Weta Workshop at 20: An interview with Richard Taylor

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Feb 26, 2015, 5:55 PM EST

Weta Workshop is a master at bringing creatures and worlds from our imaginations into reality. From The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit to Avatar and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, over the years they have worked on some of the most popular and influential films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. A company that began modestly two decades ago has grown into a worldwide leader in physical and special effects.

In 2014, they celebrated their 20th anniversary a number of ways, including through speaker series and the release of a stunning two-volume box set, The Art of Film Magic: 20 Years of Weta, that, for the first time, chronicled the history of the company. They ended the year with the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, marking perhaps the end of their renowned journey bringing J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth to life on screen.

We spoke with five-time Oscar winner and Weta co-founder and co-director Richard Taylor about the company's amazing journey and what's in store for the future.

The Early Years

The journey to Weta's creation began in 1987 with a company founded by Richard Taylor and his wife, Tania Rodgers, called RT Effects. In the beginning one of their biggest challenges, according to Taylor, was that there was not a big interest or need for what they were making, since no one was doing much of it in New Zealand.

"The clients that were out there, the potential clients, had never really utilized a great deal of what we had to offer. There were other companies doing model making and a little bit of effects work, but not really in the special makeup effects arena and the animatronic creature work, and so Tania and I realized very early on that we needed to do a very broad offering," Taylor said.

That realization would lead to the creation of multiple departments at Weta Workshop. Taylor said this is unusual for an effects workshop, which will tend to specialize in one or two areas.

"But we realized that our industry was a very, very small one, and even smaller was the interest and desire to utilize what we wanted to do, so it was a process of trying to get out there and inspire the clients to think about the sort of things that we could make for them, and that took a long time really, just being super enthusiastic …" Taylor explained. "Meeting Peter [Jackson], who was a young director aspiring to make movies that utilized exactly what we wanted to make, and in turn we were wanting to make exactly what this young director wanted to utilize … so it was sort of the coming together of a really good synergistic relationship, because we could help each other out."

Meeting the young Peter Jackson, who was still living at home with his parents, was the beginning of a partnership that continues to this day. Weta worked on Jackson's 1989 puppet musical comedy Meet the Feebles and the 1992 horror comedy Braindead. The films would earn awards for their effects.

Other challenges for the company would be financing and budget, which Taylor said was very small for a long time. This didn't, however, dampen the passion they had for their work.

"When you're young, those have very little effect on you, and I really didn't reflect on that very much at all. We were so eager to prove ourselves that we would really work for any budget that anyone offered, and even today, if we have a good relationship with the client, we ask them to tell us what they want to spend and we'll tell them what we can offer, as opposed to starting a bidding war on a project," he said.

Taylor also credits the New Zealand can-do attitude with helping them reach their goals. Their location in Wellington has been a key part of their development over the years.

"As we asked more and more people to join us from all walks of life, from the most disconnected walks of life, but they came with passion, enthusiasm, and tenacity and self belief, we found that we were able to ultimately achieve the goals that we set ourselves. So ultimately our location has proved never to be a problem," Taylor said. "A lot of people told me in the early days I should move to another part of the world where the industry is far more prevalent, but, you know, if you build it, they shall come and that's indeed been the case. We helped build the Wellington film industry up by buying studios and investing our efforts into building what we have here and it's attracted people."

Other projects the company would work on in those early years include Hercules: The Legendary Adventures and The Tommyknockers. Then, in 1994, they worked with Jackson on the successful film Heavenly Creatures, and Taylor and Rodgers founded Weta with Jackson and film editor Jamie Selkirk. The company eventually came to have two parts: Weta Workshop and Weta Digital.

Entering Middle-earth

Things would drastically change with the creation of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, as the movies became a global phenomenon. Taylor never thought about its potential and was primarily concerned with doing justice to J.R.R. Tolkien's writing. He compares the situation "to stepping up to the edge of a precipice."

"This was a huge undertaking, 48,000 separate things. [We] were coming off the back of Hercules and Xena so [it was] a big shift in thought and process and inspiration, but you have two choices at the edge of that precipice. The one choice and the one that's easiest achieved is to simply just step back from the edge and leave someone else to take the plunge. Or, of course, as you're prone to do, you leap off and you start to fall, but if you have your wits about you and wonderful people around you, you can catch the wind under you and arrest the plummet to the bottom. That's what we ultimately attempted to do and The Lord of the Rings ultimately went on to have an extraordinary impact on our lives," Taylor said.

The first time the press was shown 20 minutes of the film, Taylor remembers seeing an overwhelming response from the attendees.

"We realized, 'Wow, maybe there was something really, really special going out in the world.' We knew there was, but the thankfulness that maybe the world would sit up and accept that these were movies made with love, affection, passion, and they weren't movies just made for the sake of a bunch of freelancers getting together to do some business around moviemaking. This was a country coming together to make some extraordinary films," Taylor said.

The trilogy would win numerous awards, a number of which were for Weta's work. The impact of the films would go far beyond their theatrical release however, with interviews and peeks inside the workshop on the DVD that brought the Weta crew out from behind the cameras. Taylor still has people come up to him and tell him that the DVD content inspired their career, inspired them to make a change, or inspired them to try something new.

"That brings me an extraordinary feeling of pleasure, that those simple interviews where I just couldn't help but enthuse about my love of what we're doing would have an impact and have a life change for some people and that's really special," he said.

Saying Goodbye To Tolkien

Since The Lord of the Rings, the company has worked on a variety of projects, but they weren't quite done with Middle-earth yet. Fittingly, as they celebrated their 20th anniversary last year, they also saw the release of the final chapter in The Hobbit trilogy in December.

Of course, when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King came out in 2003, that felt like the end for Taylor, since rights issues made it seem like The Hobbit could never be made. According to Taylor, one of the reasons they created their collectible business and started publishing books about their work was to hold on to what the trilogy meant and try to have a connection with its fans. Still, Taylor said for about 6 months he was in a funk about it being over and having to leave the characters that had been in his life for so long.

Then, The Hobbit became a reality and they were able to return to the world of Tolkien. When this trilogy ended Taylor said he felt a chapter in their lives had closed for two reasons.

"One, because it's unlikely we will ever get a chance to do something more in Middle-earth at a film level and I have to be a realist about that. But two, we have now got a connection with the fan base that will last for the rest of our lives," he explained. "The greater fan base will drop off and find other pop culture enthusiasms but the core fan base of devotees like ourselves will be there forever and we'll continue to connect with them, we'll continue to be inspired by them, and engage with them all over the world including here at the workshop."

Looking Back At The Decades

At this anniversary, Taylor said he recalls everything that's happened with only fondness.

"We've been really quite blessed with an extraordinary opportunity to work on some of the seminal films of the last 20 years and because of that got to work with some of the most visionary people of the last 20 years. But all that aside, it's ultimately the people that you've worked with in your work environment. Every morning I wake up after all these years just enthused to be back in the workshop. The fact that I run the workshop with my wife so that we socialize and sit together at work and that my friends and their families are so heavily involved in the workshop because they're the people we work with everyday, make it just an extraordinary experience. And then we do it here in Wellington, New Zealand which is the most paradise place you can hope to run a workshop, so it's all pretty good, actually," Taylor said.

Weta's workshop

It can seem like an impossible task to wrap up so much cinematic history in a book, but that's one of the things Weta did just in time for their anniversary. The Art of Film Magic: 20 Years of Weta contains two volumes. One is Weta Workshop: Celebrating 20 Years of Creativity and the other is Weta Digital: 20 Years of Imagination on Screen. Putting the last 20 years in a book, though, was challenging according to Taylor.

"I wanted to write this book and I had a long held desire to write a book about our company's history, but I knew that I just couldn't distance myself enough from the intimacy I have with many of the projects that don't even feature in the book because in the chronological journey we've been on they don't register significantly enough even though they may have done for me. So I required someone else to write it," he explained.

"I think it's a beautiful reflection of the energy, the passion, the love that we have for our career, the acknowledgment and celebration of the extraordinary people that work with us but have also helped us along the way and lets hope that we can write another one in another 20 years," Taylor said.

The Future

You'll continue to see Weta's work appear in a number of upcoming films, including Chappie and Mad Max: Fury Road. Looking towards the next 20 years, Taylor said he'd find it fulfilling and wonderful if they did nothing more than what they're doing now with the same group of people. He emphasized it's about opportunity building and not empire building.

"Most importantly, we hope that we keep working on projects that inspire us. The people we work with are inspirational to us, and the projects that we have the good fortune to work on have importance in the audience's eyes. That they have some gravitas or they have some legacy or they have some fond memory for the people who watch them because at the end of the day that gives importance to the efforts given and we've been working this extraordinarily hard, we want to make sure it's on things that people find rewarding and enjoy thoroughly and that's all you can really ask for," Taylor said. "Take each day as it comes and try to give back more than we take and try and always deliver beyond expectation and if we keep doing that hopefully special things will continue to pop out of the end of Weta Workshop and there may be another book in it in years from now."

Considering what we've seen come out of Weta Workshop at this point, we look forward to seeing the pages of their next book filled with at least another two decades of stunning work.