Our story so far: Peter Jackson made three Middle-earth movies and people loved them. Now he is making two more and people already love them too. MrCere, Senior Staff, Writer and Photographer at TheOneRing.net (around since 1999) went to NZ to see what he could see. Landed in Queenstown, found lots of LOTR stuff, drove north to see the people of the ring, visited Hobbiton visited Wellington, center of NZ’s cinematic empire, and will soon leave NZ. However, much more content will follow.

I haven’t seen an insect weta before in my travels (until this trip, but not this story) but I have plenty of experience with the folks who run and work at the special effects shop who identify themselves as “wetas”. Several Comic-Cons, (including the 2011 edition in San Diego) lots of emails and various TORn functions have made the crew at Weta Workshop friendly acquaintances if not just plain old friends.

My time in Wellington would need to include a visit of some kind with the very busy people who are working on The Hobbit, but as I have often joked (even though it is at least partially true) Weta’s second best talent is making special effects for movies. What they are really best at is keeping secrets from TheOneRing.net. I had no illusions that anybody was going to tour me around the workshop (I asked anyway, just in case) during the height of The Hobbit production, but they were kind enough to invite me along to a group they were hosting from a cruise ship that included one of our own message board members. (Her identity is her own to reveal.)

The great thing about Weta’s secret keeping is since I did visit, and they are beyond reproach, if data does fall into my hands or comes to us through our spy network, nobody will think Weta has a leak. It definitely does not.

The scope of Weta and what it does is slightly confusing for the public. Weta Workshop, where we visited, handles concept work for films, many of which never reach the screen. They produce and parade conceptual design in front of directors and studios, often aiding with pitches designed to attract investors. They also produce physical things that you can — and really want to — hold and touch but for film. Helms and ray guns and costumes and swords are all achieved with a high degree of craftsmanship and they build and dress sets and do all the physical stuff for movies.

Weta Digital, housed in a completely different building and a different company, does just what its name suggests: make digital stuff that you can never actually touch. Its specialty is making things on screen appear real even though they aren’t with the added trick of us not being able to see what is genuine and what is computer generated. Much of what they make could have been designed by Weta Workshop kids in a drawing or a sculpt and often both, but the artists and wizards at the digital side make computer pixels take on dimension and life. And, they also work on completely different projects at times.

I believe Weta Digital are good at a lot of things but are supreme at living creatures with skin and hair. In my probably biased opinion, there isn’t a match for their finished products on characters like King Kong or Gollum and the menagerie of creatures in Avatar and more familiar animals like the latest Planet of the Apes. The new Tintin film, while not meant to quite be “real” is a beautiful example that is a wonderful showcase of how masterful Weta Digital is.

There are other divisions in the special effects army: Park Road Post is a place to take a film through the post production and it’s just down the road too.

Anyway, we visited the public corner of Magical-Special-Effects-Land that is housed around Weta Workshops. I have been there before and I know how fun the Weta Cave is, full of its props and replicas and ceiling art and its 25-minute movie. I have also sat in the board room / meeting room and I was surprised to find myself there again, along with Tehanu, hosting the good people who have been sailing around the oceans.

It is stuffed with replica collectibles and awards of all kinds including five from The Academy. It is a fun and impressive room.

A Comic-Con panel from the past, L to R: Chris / Calisuri, Larry / MrCere, Richard Taylor, Keith Stern, Cliff / Quickbeam
It was a delight to have artists take a few moments “from the big film they cannot talk about” and hear a story or two and catch a glimpse of the personalities that make the movie magic. Despite having an idea of what to expect, Weta exceeded expectations in every way. I will leave names out from that private affair, but there were four talented artists from the workshop and each was dynamic and entertaining, some in a very laid back way.

Later, Tehanu and I spent a while in the Weta Cave with any of the public who wanted to have a chat but she was obligated to get the tour back to its ship so I went it alone with the good souls who turned up to say hi. A gentleman by the name of Magic, in particular, is a dreamer and a guy who drinks life to the lees and I like that and wish him well. (Big thanks to the Weta Cave for hosting the event!)

I carved out, or rather was granted, half an hour with Richard Taylor as well. Turns out he hears voices in his head constantly and once, maybe twice during our interview, he talked back to them. The workshop now is connected with earpieces with about 14 supervisors constantly talking back and forth, freeing the team leaders from the need to relocate constantly to have discussions or give updates. They just talk remotely instead and Taylor managed to track that and still listened keenly and responded intelligently to TheOneRing.net. I will write at length later, but in the very real sense of the word, and not in some hyperbolic way and with no exaggeration, the man is a genuine genius — and caring and warm.

I have interviewed rock stars and movie stars and authors and politicians and heads of religions but Taylor is on another level completely. I also loved that he was obviously still working with his hands and participating in the shop. He isn’t a guy in a suit telling people what to do; he is with them in the trenches. That interview splits nicely into two parts so I will post them like that. The Tintin part of the conversation has some urgency because of release of that film (with that one teaser trailer attached). The trailer was only a day or two old when I was at the workshop and of course now has been shown three times to a rabid response in Austin.

My biggest regret is that I missed hearing from Tania Rodger, Richard’s partner who is an unsung hero of the shop. The cruise ship contingent hopefully savored that rare experience while I was out for a few minutes and missed it. That is about all I can actually write about Weta day at the moment, but trust me, a stop there is an absolute must visit in Wellington.