Sir Richard Taylor and the Wizards of Wētā Workshop

How does one go about creating a world? Is it a matter of taking one step at a time, or does it come in some great flash of inspiration? Is it necessary to have been born with some inherent spark of creativity, or can anyone do it? Is creativity a form of everyday magic?

It has been 20 years since I sat down in that darkened movie theatre in Oslo to watch The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time. And what struck me most about the film was the unmistakable sense of the real combined with the magical in every scene. Through some form of tangible, real-world magic, Middle-Earth had come to life. And if you look behind the magic and the spells, you’ll most likely find a wizard!

And earlier in 2021, I got to meet one: Sir Richard Taylor (or just Richard, as he will remind you if you ever call him Sir) who is the head of the New Zealand special effects company Wētā Workshop. Richard led his company as they transformed the fantastic drawings and sketches of artists Alan Lee and John Howe into sets, models and other special effects to realize Peter Jackson’s vision for The Lord of the Rings.

I had a long conversation with Richard via Zoom. After chatting about topics such as geography, the beauty of New Zealand (and my dream of traveling there once the world is back to normal), Scandinavian history, myths and heavy metal (and the fact that Norway, known for its black metal music, is shaped like an electric guitar!), we got down to the interview.

In writing out an interview, I often include my own thoughts, reactions and feelings to what was said. But as those who know him surely will agree with, Richard is a man of many words, so apart from the questions I asked, I’ll let him take it from here.

What role did Tolkien’s books play in your childhood and growing up?

-Well, it was The Hobbit that had a big impact on me when I was younger, when I was like 10-11 years old. I didn’t have a very strong reading age. In fact, I was a pretty poor reader. And so, the epic nature of The Lord of the Rings was beyond my reading capacity. So, I actually entered the world of Middle-Earth through The Hobbit, and it had incredible resonance on me.

Interestingly, about the same time, I had bought at a closing down sale of a library, for two dollars, a print of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. And I hung that above my bed. And up until that point, I hadn’t really conceptualized in my mind that a fantasy world could run in parallel to my own real world.

I was growing up on a farm; life was all very practical. My father was an aircraft engineer, and my mother was a science teacher. So, life was very perfunctory, and it didn’t have the sense of the fantastical woven into it. So, with the combination of Hieronymus Bosch’s work and looking into that painting and seeing the fantastical, demonic world that he had painted, and then reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit where he invokes similar conceptional ideas to some degree, you know when you think about the dark sides of what Middle-Earth is.

I started to realize that my mind could actually wander into a much broader spectrum of thinking, and it catalyzed and energized an understanding of the fantastical.

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Sir Richard Taylor
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The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

Can you talk a bit about what it meant for you to be able to work on a project like The Lord of the Rings?

-It is now a well-known story. Peter rang us up, and he said, “You’d better come around. Bring Tania and the boys. Grab some fish and chips, don’t forget the Coca-Cola. I’ve got something to tell you.” So, we drove around to his house, and the ‘boys’ were the five concept artists that were working with me at the time. We’d been working on King Kong in 1996, and it had sadly fallen over, and Peter very quickly had to conceive of a new project. And he went off overseas with the intent of returning with something new. So, when we went around to his house (having grabbed some fish and chips from the shop literally two minutes up the road here in Miramar) (in Wellington), and Tania, myself and these guys (most of them still working here today): Daniel Falconer, Jamie Beswarick etc., we went to Peter’s house, sat on the carpet and he told us that we were going to be making two films of The Lord of the Rings with Miramax.

I likened it to being perched on the edge of a precipice. The weight of the expectation that comes down on you at that moment is really quite extraordinary. Of course, you know the pedigree of the literature, and you know how critically important it is to hundreds of millions of people.  Therefore – what we are about to do together must achieve the auspices of respectfulness for Tolkien literature. But in equal part – fulfilling to a huge number of people who already have a pre-conceived image in their minds of what Middle-Earth should look like because of this incredible literature that they have read.

I likened it to being perched on the edge of a precipice.

-Richard Taylor

It is really interesting that we went on and did C.S. Lewis’ work straight after Tolkien’s work because it is an interesting comparison possibly worthy of note right now. When you read Tolkien, the writing is so visual. He literally could draw the things that he wrote, and he did indeed often do that. But when you actually read the descriptives, they are so rich in visual descriptions. But whereas you read C.S. Lewis, the battle in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe lasts for five or six pages. It doesn’t have the same depth of description, so there was a much greater reason for invention through the design process to visualize the world. With Middle-Earth, you could turn constantly to Tolkien’s writing and seek out this inspiration within the words written, almost like using a blueprint for the design.

Although – because of this, we knew that the audiences that would one day watch the movies would already have a very strong visual image of what the world should look like. And understandably – that did come with some significant weight of expectation when we stopped to think about that. We ultimately opted to look after our part of the conceptional design for the armor, weapons, creatures, miniatures, special makeup effects and prosthetics. Five departments – it was a very large undertaking for a small group of people. At that point, we had 36 people working with us. Only 1/8 of the total crew that we would ultimately hire to work on our part of the films had ever worked on a film or TV show before. The other 7/8 of the crew were coming in cold and training from the ground up. Although on completion seven and a half years later – everyone was now an expert in their particular craft. 

So I guess at some point you make the decision – you either step back from the precipice and say, “Nah, it is too hard. It is just too difficult”, or you actually step over the edge. And you free-fall for a while, and what catches you, of course, from smashing into the ground at the bottom is the collaboration with the people around you; first and foremost, Peter Jackson.

Peter’s core understanding of the material, of the already pre-conceived ways that he wanted to do a lot of stuff, and his faith in technology and his willingness to leave us to our own devices to some degree, all added to the confidence we needed to tackle something of this scale. But also his understanding that if we were truly going to lift these movies to international levels of visual quality, we needed the assistance of the best of the best when it comes to concept design. And that came in the form of Alan Lee and John Howe. And it was Peter’s grasp of this critical component that, first and foremost that gave us all the support we all needed.  Of course, you ultimately come to understand that this will come from all collaborators, whether it be Alan and John or the other team of people who gather around you that allow the magic to happen.

…we needed the best of the best when it comes to concept design. And it came in the form of Alan Lee and John Howe.

-Richard Taylor

And in the seven and a half years that I was fortunate enough to play my role in these films, I never stopped once in believing that this was the best thing that could be happening to me and my colleagues. I never questioned if I should lessen up my efforts. Whether it was becoming too hard. (And it was very, very hard at times, as you could imagine). But never unenjoyable. And never did I find things that made me stop and reflect that this was too challenging, too difficult. Because the joy of what we were actually doing, and who we were doing it with, and why we were doing it, and as a country, we were doing it together, just washed away any of those self-concerns that you might have about your well-being or the difficult journey you’re on or the challenges ahead.

So, needless to say, when I was asked to work on it, it meant a phenomenal amount to me. And the fact that our company, Wētā Workshop, was given the custodianship of a number of departments, likewise was incredibly impactful and very special to us.

How did Wētā Workshop start? Can you talk about some of the early productions with Peter Jackson?

We started a number of years before we met Peter. My wife and I ran a small effects shop out of the back room of our flat called RT Effects (Richard and Tanias Effects), and we were servicing local tv commercials. We ultimately got our big break doing a New Zealand version of Spitting Image. I sculpted all of the puppets in margarine, and we did about 70 puppets in the end. And it was while we were making that show that Peter (we were unaware of the work he was doing) was finishing Bad Taste, his first movie.

We got an introduction to Peter through a mutual friend. He had seen our work on television, our weekly satirical puppet show. And I think he was surprised that there was anyone else in the country, never mind the local city, doing this type of thing. So, we had the good fortune of catching up. And we became firm friends very quickly and started spending a lot of time together.

We didn’t do any work at all on Bad Taste, sadly. I wished we had known him a year earlier, as I would have loved to have contributed. But he invited us to work on the very first Braindead. My wife and I were looking after the construction of the models, miniatures, and props. But sadly, about 12 weeks in, the whole movie fell over. But Peter, being ever-versatile, resurrected the funding to make a significantly smaller movie called Meet the Feebles. And Tania and I worked under an amazing New Zealand creator called Cameron Chittock, who was a good friend of Peter’s and had made our introduction. We made puppets for the first six months, and when we started filming, I went on and built all the miniatures, and my wife went on and did all the puppet wrangling.

And then back on to Braindead. Peter managed to get Braindead off the ground again. This time it was half the budget, and instead of hiring back the Australian effects workshop that he was going to use the first time around, very thankfully for us, he gave my wife and I the job of looking after the effects on the movie. That was obviously an incredible experience working on something so crazy, so full-on, and so joyful.

In the early years, we were doing Hercules and Xena, just crazy amounts of other work, TV commercials and so on. On Heavenly Creatures, we were doing the physical puppet work, the suit work, and the miniatures. And Peter wanted to be a very early adopter of digital technology. He wanted to do 14 digital effect shots for Heavenly Creatures. So, we all pooled our financial resources, which was a fairly big ask, and we purchased our first computer, which was the first Silicon Graphics computer, definitely in New Zealand and possibly in the southern hemisphere.

That computer instigated the build of Wētā Digital; it allowed us to go on and do Contact and The Frighteners as we started to build out our digital effects facility. Meanwhile, my wife and I very firmly kept focus on the physical effects part of our company. And the rest is history; onto The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and on and on. Today we no longer have any ownership in Wētā Digital as we have chosen to focus all of our efforts to the practical side of the business.

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Braindead aka Dead Alive by Peter Jackson (1992)

Why do you think New Zealand makes such a great Middle-Earth? Is there something about the country’s identity you can point to?

It is, and I will speak to that. But I think first and fundamentally, it is always about the individual. It’s about the filmmaker. Middle-Earth got created in New Zealand because of Peter Jackson, because of his indomitable spirit and his extraordinary filmmaking capabilities. Remember, this is a person who had made, I think, a 14 million dollar movie in The Frighteners and then jumped to a $360 million movie trilogy with The Lord of the Rings. And I don’t think at any moment Peter hesitated in his confidence that he could actually do The Lord of the Rings. Maybe there were others, producers and studio execs, that were less confident. But I never saw Peter falter in his confidence.

So certain was he in his strategy on how he was going to make these films. But that’s not to take anything away from the incredible film industry that exists here. And his ability, with a limited number of foreign experts (he brought in the First Assistant Director and the Director of Photography from Australia, amongst others from around the world), but wonderfully it was crewed predominantly by New Zealanders.

I’ve suggested in the past – that the movie wasn’t made by a director. It wasn’t made by just a film company or the New Zealand film industry. It was made by our whole country! Because the whole of New Zealand literally got behind the making of these movies. And there was definitely a sense of pride in the fact that as a country, this could be made due to the huge number of extras required. The army got involved. The government got involved. The people of New Zealand got involved. It was actually a very beautiful thing for our country.

I’m sure a limited few would disagree, but I think, for the most part, it was a moment of extreme pride. Where our country was able to indelibly stamp our mark of creativity on the world stage. Although we had a very dynamic film industry pre-The Lord of the Rings, making very beautiful films, our countries films had not really been witnessed by a large proportion of the world’s public. And so, The Lord of the Rings was our first chance to really show the world the creative capabilities of our country, and that pride and energy certainly enhance the filmmaking process. 

The Lord of the Rings was our first chance to really show the world the creative capabilities of our country.

-Richard Taylor

Can you talk about some of the main breakthroughs, like Gollum, for example, Wētā came up with while working on The Lord of the Rings?

I think with respect to Gollum and also with respect to some of the other digital achievements, once again, acknowledgment has to be given to the fact that Peter, as a producer and creator of the movies, made early technical decisions that required him to be immensely confidence that the technology would one day deliver. When you have to leave a hole in the movie where a major character is going to exist, and you choose not to shoot an alternative take using an actor with prosthetics for a character such as Gollum, and because you are betting everything that a small team of people within your digital effects division are going to develop a hyper-real and completely plausible actor that can play besides your flesh and blood world-class performers  – now that’s a massive decision.

And he did this multiple times when you think about the armies, other digital characters, and environments. Tolkien described armies of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. And at the point we were making the movies, there was a very limited number of ways that you could have brought that to life convincingly. Obviously, you could have attempted to do what some directors have done. And it’s still prevalent in China, where you actually dress up thousands and thousands of extras. Or you composite small blocks of blue screened extras into a scene again and again. But he knew that none of that was going to be satisfactory. So, one person with a computer and with a small team around him developed the software Massive, which has now become so well-known and part of the folklore of Middle-Earth.

But watching that unfold monthly, as the very first tests were rolling out of Wētā Digital, no one really knew whether this approach was going to fulfill expectations. And then seeing libraries of motion-captured movement being put into the computer, which would then randomly draw from these movements to create authentic performances in huge battlefields to give these sweeping, dramatic scenes was mind-boggling. It was groundbreaking and brave. Brave for Peter. Brave for the producers. And very brave for the digital effects artists that did the work and pulled it off.

At Wētā Workshop – we may not have been breaking massive new ground for companies similar to ours around the world, but for us, it was also groundbreaking – just because of the mass production of armor and weapons, characters and creatures. The quantities of prosthetics that were needed every day were staggering at times. So, we needed to come up with unique and clever techniques and just iterate and invent literally on the fly almost daily.

The most critical thing for our company is the ability to innovate new methodologies. Because if we don’t innovate and just kept on using the same old techniques that we’ve always used, we couldn’t be cost-competitive, we couldn’t run multiple jobs in parallel. The way we used to do it was all 100% handcraft skills; today, over 60% of everything we make is assisted through robotic manufacturing, 3d printing, milling, laser cutting and so on. So, the ability to innovate is a very critical part of what we do.    

Let’s talk about Gollum. Did you ever consider any other methods or ideas for creating this important and iconic character?

We briefly considered it. We actually took one of our designers, a guy called Chris Guise, who at the time was incredibly slim. And we made prosthetics for his hands and back of his head so we could shoot over his shoulder. I think it was only ever used in one scene.  At the time, this caused a bit of an epiphany.

It could be argued that ultimately, you only want one reality for a film, a character. If you build a puppet or put an actor in makeup that you are going to use for some of your shots, and then the digital effects company is going to do the wide shots, the running shots, the action shots etc. It can become more difficult to replicate the reality you have created by physical means (which is an absolute reality since it has been filmed onset) than to create an alternate reality. Ultimately, it is often easier for the audience to buy into the one alternate reality, let’s say Gollum, a digital character-driven through motion capture and incredible animation, than trying to grasp two realities: our puppet version and the digital version.

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Andy Serkis as Gollum

And it became very clear in those first few months that jumping between the two was going to be very hard to do. It wasn’t going to look good, and it was going to be less than perfect. So, the decision very early on was to trust the fact that one day they would solve complex issues required to create a photo-realistic character such as Gollum (such as subsurface scattering) so that the super clever folk at Wētā Digital would be able to create the authenticity of Gollum.

At some point in the production, Joe Letteri joined Wētā Digital as visual effects supervisor, and he ultimately collaborated with Gino Acevedo, a physical effects technician who had come down from America to work with us to do all the character paint designs in our workshop. Gino helped Joe and his team understand how to create the sense of translucent skin that looks terrific to the camera.  So in collaboration with the incredible digital artists who also worked on Gollum, there was this amazing transference of knowledge, ideas and inspiration that went into the creation of what we saw on film.     

Looking back at The Lord of the Rings trilogy now, is there a physical set piece, costume or similar that you are especially happy with?

I’m going to give you a slightly multi-faceted answer. My favorite character that we created was Lurtz, who was played by New Zealand actor Lawrence Makoare. Ultimately, any prosthetic character you create is only as successful due to the performance of the person inside the makeup. And Lawrence is one such person. Wonderfully we have all remained friends with Lawrence. He’s a huge guy, and he has such a power of presence. So Lurtz was, to me, the most special character we created amongst a huge number of very special characters.

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Richard is really fond of Lurtz. I mean, really!

I have a great love for miniatures, and I lament the loss of miniatures from the screen industry. It’s a very rare thing today to see miniatures. I think the last time we built them was for Blade Runner 2049. So it was magnificent that the director was willing to shoot miniatures. On Ghost in the Shell, we also got to build miniatures, although these were photographed and used as digital overlays for the digital environments. But at least we got to build them.

On The Lord of the Rings, we built 72 miniatures, if I can remember the number correctly. The beauty of Rivendell from Alan Lee’s drawings was one of the most extraordinary things I got to build with my friends and colleagues. Our senior model makers, Mary MacLachlan and John Baster, had built that miniature along with me and two other people. You can imagine having read about it and then one day getting to build it, and you’re building it from Alan Lee’s sketches! We never did a plan of it; we just literally used his pencil sketches, and it grew from these.

I have a great love for miniatures, and I lament the loss of miniatures from the screen industry.

-Richard Taylor

That was when I really understood and appreciated the creative brilliance of Alan. The very first art book I bought was the one titled Fairies by Alan Lee and Brian Froud, and this inspired me hugely, but it wasn’t until we built the miniatures that I really understood his ability to visualize on a near savant level. He would just do a series of seemingly disconnected drawings, but if you would wrap those drawings around a cone, they would perfectly marry up and give you a complete study of the environment.

Likewise with Minas Tirith. Alan provided a series of sketches for us to build from. For this miniature, we literally piled a whole lot of cardboard boxes together, sprayed it with urethane foam, carved that back and then started building on to that. Never could we think that this miniature would end up going on to be exhibited in a museum, having a life well beyond the movie. If we had known, we would have built it a little better. But we were building them so cheap, so fast that I really was of the view that the only thing that mattered was that they just needed to hold up for the filming.

The very last thing we ever built on The Lord of the Rings, five days before the film was sent off for print, was the docks (from The Return of the King). It was filmed, it was edited, and it was composited into the movie in five days. I love that scene. I love the Army of the Dead flowing over the edge. I love the heroic moment of Aragorn leaping over the gunnel of the ship and running to shore. I think it’s because of the last-minute nature of this build that I still think so fondly of it.   

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The Rivendell miniature based on Alan Lee’s drawings

And finally, what is your fondest memory from the whole project of making The Lord of the Rings?

Walking down the red carpet with my wife in Wellington for the premiere of the first film. The whole city had turned out, and the sense of overwhelming emotion and energy – I guess that’s probably the most impactful.

If I rephrase the question slightly, what is the most important thing for me to get out of these movies? It is the knowledge that we were able to take a large group of people that otherwise had never worked in the film industry before, and through the infrastructure of our company and hopefully, the inspiration of the project, a group of people were empowered to achieve things that they could never have possibly imagined before we got to work on these movies.

I love thinking that young people join us and learn to make, and the joy of making is often underrated today. But I have a very strong view that the craftsmanship of any country is the road markers through history that define what was happening at that point in that country’s history. And the loss of craftsmanship is a huge loss from the world, and I, therefore, love that we try and keep that alive through the work we do every day on films such as Lord of the Rings.

To me, knowing that we were able to contribute to this really special trilogy of films for those seven and a half years and to engage the level of craftsmanship necessary to make our part of these movies with a group of creative technicians that came together passionately to do something special -that is what I remember, and that will always be the highlight of the project for me.

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The Wizards at Wētā Workshop – creating new worlds since 1987!

This has been Part II of my 20th-anniversary celebration of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings-trilogy. If you want to learn about how this massive production got started, check out my article and interview with producer Mark Ordesky in Part I. Also, if you want to learn more about Wētā Workshop, you can find their website here.

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