Jess writes: Hello hello! I’ve already told you guys about The Hobbit news from the Sydney Weta Workshop Lecture on Sunday February 27th, and I thought you’d like to hear about the rest of the lecture. Forgive the length, but there is much to tell!

After an introduction from Powerhouse Museum staffer and LotR exhibition curator Kerrie Dougherty (fully decked out in Elvish garb), Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, enjoying a sneaky weekend away from the King Kong set, walked onto the stage amid tumultuous applause from the few hundred Lord of the Rings fans gathered in the Coles Theatre.

Richard started the lecture by apologising for his lack of public speaking skills, which after a few minutes seemed rather unnecessary, as the man could obviously talk under water for hours at a time. He added that unfortunately, he didn’t have Elijah Wood’s phone number on him, so it was probably best not to ask. The pair’s first topic was their history as both life and work partners, and Richard shared a very funny story about, as a 13-year-old boy, riding for hours on his bike give Tania two pet rats as a token of his affection for her. “And”, he said, “We’ve been together ever since.” They then spoke about their early days working together “making cool stuff” for New Zealand television shows and commercials, before hooking up with a young Peter Jackson to make movies like “Braindead” and “Meet the Feebles”.

Richard then related the story of how the 1996 project of “King Kong” fell over after six months of work, and the hope born out of despair at Peters’ news that they were about to embark on a screen adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Tania spoke about their utter devastation when Miramax decided not to go ahead with the project, and the subsequent painstaking task of packing up, and sometimes having to destroy, 700 days worth of design-work that had already been completed for the films, “just waiting for the phone call from Peter”, who was jet-setting around the globe searching for another studio to finance the project.

Richard spoke with great affection about the cast, particularly Elijah Wood and Cate Blanchett, both of whom he believes to be “other worldly”, and also described Elijah as being “like a university professor” and “wise beyond his years”. He related his utter delight at Liv Tyler’s enthusiasm and passion for her role, spending hours at a time in the Weta Workshop just watching the team work. He then told a funny story about Liv asking him to fetch her a cup of tea while she was having her head cast, and his absolute horror upon the realisation that he had accidentally put salt in the cup instead of sugar! He talked about his particular affection for Andy Serkis, and spoke about the challenge that always ensued whenever he had a conversation with Viggo Mortensen – Richard’s industrial deafness coupled with Viggo’s very soft voice meant that Richard could rarely hear what Viggo was saying, “Which” said Richard chuckling, “ Viggo knew quite well.”

Between topics Richard and Tania played excerpts of their favourite Weta-created footage from thir previous films, as well as each LotR film, during which Tania hilariously whispered to Richard, “The Two Tower is second!” They also played footage of the creation of some of the Sideshow Weta Collectables, which included the reactions of Elijah, Sean, Dom, Billy and Orlando to seeing themselves in miniature collectable form.

Richard then talked about the hundred’s extras used on the films, including the females with fake beards, “which is just a little bit wrong” used for the riders of Rohan, and one woman in particular whose horse went lame the day before filming the “Ride of the Rohirrim” scene. So desperate was she to be in the scene that she caught her own horse, broke it in, and rode though the night to get to the set in time for the shoot!

Richard related his excitement about working with renowned sword master Bob Anderson, and a particular day when Bob, upon examining some of the swords made by Weta, told Richard they’d need to at least double the amount of the thousands of swords that they’d already made, because of the breakages that would inevitably occur during the battle sequences. “But we didn’t have the budget or the time”, says Richard, so he had the unenviable task of standing his ground against the legendary swordsman. It al paid off though, as Weta had come with such a solid sword design that there was only one breakage throughout the entire shoot. In a display of great sportsmanship, Bob stood up in front of the entire crew, admitted his error and praised Weta on their sword-making – the best he had ever come across.

Richard then spoke about their exhilaration at having Alan Lee and John Howe as conceptual artists on the trilogy, and Richard related the amusing story of sending them messages prior to their flight to New Zealand, asking them to each list all the tools and such they’d like to have in their office upon their arrival. Says Richard, “Alan Lee had two things on his list – a large dinner plate and some watercolour paper.” John’s list on the other hand, “was several pages long” and full of every artistry tool one could possibly imagine, as well as many obscure items that had to be ordered from overseas. One of Richard’s favourite memories was watching Alan create a watercolour painting of Rivendell – he started in the bottom corner of the page and painted in every minute detail: leaves, bushes, twigs and all, “Then”, says Richard, “He went into a kind of trance”, and seven hours later had created the now-famous, breathtaking painting.

Tania compared walking into the workshop to “unlocking the doors to Middle-earth”, and told how walls inside were always only loosely screwed in place so that they could hastily be taken down if a miniature outgrew its’ space. The pair spoke about the dedication of their team, and their desire to install in each one of them a sense of self-confidence and a belief that they can accomplish anything they put their minds to. Richard fondly recalled how the crew in charge of inscribing the lettering on the weapons became fluent in Elvish. They explained that, when hiring staff, they look first at the person’s enthusiasm and character before their talent. As Richard aptly put it, “There’s no point having talent if you’re a complete a**hole”. He also spoke of the trust that exists between he and Tania and their team, and related a story about handing off the couples’ then two-year-old son Sam to a member of staff while he went off to approve some designs, knowing with complete certainty that Sam would be looked after.

They then spoke about life beyond LotR, including King Kong and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When asked if Weta would try to top LotR, Richard explained that, although LotR was a huge once-in-a-lifetime experience, they wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t attempt to aim higher.

A Question and Answer section followed, with Richard and Tania armed with Weta caps, LotR medallions, key rings and an original handmade Rohan belt for askers of the most intelligent questions. They answered queries about their favourite pieces from the films, their setbacks, RotK’s Oscar night, a potential Hobbit movie (the rights are an extremely complicate business, but of course they would be thrilled to be involved), their currant work on King Kong, and even gave advice to an aspiring young fantasy novelist. The question of whether they miss the “vomit and muppets” of the “Meet the Feebles” days was met with a firm “No!” from Tania.

An interesting question was from a young woman who asked what the inside reaction was to Gollum’s MTV Award’s acceptance speech. Richard laughed and said, “Varied”, and went on to say that some were quite aghast and felt that it was rather disrespectful to Tolkien’s work. He explained that Peter was actually doing a risky but very clever thing, because he was taking Gollum out of the context of the films and putting him on the world stage as a “real” character, thus cementing him in Pop Culture history. “Just like Puff Daddy”, said Richard, which was quite hilarious at the time. He went on to say that, despite the fact the Jar Jar Binks is a generally despised creation, he is part of the continuing evolution of CGI characters that made Gollum possible. Just for the record, he expressed his extreme disappointment in the Star Wars prequels, saying that they were void of intimacy and relationships between characters.

Another interesting one was whether the couple are able to watch films for pure enjoyment. It was a definite “Yes” from Richard with an “On the other hand…” aimed at Tania. Apparently Tania nitpicks the special effects and continuity of films, much to the amusement of Richard.

The most amusing moment during the Q & A’s occurred when someone asked Richard what his favourite scene was that never made it into the films. Richard replied that there wasn’t particular scene, but rather a beautifully ornate weapon that he wished had got some more screen time. It was Gil-galad’s spear, and when Richard said that he couldn’t for the life of him remember the name of it, half the audience yelled out, “Aiglos!” “Ah! It should be thrust through my heart for not remembering it!” he joked. The backdrop to the Q & A’s was a slideshow of behind the scenes images from LotR, which included a curious picture of Richard with his head sticking out of a fake, life-sized cow’s behind, which he did go onto explain.

Two hours later, with dozens of hands still raised and no-one in the audience showing any desire to stop listening, Richard said that they’d love to stay overtime and listen to the rest of the questions, much to the delight of all. After over three hours, and still many questions to ask, Richard declared that they really should wrap it up. He and Tania thanked us all for coming to see them and expressed their gratitude for our enthusiasm for their work. After an emotional thankyou from Kerrie, who said in reference to the dedication of LotR fans, “I’ve never seen anything quite like it”, it was time to form an orderly line outside the theatre for autographs.

Richard and Tania were an absolute pleasure to listen to, delightfully down-to-earth and extremely funny. Richard is a lively and animated speaker and so enthusiastic about The Lord of the Rings, that watching him is incredibly entertaining. Tania, though more softly spoken, is positively lovely and a very inspirational woman for others working in this field. I urge anyone who hasn’t had the Richard and Tania experience to get out there and see them the next chance you have. Go forth, I say!