Wellington: There's plenty to do during a Capital staycation
Six years ago, two things happened: one, I married a man who spends his days moving cartoon characters around a screen and two, I lost my love for animated films. Instead of re-watching Toy Story, Madagascar and Finding Nemo as I had previously and enthusiastically done, I was following my husband's lead in critiquing camera and lighting angles, over-analysing story arcs and getting irrationally angry about clumsy editing. It was the end of my innocence as far as pixels, frozen princesses and mischievous penguins were concerned.
So when the DreamWorks Animation Exhibition rolled into Te Papa, I was convinced it wouldn't be my cup of green tea. I knew what was involved in turning a simple sketch into a two-hour feature film, I understood how those clever clogs transport spellbound audiences into outer space, to a prehistoric ice age or the heart of the jungle. Surely there was nothing new to rest my jaded eyes upon?
It turns out I was wrong. Because when an animation studio founded by Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg roots around in its archive, the results are nothing less than spectacular.
Entitled Journey from Sketch to Screen, the exhibition features more than 400 items that breathe life into characters as diverse as the beloved green ogre Shrek, the high-kicking Po from Kung Fu Panda and my personal favourite, Oscar, the hapless fish from Shark Tale who's voiced with such gusto by Will Smith.
The exhibition comes to Wellington fresh from its Melbourne run where more than 200,000 people eyeballed the rare concept drawings, sculptures, masks, interviews and original artworks.
Sarah Tutton, curator of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), says this is a rare chance to peek inside the mind of the creative geniuses who've been producing digital hits since 1994.
"You'll be able to watch your favourite character grow from an idea on a bit of paper to the final completed project, but without losing any of the magic," says Tutton.
Mining DreamWorks' entire back catalogue of 31 animated films from Antz (1989) through to 2015's Home, the exhibition unfolds over four sections.
The first, Character, reveals how artists uses sketches and 3D models to shape their digital world. Like Shrek, for example. Illustrator William Steig's early sketches depict a hideous beast that bears little resemblance to the loveable romantic lead who won DreamWorks the first ever Academy Award for best animated feature. And while there's no mention of it, New Zealand has a unique connection to the Shrek franchise with Kiwi writer/director Andrew Adamson being involved in all four films.
In the Story gallery, there's a recreation of one of DreamWorks' LA studios where pages of drawings and notes jostle for space with half empty coffee mugs and dirty plates. There's no shortage of 'wow' moments, such as the Dragon Ride in the World gallery where visitors get to saddle up for a 180 degree 'ride' on the back of Berk, the dragon from How to Train Your Dragon 2. One tip: sit on the floor if you can because the wrap-around screen can make you feel a little light-headed.
As with any exhibition worth its salt, there's lots of things to push and prod. In the Creative gallery, for example, visitors can have a go at designing their own animation using the same tools as DreamWorks staff, while the super cool Face Poser allows visitors to manipulate characters' facial expressions.
I'm especially taken with the music section, where composer Hans Zimmer talks about creating music for animated films.
"The whole point of animation is to do something you can't do in the real world," says the man whose theme from the Madagascar franchise, I Like to Move It, plays on loop in my brain for two days.
Thankfully, by the time we tumble out of the DreamWorks exhibition, the queues at Te Papa's Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War have thinned out.
Even though it was opened in April to mark the centenary of the First World War, our guide Roger Gascoigne (yes that one, the former TV presenter whose name will mean something to Kiwis of a certain age) tells us that queues regularly unspool across the mezzanine floor.
I can see why: the $8 million exhibition immerses visitors in the sights, sounds and emotions of the bloody conflict, told through the heart-wrenching stories of eight New Zealanders. Because the boys and girls at Weta were involved, and doing things the ordinary way isn't in their DNA, the silicon figures are 2.4 times human scale, weigh between 90 and 150kg, and took around 24,000 hours to make and install.
The attention to detail, to ensure they're as realistic as possible, is incredible, helped no doubt by the human hair that was used atop heads (horse and yak hair were used on faces and noses). Even the grotesquely large flies crawling on an open tin of corned beef are eerily realistic.
Don't forget to look down as you make your way through the exhibition – red crosses on the floor represent the 2779 Kiwis who lost their lives in Gallipoli. No matter what your opinion of war, this is essential viewing for every New Zealander.
As is The Great War Exhibition, across town in the Dominion Museum, the jewel in the Pukeahu Park's tiara. The last time I crossed this threshold was on a primary school trip and I can still picture the manky dinosaur skeleton in the entrance which looked as though it had never been dusted.
What a difference a few decades make. Again, the good folks at Weta have employed a mix of props, artefacts and items from Sir Peter Jackson's own collection to tell the story of WWI from its pre-1914 origins to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, with particular emphasis on the Kiwi involvement.
Head Curator Ian Wards tells us Jackson banned the use of black and white photography from the exhibition.
"More than 170 original war photos were colourised, which makes them look as though they were taken yesterday," says Wards. "It really brings the images to life for people in a way that black and white doesn't."
The journey begins in a small Belgian town in 1914, shows recruits signing up to fight and features everything from a German tank (which had to be lowered through the roof) to an early London bus, one of 900 stripped of their bright red livery for use as troop carriers. We step over soil shipped in from Passchendaele and the Somme but the biggest lump in our throats is reserved for the model of Chunuk Bair and the roll-call of more than 850 Kiwis who died on this hilly ground.
The big hand is long past lunch by the time we taxi to Miramar so we do what any sensible person would do and call into the Roxy where Weta Workshop co-founder Sir Richard Taylor teamed up with a bunch of his film and foodie mates to restore the cinema and restaurant to its former glory.
Roxy's head of events, Alice Sisley, joins us for polenta gnocchi, washed down with cocktails from award-winning mixologist Ray Letoa.
I could quite easily settle in for the afternoon, but Wellington's latest attraction awaits. The Thunderbirds Are Go exhibition takes visitors on an interactive adventure through the newest Weta project.
Admittedly, I've got some skin in this game, given my husband has spent the past few years animating Scott, Virgil and the rest of the International Rescue crew for the reworked TV series which celebrates the 50th anniversary of Thunderbirds. But seeing the sets up close and giggling at the memorabilia, most of which comes from Sir Richard Taylor's childhood collection, is a real treat.
John, a tourist from Britain, tells me he's been in love with Thunderbirds since childhood and detoured to the Capital specifically to check out both this and the DreamWorks exhibition.
"Disneyland may be the happiest place on earth but today, Wellington comes close," he says.
The DreamWorks Animation Exhibition: Journey from Sketch to Screen is on at Te Papa until 28 March 2016. See tepapa.govt.nz.
Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War runs until 2018. See gallipoli.tepapa.govt.nz.
The Great War Exhibition. See greatwarexhibition.nz.
Thunderbirds are Go! Exhibition. See wetaworkshop.com
Roxy. See roxycinema.co.nz
The writer was a guest of Positively Wellington Tourism, see wellingtonnz.com