WETA Workshop!

I think we mentioned this before, but our host in Wellington works for WETA, the special effects shop that was made famous for its work on the Lord of the Rings films. There are two halves; WETA Digital focuses on CGI and animation, while WETA Workshop handles practical effects such as miniatures, props, and prosthetics. The studio is based about five minutes from the house we were watching, so of course we had to stop by for a visit!

You know you’ve arrived when you’re confronted by the three menacing trolls from The Hobbit, guarding the gates. Well, actually, these guys are more dopey than menacing, but they sure are large.

DSC03402WInside, the WETA Cave consists of a shop showcasing replicas and movie paraphernalia, as well as a small theater exhibiting the amazing work that goes on at the studio. Alas, we didn’t have a chance to watch the short movie they were running, but maybe next time we’re in town! There were also several life-size statues, including the armor of Sauron, and the fearsome Orc champion Lurtz, who quite intimidated Alina.

DSC03404WThe real high point of visiting though, was joining the Window Into Workshop guided tour. Our guide was a cheerful young lady from California, one of the prosthetics masters at the Workshop. She led us under the watchful gaze of another dastardly troll, and into a realm of mystery and enchantment. And no cameras…

DSC03405WWe were shown a lot of really interesting aspects of the props and effects process. From concept art to molding to final high density resin sculpts, there were examples of everything. I was surprised to learn that almost all of the armor and weapons you see in the movies are resin, and real metal is only used for when the camera moves in. Aluminum for stunt shots, and real forged spring steel for the actors’ close-ups. Even Sauron’s armor was made of plastic, which bendy “safety spikes”. There was also a full steel version created for the 30 seconds of close up in the films, but it only had about 10 inches of articulation. Turns out not to be very practical armor!

We were shown the forge where the only master armorer in New Zealand works, along with many of his weapons, and a full suit of plate armor created for the studio’s mascot Terrier. Although she’s never actually worn it.

Moving on, we saw some of the very large miniatures used in some films, castles that take up half a room. We also learned about the process that goes into creating silicon prosthetics, and how facial pieces can only be used for a single day before falling apart. On the other hand, for some of the hobbits, they can now create combination legs and feet that just slip onto the actors like boots. Apparently the dwarves in The Hobbit even wore fake forearms to make them look thicker and stockier (and not have to work out!)

One disillusionment for me was in learning about the chainmail making process. I remember reading that they’d had two people who made all the chainmail for everyone in the Lord of the Rings films, several million links. From personal experience, this was quite impressive, as winding and linking steel rings is a real pain in the ass. Well, turns out it’s not really chainmail. they’ve done something more clever. They injection mold plastic tubes, which they then cut into rings, and then snap together. So you get the real chainmail look and feel, but at a fraction of the weight. Great end result, but a somewhat of a cop-out. I also hadn’t realized that until this method came along, most movie chainmail had just been dyed woven yarn, which is probably why it all looks like crap in older movies!

The most illuminating thing for both of us was learning about how much time the employees have for free form creative work. Since the Workshop works on contract, when tasks are completed, there is the opportunity to work on personal projects, and we saw several people doing sculpting work or commissions. It also seemed that the studio is a bit of a bootstrap operation. The guy who runs the entire machining department owns all the equipment himself, runs it all on personally developed programs and code, and actually is running some robots scavenged from automobile assembly lines! That’s one way to get job security.

We left with a new respect for all the hard work that goes into the small details in the movies we watch, that you never really notice. As our guide said though, if they didn’t pay attention to such detail, you’d subconsciously know that something wasn’t right, and it would ruin the experience. I wish they’d had another tour of the digital side of the workshop, as it would be really fascinating to see how some of those effects are produced as well.

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