Wellington's Weta Group bringing Hollywood blockbusters to life
The award-winning Weta Group of companies work on some of the world's biggest movies. Collette Devlin finds out what sets them apart.
From humble beginnings to a dominant player in the movie world, Wellington's Weta Group of businesses, has no plans on slowing down, with more expansion of the empire on the cards.
Scattered all over the eastern suburb of Miramar, the collection of companies can be a confusing collection of names, but each arm of the business has the capacity to work collectively, as well as independently of each other.
Their collective reputation means that Hollywood - and other players around the world - comes calling to Wellington time and time again because of the group's ability to create fantasy worlds. But look closer at the finished product and the capital's touch is subtly sprinkled throughout the films.
* Wellington: New Zealand's feature film production powerhouse
* Ghost in the Shell brings $85 million in economic benefits to Wellington
* Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor sign 25 year lease for Wellington movie museum
* Weta Workshop partners with Google-backed Magic Leap
* Wellington businesses brimming with Weta Workshop inspiration
Costume designers Kurt and Bart (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2, Dallas Buyers Club), were influenced by several well-known New Zealand designers.
The majority of the suits were created by Wellington company, Rembrandt. Other local fashion includes clothes by Strangely Normal and Zambesi and jewellery by Steph Lusted and Jasmine Watson.
Kurt Swanson, from Kurt and Bart, said the work felt specific to New Zealand and through their collaborations, they had made connections they could work with in the future.
If you have been to the cinema recently to watch Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, you'll have seen more of the Weta magic.
The group of companies includes, digital visual effects house Weta Digital; design studio and physical effects manufacturing facility Weta Workshop; post production facility Park Road Post Production; purpose-built filmmaking complex Stone Street Studios and Portsmouth Rentals camera and lighting equipment hire.
It's down to this group of companies that Wellington is no stranger to putting itself on the world stage as the ultimate film-making and tourism destination, by providing a platform to display their abundance of creative skills.
The film-making hub is sprawled across the Miramar Peninsula in Wellington and is one of the biggest employers in the capital that also invests in graduates from the tertiary education sector.
The companies were born out of Sir Peter Jackson's love for film-making and were initially vehicles for his movies.
It was the early 1990s when the Wellington director was working on his puppet movie, Meet the Feebles, when he engaged the help of Richard Taylor and and his wife, Tania Rodger, who sowed the workshop seed in the backroom of their Wellington flat in 1987.
This relationship led to further collaboration on Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, which would propel him from talented splatter merchant to serious director.
Taylor and Rodger purchased a silicon graphics computer (the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere) for 14 digital effect shots on the film and paved the way for the creation of Weta Digital.
The Lord of The Rings movies were a turning point for visual effects and motion capture technology, and in 2001 acclaimed visual effects artist Joe Letteri joined the team and Digital officially became a separate standalone business.
Much to the dismay of staff at the companies, the Weta split still confuses people - even politicians get it wrong.
The companies frequently collaborate on large-scale film projects, but also function as independent facilities. If there was one bugbear, it's when people get Weta Workshop and Weta Digital mixed up.
Jackson may have been instrumental in setting up the companies, but today he is less hands on, leaving the the day-to-day running to managers across the group, while he concentrates on film-making and other projects.
A testament to the work being done by the Weta Group is the $644 million in film production revenue recorded for Wellington in 2016, more than double that from a relatively slow year in 2015.
For its part, the group worked on a broad range of projects and with producers from the Middle East and China through to North America, as well as with local producers and directors on films such as Pork Pie and Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
The group's combined efforts were called on with Stone Street Studios, Park Road Post Production and Weta Digital working extensively on Pete's Dragon, while Stone Street, Park Road and Weta Workshop were intimately involved in the production of Ghost in the Shell.
Weta Digital continues to be globally recognised for its work in visual effects with its 1600 crew delivering shots for 2016 releases including Independence Day: Resurgence, The BFG, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Deadpool among others, as well as contributing on the Academy award-winning The Jungle Book.
Weta Workshop also worked on the Power Rangers and Great Wall movies, while its offshoot Pukeko Films continues to build on its children's television success through its work on the hit Australian drama Cleverman.
Meanwhile, Park Road Post Production has supported a wide range of international and local film and television productions including Bilal (Dubai) and League of Gods (China).
The film revenue underscores a good period for the New Zealand screen industry in a highly-competitive global market, which is largely related to the Government's support for an internationally competitive incentive scheme.
So, how do all the parts of the Weta Empire work?
Wellingtonians are proud to call their city the movie capital of New Zealand, and likewise the Weta movie empire is proud to call Wellington home.
Taylor, Weta Workshop's chief executive, says there is no where else in the world he would rather be.
"I always say, unlike other parts of the world, Wellington city still works for the people."
Despite being positioned at the opposite end of the globe to Hollywood, Weta Workshop is thriving in Wellington and has diversified into other areas of business.
The city is brimming with workshop inspiration - from costume-making businesses, eye-catching restaurant decor and public sculptures, to theatres, stunning museum exhibits, and movie-themed tours.
"When people naturally think of the Wellington film industry, it's appropriate that they would think of Lord of the Rings, but of course it's not about any one genre of film-making and skill in that area, it's just a love of film-making whether it is fantasy, whether it's historical, whether it's contemporary, whether it's science fiction, or horror, whatever. It's about the endeavours that the crew throw into the process."
For the workshop it was about the love of making things, and Ghost in the Shell once again represented the incredible skills of the technicians in the city, he said.
The workshop's 11 departments employ a crew of about 200 artists who work with 50 to 60 clients each year in various areas.
Taylor spends much of his time outside of New Zealand looking for work to bring back to the capital, and insists the company could not have achieved all it has done without being based in Wellington.
"Just look at the support we get from the local community. Not since the major American studio systems of the '20s and '30s has something like this really existed.
"Everyone is together in a tight-knit community and working so closely with the other companies means communication is seamless."
For more than 20 years the workshop has applied its creativity and craftsmanship to blockbuster films and hit television series including, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy, King Kong, Avatar, District 9, Elysium, Chappie, Thunderbirds Are Go and Ghost in the Shell.
Since finishing Lord of The Rings, the workshop has worked on more than 80 films - an average of about seven a year.
The five-time Academy Award winning design studio and physical manufacturing facility not only services the world's entertainment and creative industries, it is also an international tourism destination.
The diverse, innovation-driven company is also the publisher of 19 books, producer of consumer products, has an interactive collaboration with Florida-based technology company Magic Leap and is the creator of public sculptures and exhibition experiences like Gallipoli: The scale of our war, at New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa - a career highlight for Taylor.
"When we called ourselves Weta, I did not think the indigenous name would be used overseas. I never thought we would be trading outside of New Zealand at such a significant level, but the entertainment world has become global village."
Taylor developed a consumer products business in China 18 years ago, where he built up a friendship and partnership with Fred Tang.
Collectible masters, art and other commercial items are created in the workshop but manufactured in China.
The workshop has also heavily invested in robotic manufacturing and a bronze casting foundry in China and is now making costumes for the Chinese film industry.
Children's TV production company Pukeko Pictures, which works with ITV Studios in Great Britain to produce 26 half-hour episodes of a computer-generated remake of Thunderbirds, is also an offshoot of the Workshop.
Taylor's business relationships in China saw him introduce the studio to the head of the Beijing Film Academy, who helped to set up a deal with Chinese entertainment group, Guangdong Huawen Century Animation Company, to produce a sister series to The WotWots called the Kiddets.
Before 2008, fans who made the trip to Wellington could do little more than peek over the fence, so the Weta Cave was set up to give visitors something more and in 2013 the Cave was transformed into an immersive, behind-the-scenes tour that now attracts 120,000 visitors each year.
A Thunderbirds Are Go behind-the-scenes experience was launched recently.
Taylor is a founding board member of Magic Leap and has brought the workshop on board to help create the world's first mixed reality game.
He says diversifying allows him to retain the 120 core workshop staff all year in a volatile film industry.
The workshop trades in passion, enthusiasm and tenacity and he believes its world-renowned reputation stems from the Kiwi quality of a willingness to give it a go, he says.
"We work on different-sized films and we want to make sure the forefront of our offering remains at the highest level we can achieve."
This includes developing its own technology to help a client's vision come to life.
"I like to think of us an artisan studio because we have such a broad spectrum of disciplines that uses specialist technology and almost all of it is built on the workshop floor."
Diversity was critical for the workshop and makes it a wonderful and wacky place to work, he says.
"I have an insatiable desire to give lots of things a go. But the business managers help me understand how to turn that into something serviceable and manageable."
The future of Weta Workshop is thinking ahead and staying relevant, in what he calls "innovative methodology".
This would involve using the skills of his crew to looking into live entertainment and exhibitions and supporting the physical craftsmanship with the digital.
"I love the idea that 20 years from now we have been able to keep craftsmanship at the core values of what we do here."
Weta Workshop general manager David Wilks says at its heart, the workshop is a design and manufacturing facility for the film industry, and he credits its evolution to Taylor and Roger's vision.
"We work on individual projects for clients, but the capacity for us to collaborate as a group with an end-to-end offering and in a geographically condensed location, is impressive for producers."
"What drives us is worthy, creative endeavour and the diversity you see that in the various streams of the business evolution," Wilks says.
For the first 10 years Weta Digital was focused on Jackson's films, but later diversified, establishing a reputation for cutting-edge visual effects and working on blockbusters. The business has five visual effects Oscars to show for it.
After finishing work on about 16 films, including The Jungle Book, they have been focused on recent releases Independence Day: Resurgence, Steven Spielberg's The BFG and Pete's Dragon.
Digital have recently been active producing shots for the upcoming War for the Planet of the Apes, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, where the crew worked on most of the third act.
Some of the effects included creating the fractal inspired Planet Hollow and turning Ego, Star Lord's father, played by Kurt Russell, into David Hasselhoff.
Led by senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, Weta Digital is known for its unique creativity and a commitment to developing innovative technology.
Its performance-driven digital artists have created groundbreaking characters such as Smaug, Gollum, Kong, Neytiri and Caesar from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
These are widely acknowledged as some of the best digital characters ever put on the big screen and an inspiration in the movie sector.
Digital's development of revolutionary virtual production workflows for Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin and the The Hobbit trilogy has firmly integrated digital production techniques into the film production model.
Letteri joined the company 16 years ago to work on The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
The four-time Academy Award winner was only supposed to stay for two years, but never left.
He is now a director and shareholder, and responsible for all the work that goes out.
"Gollum was the big attraction for me. I loved making creatures and unlike what I did for Jurassic Park, he was living and breathing. We had to make the skin look soft and translucent like human skin and this subsurface scattering was one of our biggest breakthroughs."
Instead of a lab, artists send their work to computers that render the pictures overnight, which are examined the next day.
The data centres, where the rendering is done, is the physical representation of the work done and are heart of the digital operation.
Unlike the workshop props, these files that contain digital visual effects and computer-generated imagery for feature films, can not be physically touched.
The centres contain thousands of cabinet-like computers lined up in rows and are so important they have their own power backups and cooling systems to protect them.
Unlike a movie shooting in Wellington, most of the international films that digital work on goes under the radar until a movie is released.
The process starts with concept art or sculptures and Letteri likens it to an actor getting a script.
"You understand the intent, but you have to determine how you bring that to life and what the reality will be to create that."
Every show is a new learning experience for the crew but creating a planet for Avatar stands out as the most memorable for Letteri because it was like wiping the slate clean and starting again, he says.
Working with Avatar director, James Cameron, to create the "just right" and "physically possible" shade of blue for the characters was also a standout achievement for him.
It was a milestone project and there was so much new technology that it set the stage for everything that has come since, he says.
"What makes this work fun is that every time you solve something the bar gets moved higher and the imagination continues to grow and you get to show more on screen."
The company tries to develop as much technology as it can to stay in front and has an R&D team of 200 people who develop code and software, which underpins the digital effects.
"I don't think people realise how much R&D we do in core areas. We also publish about five research papers each year and most of what we do has become common practice in the industry."
Weta Digital chief operating officer David Wright says for the past 20 years the owners have been overcoming challenges to build the foundations of a very strong international business.
The business is spread over 12 buildings and has its own, secure, fibre loop infrastructure that is also be accessed by the rest of the Weta Group.
"The crew are our strong point and this hardware and infrastructure allows our artists to do their thing."
Unlike the other Weta companies that work with New Zealand film-makers, digital's clients are mostly offshore and major international film studios.
The business is geared to handle 1200 shots on a feature film, while only five may be required for a smaller film.
"We work in a very competitive business environment and we are always in a comprehensive bidding process for projects along with visual effects houses around the world."
Only a small group of executives get to see secret movie scripts and then turn a narrative description into a dollar figure, he says.
"The quality of our visual effects is the calling card for us internationally, and we pride ourselves on producing the effects other companies can't."
The DNA of Weta Digital is its relationship with Jackson, which Wright says has helped it to organically develop to the extent that world directors such as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg want to work with them.
"While many businesses rely on a board of directors to grow a company and make it successful, we don't have individual directors managing us - what we have is an owner who is actually one of our key clients and when we engage with him it's not in a board environment, it's as a client."
The business makes hundreds of millions of dollars in turnover each year and is thinking about growth.
Any growth would be considered and on back of a solid belief that it would sustain a larger business.
"In many respects we are a conservative business and don't take huge risks. We need to make a call if we want to expand our footprint and we will if the work is there … the odds are in five years, we will be bigger."
PARK ROAD POST
Park Road Post Production is an internationally renowned, purpose-built facility, providing final sound and picture grading for movies.
Once the film images have been shot and and cut, Park Road staff take the completed film through the process of colour grading and correction, sound design, sound mixing and create a version that goes out to the cinema.
The private company is an active champion of the domestic industry and committed to supporting New Zealand film-makers, industry events and developing education initiatives.
Completed in 2002 in time to deliver the final sound mix on Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Park Road has continued to provide post production to film-makers all over the world.
The majestic building is perhaps the face of the Weta empire for film-makers when they arrive in Wellington.
Inside, a long rabbit warren of corridors lead to various mixing stages, edit, picture and sound suites and large plush cinemas.
About 70 core staff work within the grand surroundings and when a production is in-house, it may host another 40 editorial staff.
Multiple Academy Award winning, senior re-recording mixer, Michael Hedges, says it's a fantastic place to work.
"I've mixed in London, LA and San Francisco and this is equal to anywhere. Peter's passion for Park Road has turned this into a world-class facility with cutting edge technology."
His role is to generate the soundscape for a movie for the director, which includes the dialogue, music, sound effects.
The length of time he spends in the studio is dependent on the budget of a film - a blockbuster could take up to 16 weeks and a smaller local film could take four weeks.
Similar to the rest of the Weta Group, China has become a large market for the company, says chief executive Cameron Harland.
"We are a grand example of what is going on in the film industry here that can contribute meaningfully to the local economy."
Vicki Jackways, head of marketing, says if technology required did not exist, the crew would created it so the film-maker was not distracted.
"We are here to facilitate the mechanics of making a picture beautiful and try to achieve what film-maker vision."
Although the Park Road facility is bespoke, the digital aspect of the Weta companies means they are connected to the world.
"There are no barriers, which is great for us and New Zealand," Jackways says.
STONE STREET STUDIOS
The Lord of the Rings was also the starting place for the old paint factory, which has now been transformed into a studio lot.
Stone Street Studios sits at the hub of the film-making community in Wellington New Zealand.
The complex includes four purpose-built stages, including the large 24,500 square foot 'Kong' soundstage. Supporting the stages are offices for production, art department, construction, wardrobe and makeup, as well as a large backlot usable for outside greenscreen, wet stage.
Like the rest of Jackson's businesses, Stone Street grew organically, starting out as a place to make his movies.
Harland who runs the studios says it's a massive asset for Wellington and the reason why films like Pete's Dragon and Ghost in the Shell were made here.
"Hollywood likes New Zealand's locations and Government incentives and getting a production into Stone Street is good news for businesses in the area."