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Thursday, April 17, 2014

17 April 2014 - Automatic Automatons

Or getting wetter at Weta.

Today’s the day when we’re doing the few other things that we’ve got programmed into our calendar.

But first things first. It was raining. Rain that was so heavy that there was a slip on Oriental Parade that burst a water pipe. Or was there a burst water pipe that caused a slip? No one seemed sure when we last heard the news at 7.00am this morning.

At least we’re ready for the weather and we set forth in our waterproof jackets, waterproof over-trousers, and less than waterproof shoes.

At least it wasn’t cold.

Our first plan was to catch the bus out to Miramar. What’s out there you may ask?

Weta Workshop.

The bus driver was good enough to tell me that it would be cheaper to buy the day pass of $9.20 instead of buying two one way tickets. He also let us, and several others know, when to get out.  Something that he probably has to do every time he does that run.

As I’m sure you all know Weta Workshop is a New Zealand company that has produced the special effects for such box office failures as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Tintin, Forgotten Silver, Under the Mountain and others. Along with Pukeko Pictures they have been charged with the weighty task of producing the next Thunderbirds series. (And as an aside for those with a naturalist bent. A weta is a New Zealand species of cricket found in trees and caves – apparently you get to see big ones in King Kong and a pukeko is a swamp hen bird of the rail variant.) They, along with Pukeko Pictures, are making a new series of Thunderbirds, which is due to be broadcast next year.

Anyway, I’m as keen as the next person to ensure that Thunderbirds is done with respect for those who created it, such as Gerry Anderson, and us fans. So when we decided to visit our capital city this April, we decided to include a visit to Weta’s workshop. When we last holidayed in Wellington a couple of years ago we visited the Weta Cave; a museum cum store dedicated to all things Weta. But at that point the closest they had got to Thunderbirds was the Tintin movie, which is totally unrelated.

Since then Weta have added a tour to their itinerary offering a glimpse through the window into their workshop, and I have to say that originally I figured that peering through a window was all that we’d get to do.

I was wrong.

It’s not so extensive that you get to stand at the shoulder of each craftsman and watch them work, but we did get to see more than I’d anticipated.

It was a typical Wellington day, although maybe less windy than expected (well, it is our capital with a lot of politicians), so we were a little bedraggled when we got there. As we’d pre-booked our place on the tour a month ago we were assured of our spot, and we got there with plenty of time to look around the museum. Having no interest in the aforementioned movies, we were only interested in the craftsmanship that went into the models on display, but I did take some photos for movie lovers to enjoy.

Unfortunately these were the only photos I was allowed to take.
He reminds me of Parker

The mighty King Kong

Lord of the Rings

Then my radar zoomed in on the Thunderbirds Comic, which I bought. That’s saved on postage although I’ve still got to lug it halfway up the country.

We waited in the cramped room, like everyone else we were unwilling to join the trolls in the rain outside, until 11.00am when we were escorted by Warren Dion-Smith around the corner, through the locked door (not a wardrobe), and into a kind of foyer room. There we got the usual pre-tour talk, although maybe it wasn’t as it’s only the second tour he’d led. The first being the 10.30 one before us where the group had got separated (goodness knows how) and he’d run himself ragged trying to control them all.

But he was great. He was witty, entertaining and more than willing for us to experience these things that he’s helped created. His role in the company was for creating makeup and hair (we probably could have guessed that), but he’d done all that and more. He said that the Weta Workshop creator’s (Richard Taylor) vision for employees is to be passionate, innovative, creative, and then have skills. If you have the first three traits then they’d teach you the last one.

Warren told us how props such as weapons are made. The designer makes up to 500 designs and then selects five or so of the best. Then the CAD department breaks the prop down into various components. From these moulds are created and the whole thing is made out of nothing more sophisticated than skateboard wheels plastic. Then the finished prop is painted, “dirtied down” (a term we followers of Derek Meddings know well), until they are finally used in the movie… Unless the director decides that that bit isn’t going to work and it’s cut from the whole show.
We all got to hold a ray gun and see the various stages that it went through to get to the final product. Warren also let us hold a sword and a flail. What’s amazing is that although these have been decorated up to look like well-worn pieces of iron weaponry, they’re actually fairly soft, flexible, and light enough that even I could easily heft them off the ground. Something else that he told us is that everything’s been made in two halves, so everything will have a seam running down its length (something to zoom in on with your blu-ray machine), but that seam or any other imperfections is not to be visible (so much for blu-ray). The flail’s handle was also in two pieces held together by a wooden dowel.

It was about this point where Warren asked if anyone had any questions about past shows or future ones. “…such as Thunderbirds…” I put my hand up. “I’ve got a whole list!” He told me to talk to Abbey later on.

We were shown the head moulds of various actors that were used to create the prosthetics they wore in the film. Normally what happens is that the actor has to sit very still, with straws up his nose to breathe, while dental alginate is applied to their head, neck and shoulders. What followed was 20 minutes of being in darkness and unable to breathe. Warren told us that Elijah Wood was good to work on, because he didn’t need the straws and survived on shallow breaths.

We carried on, seeing a giant rabbit (appropriate for Easter) that both Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor had great delight in wearing and scaring little children with.  

We were introduced to giant Wot-Wots, a children’s TV show produced with Pukeko Pictures, which has generated more income than any of the blockbuster movies mentioned above. This bodes well.

Moving on we came to a working model of the armoured car in Perfect Strangers with a frozen Sam Neil sitting in the driver’s seat. The dummy was good enough that you could see who it represented. So I can say that I’ve shaken Sam Neil’s hand. He felt a bit rubbery though. And, as I said, the car was a working model. One of the staffers got married in it.

He wasn’t working today, but (behind a window) a master armourer would make replicas of swords for over US$25,000.00 a pop. It could be more if you wanted more detail like writing on it. Through another window was all the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinery. One boy left school with few practical skills, he worked the CNC machines gaining experience, and now he makes one off perfume bottles for men to give to their wives at $100,000.00 each. That’s nothing to sniff at.

Warren showed us the various types of chainmail that they used for different shows and characters. They were quite heavy, but were made by slicing up PVC pipe, linking them together, and electroplating them, which had to be lighter than using actual metal. Warren also told us that he had a bedspread made out of scale chainmail (which was made up of triangular steel scales). He found it good because it reached body heat and was warm in winter and cool in summer. It was also at this point where we were shown a wig that he’d made by tying individual strands of human hair into a fine net. That was pretty amazing. Having a play with the plastic that they use to make the prosthetics was fun too.

We learnt that when wearing the fake suits of army (made out of the rubbery stuff), the actors had to limber up for 45 minutes because it was such a workout to wear them. At the end of the day they were in a pool of sweat and the armour had to be washed and disinfected ready for the next morning’s shoot. Some days the suits weren’t dry by the following morning. When you consider that the call to shoot started at 2.00am and shooting finished at 7.00pm, they didn’t have a lot of time to dry out! Also those actors who wore the prosthetics had holes in the soles of their “feet” so the sweat could drain out – sometimes puddle-fulls.

Then we came to three ladies working on various projects, one of whom was the aforementioned Abbey (I hope I’ve spelt her name right). Warren told her that I had a list of questions and both were surprised when I pulled the bit of paper out of my pocket.

I didn’t want to hold her up too much as Abbey was working on a small scale model of Taipei for *trumpets sound* Thunderbirds! Like the model makers of 50 years ago she was using bits and pieces that she could find that looked suitable. When I saw it, the city was grey and windows were made of roughly 5mm x 5mm craft mirrors painstakingly glued side-by-side and in neat vertical columns. She showed me the picture that she was basing her work on.

If only I was allowed to take photographs!

After that was over we braved the rain again and took the bus (through the Victoria Tunnel!) back into the CBD, where we had lunch.

Following that it was back down to Te Papa (did I mention that’s our national museum?) again to see an exhibition on the history of imperialist China and another on a prominent Chinese artist from last century. I enjoyed the artist exhibition more than the China one, and I preferred the one on the World of Wearable Arts more than both of them. On the way out we passed a children’s area that had a great big automaton that you could make move by manipulating various levers.

Then it was back to the hotel for a cuppa and a start to typing up my recollections of the trip to Weta. I’m going to see if Fanderson (fans of Gerry Anderson shows like Thunderbirds) want a copy for their web site.

6.00pm we headed out into the rain again. This time to the St James Theatre to see the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s Coppelia. For those of you who don’t know, Coppelia is an automaton. It was fantastic! We were in the front row with only the orchestra (a real orchestra!) between us and the dancers. We were a little low to see their pointe work, and at the end of the row so we were watching from an angle, but I’m not going to complain about the seats. In fact my only complaints are that Wellington’s weather meant that I didn’t get the chance to wear the beautiful skirt that I’d bought for the occasion (we wore our over-trousers there and stripped them off in the front of house), and that I had D.C. coughing in one ear and a child fidgeting on the other side. At least D.C. was trying not to cough or restrict it to the loud bits, but the child was a pain. But it must have been worse for those behind.

D.C.’s got a cold, so she’s still hacking. I doubt that either of us will get much sleep tonight! And because of that I’d better post this now – even though it’s now the 18th and not the 17th.

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