With a team of more than a dozen illustrators and sculptors, Weta Workshop is highly unusual in the special effects industry.
Making up a quarter of the company’s core staff, the existence of such a large creative ensemble is testimony to the value that company founders Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger place in good design. In fact, they have gone to lengths to build the company’s reputation on that very strength.
Weta is in the business of creating new worlds and realising them to the very highest degree of reality. While much of the company is dedicated to constructing these imaginary worlds for the camera, they must first be designed.
Weta,s designers are responsible for finding a creative vision for each new film or television project that both meets the expectations of the director and fulfills the need to create something in which audiences will believe. The world must underpin and support the story and not require a level of explanation or disclaiming that would otherwise distract or break viewers out of their enjoyment of the narrative.
In realising fantasy worlds such as those of The Lord of the Rings or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, everything must be designed, from the belt buckle worn by a soldier to the eye colour of a background Orc. This demands intensive design at all levels, be they broad stylistic considerations or the most minute detail of a barely discernible costume element, which is why Weta’s creative team includes artists and craftspeople of many disciplines and background.
Design is undertaken illustratively, sculpturally and in the form of model-making. Illustration often starts the process, but the move to three dimensions is usually swift, employing sculpting techniques ranging from physical sculptures undertaken with plasticene and clay to sculpting directly into the computer with the very latest organic digital modelling equipment.
Conceptual model making is similarly broad in its use of diverse media. A single prototype model might have parts that have been handsawn out of a block of wood and others precision engineered by computer and fashioned on the company’s rapid 3D prototyper. By embracing all these diverse technologies, both traditional and cutting edge, and partnering them in innovative and unexpected combinations, has yielded such a rich bag of tools for Weta’s artists to use in creating a unique experience for moviegoers.
Not surprisingly then, the process of experience design at Weta is also very fluid and collaborative. Ideas are shared and explored in open forum. A single design will pass through many hands as it is explored, refined and finally brought into being. Initially, the most important step in the process is understanding the brief, which is not just what is set by the director when he or she asks for an environment, but also the unspoken demands made by the subject matter itself, to say nothing of the inescapable awareness that everything that appears on screen will be measured against what has gone before.
In appreciating Peter Jackson’s nuance-filled and yet bold and sweeping vision for The Lord of the Rings, it became quickly obvious that a level of sensitivity was needed in the making of this film that is not always apparent in large productions.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien imagined a fantasy world, but one grounded in an historical reality not so dissimilar to our own. Rather than overwhelm an audience with its novelty, Tolkien’s world quietly won over its readers with its familiar elements until Middle-Earth became as real to them as any time or place in our own past.
Approaching this design task for a film required an attitude more typically befitting an historical period piece than a sword and sorcery epic. The creatures and cultures might not be of our earth, but they were of an earth, and had to appear no less real. They therefore had to be layered in the kind of detail that comes with time and evolution. Within each culture, styles of art had to be devised and consistently applied across everything from the cant of a roofline to the device etched upon a button. Likewise, among the creatures, physiological laws that govern the shapes and functions of real animals had to apply in Middle-Earth.
The design phase for this project was necessarily long, with the first illustrations being undertaken years before cameras would roll; but no less would suffice.
In the years since, Weta’s creative directors have applied this same philosophy of experience design to all the other projects the company has touched, regardless of genre. Just as it has been felt in the design of King Kong or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger aim to bring this unique Weta touch to many new worlds in the years to come.
Anything less would be a disservice to the client, audiences and the work, and wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun.