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Prepare to be enthralled

Julie Haines discovers you don’t need to go all the way to Middle Earth to see Hobbit feet and Elvish swords – look no further than Miramar in Wellington.

The giant trolls looming threateningly over the grass verge on Weka Street give the first hint that the building behind is no ordinary warehouse.

Behind the walls of Weta Workshop lies a treasure trove of props from some of the world’s biggest blockbusters.

Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger created Weta Workshop in the back room of their Wellington flat. Over three decades later Richard has won five Academy Awards and the workshop has expanded into multiple buildings, with a passionate team making and designing “cool stuff”.

Movie buffs can experience the creative energy for themselves by visiting the Weta Cave — it’s free to watch a documentary on the history of Weta Workshop, and pose for photos next to statues of Gollum or Lurtz. You can also check out the movie memorabilia in the mini-museum, including Théodred’s Armour from Lord of the Rings, the White Witch’s Wand from The Chronicles of Narnia, Bilbo’s silicon legs from The Hobbit, weapons from Avatar and District 9, and a remarkably lifelike King Kong head which took over a month for two people to complete, pushing each individual hair into the silicon.

But if you really want to learn behind the scenes secrets of the movie-making business, book tickets for the Weta Cave Workshop Tour and the Miniature Effects Tour.

The Weta Cave Workshop Tour is the place to go if you want to learn about the props, costumes and creatures created by Weta Workshop — especially if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan.

Our guide, Anthony Roberts, enthusiastically talked us through the various stages of making costumes, from conception drawing, to 3D modelling and prototyping. We passed around a finished helmet while he showed us an example mould and cast and how the helmets are transformed once painted.

“My favourite department,” said Anthony, “the department of lies and deceit — the paint department.”

The costumes are cleverly designed, and special filming techniques are used, so an actor does not have to share the same physicality as the character they are playing. This means a 6ft actor can play a dwarf, while females disguised by beards and chunky armour are believable as male warriors.

“Richard Taylor wants to make costumes to benefit the actors, not diminish their performance,” said Anthony.

In the weapons and armoury room the walls are adorned with swords, daggers and armour from various films including the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, District 9, and Narnia. In the case of the latter, the daggers used by children were made from rubber, because they invariably wanted to play with them. We passed around an Orc battle mace, pre-warned by Anthony not to drop it, and the heavy weight took me by surprise.

In another room a terrifyingly life-sized Azog looked on while real-life special effects artist Warren Beaton showed us how to create sculptures using bunched up tinfoil, a spoon and Pal Tiya, a substance similar to clay.

Warren emphasised the importance of persevering and never giving up, even if your first attempt at something creative “sucks”.

As he spoke Warren exuberantly crafted a balled-up piece of tinfoil into a head before our eyes, moulding facial features with his thumbs and smoothing it out with the spoon.

He waved his hand towards a shelf covered in other tinfoil sculptures. “All you need to do is say ‘hey I can go and give that a little go’. And that’s what this company is about — giving stuff a go.”

A few hundred metres down the road from the Weta Cave Workshop Tour we entered a different world, the Thunderbirds miniatures studio, and saw for ourselves what can happen when someone makes a go of their childhood dreams.

The success of Lord of the Rings brought opportunities for Richard Taylor to go into children’s television. His favourite TV show as a boy was Thunderbirds, the 1960s series created by Gerry Anderson using puppets and meticulously crafted miniatures. So Richard created “Thunderbirds Are Go”, using a similar formula but with one crucial difference — while the set is real (albeit miniaturised) the characters are digital. Weta Workshop decided to move away from using puppets after screen testing Thunderbirds on Wellington school kids.

“They said puppets are weird, scary and creepy,” said Anthony.

The original Thunderbirds used a large amount of junk, household items and parts from model sets in its shooting stages. A CD stacker turned into a sky scraper. A broken ice cream maker placed in a sky and spun around with sound effects became a satellite. A lemon squeezer could be a turbine or a nuclear reactor. And viewers never realised the difference.

“The human brain loves context over form,” says Anthony.

The modern show has stuck to this successful method and the lemon squeezer is regularly used as a tribute to its predecessor. “We sneak them in all the time,” Anthony admitted.

There are 14 miniature sets on display in the miniature effects tour, some used for close-ups and others for long shots.

We marvelled over the detail on Tracy Island, the Thunderbird 2 runway with its palm trees that swing outwards during launch, the Thunderbird 1 Hangar, Refuelling Hanger, the Hood’s Lair, and Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward’s mansion. The hedges in Lady Penelope’s gardens are made from kitchen sponges and the fountain is a chess piece.

As for Hood’s Lair, Anthony says: “It’s all made out of junk, starting appropriately with an old garbage can lid. The longer you look at this the more garbage you see.” There are razors, drink bottles and parts from old washing machines.

The baking soda snow on a mountain is still going strong after a few years. It was chosen over flour which could rot and salt which would solidify. “What looks impressive is really cheap and really simple,” says Anthony.

Some things have moved with the times – for instance there are LED lights on the modern set whereas in the 1960’s lights were hotter and couldn’t be used.

Lady Penelope’s house is a good example of the tricks the miniatures team play on viewers minds. When you look through the window of the house you see the lounge, an open door and a staircase in the background, giving the illusion there are many more rooms, without the team having to actually create them.

“It’s all context. It’s very comforting to your brain.”

Like the rest of Weta Workshop, Thunderbirds Are Go is a labour of love. Says Anthony of Richard Taylor: “He wants people to come here to be inspired.”

Seeing the detail, the vivid imagination behind the sets and the passion the staff have for Weta Workshop is inspiring indeed. If you are excited by the magic of movies, desire to be transported to another world, like to be creative with junk, and aren’t freaked out by giant trolls, make sure you detour to Weta Workshop when you’re in Wellywood.

To book tours visit https://tours.wetaworkshop.com/wellington/

© Copyright Julie Haines 2021

Julie Haines tries to escape the terrifying trolls outside Weta Workshop.
Latex Hobbit feet and Bilbo’s legs made from silicon
Special effects artist Warren Beaton enthrals visitors on the Weta Cave Workshop Tour with his tin foil sculpturing.
A wintry scene from Thunderbirds Are Go with baking soda snow.
Lurtz, leader of the Uruk-Hai in Lord of the Rings, lurks in the Weta Cave.
Gollum is one of the highlights of the Weta Cave
A silicon King Kong head which took two people over a month to complete
A troll outside Weta Workshop.