The brains behind Weta's monsters

GRANT SMITHIES
Last updated 05:00 15/05/2011
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Photos: Kevin Stent

Rocket man: Greg Broadmore and his Roxy Cinema mural.

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He's the design brains behind some of Weta Workshop's biggest movies, yet he was turned down by two art schools and kicked off the dole. Greg Broadmore spoke to Grant Smithies.

MIRAMAR, EARLY April, and the interior of Wellington's new Roxy Cinema had the air of a black-tie supper club in deepest Middle Earth. The place was crawling with dwarfs, hobbits, elves and other assorted refugees from the pages of Tolkien, all freshly scrubbed and immaculately turned out in suits and 1930s gowns. There may even have been the occasional orc on his best behaviour, but the tuxedos made them difficult to spot.

Sir Peter Jackson and Lee Tamahori had the uncomfortable look of loners marooned in a chattering crowd, and the wizard Gandalf was also on hand, meandering about in the understated blue cotton robes of a Chinese peasant. That Irish actor from Cold Feet was there, too, and the guy from the original British version of The Office, both looking alarmingly dapper and far shorter than they do on your telly. And among the famous, the fragrant, the fashion-forward, I was there, too, squeezed into a rather fetching black suit.

Yes, the Roxy opening was a star-studded affair, but once the ribbon was cut and guests swept upstairs towards the main theatre, everyone suddenly stopped looking at each other and began looking upwards instead, their mouths flapping open like goldfish. The ceiling, you see, was something to behold. Designed by rising Weta Workshop art star Greg Broadmore, it was covered with a huge mural involving a marauding robot, a cluster of flying "rocket girls", and the craggy landscape of the planet Venus, all delivered in a style referencing Art Deco and German Expressionism. It looked like a sepia-tone illustration from an old Jules Verne novel, or perhaps a long-lost dream-sequence still from Fritz Lang's classic 1927 silent film, Metropolis.

A few hours earlier, I'd met Broadmore for a sneak preview, and to talk about other aspects of his singular creative career: his film work, his fearsome man-melting ray guns, and the detailed fantasy world known to the initiated simply as Grordborts. The mural was commissioned by Roxy co-owners Tania Rodger and Jamie Selkirk, Broadmore informs me from behind an impressive Edwardian-style beard. "Their idea was to take this late 1920s theatre and rebuild it as a state-of-the-art public cinema, and the mural plays on the fact that people back then imagined a future where we'd head off to other planets. Early science fiction writers were particularly fascinated by Venus, which they imagined was full of mountains, jungles and exotic animals, so I used this crazy retro-futurist style to paint a quintessential Venus scene, like a coral reef on steroids, with a giant robot as a symbol of industrial might. I wanted the art to take you to another world, because that's what going to the movies is all about."

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Broadmore has co-designed public art pieces before, most notably the Rocky Horror/Richard O'Brien tribute sculpture in Hamilton and the giant robotic Tripod sculpture in Wellington's Courtenay Pl. And he recently went to Geneva to join a travelling exhibition of paintings and sculptures based on his Grordborts designs, which had extended showings in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

WORKING HIS way through a gigantic cheese scone in his Miramar living room, Broadmore seems as amazed as anyone by his blossoming art career, especially given his previous rejection by two art schools. Born in Whakatane in 1972, Broadmore grew up obsessed with comics, video games and Star Wars. He drew relentlessly – favourite subjects: tanks, explosions, soldiers and dinosaurs – and knew he wanted to make art for a living, but when he applied to an Auckland art school at age 17, they turned him down. Undeterred, he moved to Whanganui and applied for art school there instead; they turned him down as well. Then another student dropped out, so Broadmore squeaked in, but, after almost expiring from boredom, he dropped out three months later and moved to Hamilton. "I spent the next seven years on the dole, mostly playing in punk rock bands. Some people would probably have called me a dole bludger, I guess, but I was actually a really productive person while I was on the dole, playing in bands, designing comics, making art, though nothing made any money. But when you're on the dole a long time, you attract attention. Eventually my case manager made me come out to her workplace so she could monitor me. It was outrageous. She made me paint a mural on the side of a bus, then insinuated I'd stolen something, so I shouted a bunch of profanities at her and got fired off the dole."

Now doubly unemployed, Broadmore moved to Wellington and eventually got a job illustrating children's books. "Then Lord Of The Rings came out and I thought, what am I doing? There's this company just down the road making fantasy and science fiction movies and I'm not working for them. It was an epiphany." Broadmore sent in a portfolio of artwork and Weta kingpin Sir Richard Taylor hired him immediately. "I went from drawing dinosaurs and robots at home to drawing dinosaurs and robots for a living. I was stoked. It was totally life-changing."

Broadmore's aesthetic is now well known around the world, though only hardened sci-fi art nuts will recognise his name. After cutting his teeth as a designer/sculptor on Black Sheep, Narnia and others, he worked on many of the spectacular dinosaur and giant bug sequences for Jackson's King Kong, reaching a global audience of millions, then became lead concept designer for Neill Blomkamp's District 9, a gritty, low-budget 2009 flick shot in South Africa and already regarded by many as a latter-day sci-fi classic.

"I designed 99% of the technology you see in District 9, from the look of the alien `prawns' and their space ship to the weapons. My task as a designer is to give these things a grounding in reality so audiences can connect with them emotionally. I have to make something that's over the top feel mundane and everyday within the context of the film, because then it feels like it has a reason to be there."

This attention to detail and "emotional truth", he says, is the reason Wellington's Weta Workshop is so highly regarded by movie makers worldwide. "At Weta, we spend months giving everything its own backstory, whether it's an orc or a weapon or whatever. If it's a creature, you think about its ecological role. Why has it evolved to look and sound and move the way it does, what functions does it have in its wider world, what stresses is it up against? At some point, the director might need this creature to behave like a monster, but the rest of the time, it belongs in its own natural world. That kind of complexity is scarier in a dramatic setting like a film, because when something becomes single-note, it rapidly becomes boring."

AND THAT kind of complexity is woven into every aspect of the artist's latest project, Grordborts (see box, above right), a strangely believable multimedia world designed by Broadmore and populated by fantastical space creatures, retro-futurist contraptions and galaxy-hopping Edwardian dandies that betray his love of early science fiction writers. "As a kid, I loved Jules Verne and HG Wells books and early TV serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. There was something naive but also really atmospheric about them, and my fascination with that stuff never went away, so one day I designed a set of ray guns inspired by that era."

Broadmore gave these fictional weapons excellent names such as the Righteous Bison, the Manmelter and the Unnatural Selector, and Weta had the designs cast in glass and metal to sell as high-end collectibles around the world. But the ray guns needed a backstory, so Broadmore dreamt up Dr Grordbort as the weapons' distributor, and illustrated a winningly demented 1930s-style catalogue advertising Grordbort's range of weapons, spaceships, metal manservants and other such accoutrements for the discerning space-savvy Edwardian gentleman.

To further finesse the concept, Broadmore drew a comic featuring intergalactic knucklehead Lord Cockswain, an avid user of Dr Grordbort's products and the subject of a hush-hush film project currently under development at Weta. If this movie makes it off the drawing board and into cinemas, we can no doubt expect the world premiere to take place at The Roxy in Miramar.

In the meantime, the artist remains largely unknown in his own country, despite the fact that his work has already been enjoyed by millions worldwide. "Partially I think that's because I work on mass-market projects and use digital techniques, but really, who cares if your art's made with paint or pixels? It's the idea that's important. I just want to make cool shit and get it out there in front of as many people as possible, and I couldn't care less what the delivery mechanism is. Also, people look down their noses at the art people like me make because it's fantasy or science fiction-based, which are genres that have never been taken seriously."

True enough. Certainly, the notion prevails of the stereotypical sci-fi fan as a nerdy Nigel No-Mates sitting alone in his messy flat, surrounded by comics, dirty takeaway containers and limited-edition Star Wars figurines. "Maybe so, but that's hilarious, given that nerds are pretty much running modern culture these days. I mean, the internet came from guys like that. The nerds made good, right?"

GREG BROADMORE ON THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF GRORDBORTS

"I came up with the concept to help sell the replica ray guns, really, and then it just exploded from there. In a nutshell, Dr Grordbort is a scientist and businessman, and his business is kind of the Halliburton of the 1930s.

"He runs a corporation that sells guns, rockets and tanks, and has a vested interest in engineering conflict because selling weapons is good business. But he also makes children's books, cuddly toys, soft drinks, pharmaceuticals – anything that turns a profit – and his grand vision is to establish strip-malls on neighbouring planets.

"The other main character in the Grordbordts world is Lord Cockswain, who's a space-hopping `Great White Hunter' colonialist, blasting space creatures so he can mount their heads in his drawing room.

"British colonial history and imperialism resonate personally for us as New Zealanders, so I made Cockswain a representation of that. He's not mean-spirited, he's just a bumbling, hyper-macho, aristocratic moron, whose life revolves around casually destroying things. He's like Homer Simpson, I guess, in that he has no self doubt and just acts without regard to consequences.

He'll be a great role for someone to play in the movie."

For eye-popping animations of Lord Cockswain's latest trophy-hunting trip to Venus, visit www.drgrordborts.com

- Sunday Star Times

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