to prove to the world that Weta can do it , that New Zealand can do it.’ We never thought that. We always thought, shit, this is a great opportunity to make a lovely movie as well as we possibly can.’ That was the challenge. You don’t head off with the intention of winning a war. You head off with the intention of challenging yourself and making the best product you can. The results we have today are the relative to the way we challenged ourselves, not how the expectations of the world challenged us. I think that, ultimately, that’s what made it the movie it is. It’s come from the hearts of the people that made it, as opposed to the expectations of the audience, the punters, the peers and critics.”
So much of the films captured the Zeitgeist of the way the fans imagined the world of Middle-Earth. We’re talking about everything from the way you used the art of Alan Lee and John Howe when you could have sourced any of the other thousands of artists that existed (it’s arguable that in he true hearts and minds of Tolkien fans, only the work of Lee, and to a lesser yet formidable extent, Howe and Ted Nasmith, caught the spirit best while still leaving room for the imagination of fans. The one artist I personally had bothered to hang on my wall was the one artist you used. In hindsight it seems like the only choice, but that’s just not the way it was back then) to the music you used. There were so many fears.
“I’ve got something to add to that. When I was at this country boarding school, I won an art award. I was 15 and there was one book shop in the one town that I was living near and it had one art book in it and that art book was Faeries. I sculpted those characters, I drew those characters, I put them on my wall. Twenty years later, Alan Lee walked into our lives.” There’s a distinct moment of lingering disbelief in Richard’s voice here.
Do you think you’ll be able to continue working together?
“I’m sure about it. He is an English person that wants to return to his home n England. He’s been away on a long working holiday but I don’t think he considers himself to be a Kiwi. He wants to return back to the beautiful village in southern England where he lives. But I think we’ve forever cemented a relationship that will bring him back to our shores. As we hope with John Howe as well. All testament to John, for he mustn’t be forgotten in it all, because he did great things.
“But you’re absolutely right. It was somewhere in the ether that these films were going to be made by this group of people at this particular time. Technology took until the end of the 20th Century to catch up with Tolkien’s vision. Peter Jackson, coming from English parents and upbringing; his aesthetic, mentality and ethics were just right at that time, to tackle a work of this stature.”
And that’s all we have time for.
“Well thank you. And a special thank you for those questions. They were very good.”
Well thank you Richard.