I was fortunate enough to receive a voucher as part of the Explore Tāmaki Makaurau COVID recovery programme: encouraging Aucklanders to get out and visit attractions and activities. My friend Dominique and I decided to visit Wētā Workshop Unleashed.
Wētā Workshop Unleashed was opened in Auckland in December 2020, described as “a fantastical film effects experience”. This sits alongside the Wētā Workshop and Wētā Cave in Wellington and was designed to be able to give visitors a more interactive experience. They invented three original movie concepts to showcase how physical effects and props are imagined and then created for the movies. Wētā Workshop provided the creative design behind movies such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Avatar, King Kong, and District 9.
We did the guided tour that was part of the story telling experience. We had to enter the workshop via the storeroom because there was a ‘creature’ loose in reception, then we had to find the secret entrance that led us past the ‘ideas vault’ and into the reception area where we were met by Jeff the animatronics security guard. Sir Richard Taylor welcomed us via video feed and invited us to have a look around the facility while the staff were on a break. The facility was essentially a series of studio/workrooms set up for each of the movie concepts.
It was really well done, managing to capture the imagination of all ages. For me there was too much of a focus on horror aspects – Dominique and I were more interested in seeing how things were made. But the horror levels were okay for smaller kids and the level of horror could be self (or parent)-managed giving the ability to avoid more gruesome effects.
Each of the different movie concepts show-cased a different aspect of film making:
- a nail-biting horror Fauna – lots of prosthetics and animatronics
- a fantasy epic Age of the Ever-Clan, a battle between good and evil kingdoms – set making
- and the mind-bending sci-fi Origins – robotics, outer space
“We’ve written the scripts, we’ve storyboarded the scenes, and we’ve gone through the complete world-building and design process – so you can walk through the middle of a movie scene as it’s being shot.”
This set up was definitely focusing on the horror aspects and for me the ever changing lighting was annoying rather than atmospheric. But the workshop itself was absolutely fascinating and contained a vast collection of prosthetics (including hundreds casts of actors’ faces from Sir Richard Taylor’s private collection) and materials that provide inspiration for form and texture of all manner of different beasts. You could sit in front of a mirror and have prosthetic makeup ‘applied’ to your face; have your face scanned to provide more realistic facial movements for animatronics characters; experiment with controlling the micro movements of the eyes and mouth of a creature or the larger scale movements of a flying creature; or even attempt surgery on an alien being.
Age of the Ever Clan
In this workshop you see the steps to creation of a fantasy kingdom with a whole cast of different characters. You are introduced to creating the concept of scale through the use of a creative designer who appears in the next room larger than life and with a ruler so you can measure your perspective height. Then you get to walk through the set with the lighting effects creating different times of night and day. You are walking on a ‘river’ flowing through the middle with the Ever Clan castle on one side and the Death Clan encampment on the other. Out the other side of the set is another workshop that is my favourite of the whole experience. There you can see how they made the set out of carved polystyrene, coated with a clay-like hardener and then finished with the addition of all manner of materials to create textures. They also have booths here demonstrating the working of leather to create spectacular costumes and making chain maille armour. They have some maille that is made of metal (and is very heavy) but most is made of plastic rings to give a much more manageable weight. Another display shows how a sculptor creates the most amazing figures using only scrunched up tin foil, molded into shape with implements like spoons and forks.
The last movie set features a large cave on one side with a huge robotic figure and on the other is the underneath of a spacecraft where movie images of passing galaxies are projected on the screen below. I loved that the alien beings were cleverly designed based around a weta. You can see the robot come to life with an ever-changing array of lights and there are demonstrations of how the actors are placed to create the illusion of scale.
The Wētā Workshop Unleashed experience was designed to help unleash people’s creativity. They do have a Horror Creative Workshop that you can attend:
Experience what it’s like to be a practical effects artist working on the movies, creating ghastly prosthetic effects for a variety of scenes.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to design a gruesome wound, inflicted by a terrifying monster, and use prosthetic effects to apply it to your arm?
At our Horror Unleashed Creative Workshop, our Wētā Workshop Unleashed crew will teach the basic tricks of the trade to deliver realistic prosthetic effects that will make your friends and family cringe in terror, and giggle with horrified delight. The thrill of hands-on creative workshops is experiencing what it’s like to be a practical effects artist working on the movies, creating ghastly effects for a variety of scenes.
That doesn’t appeal to me at all but I would love to attend a non-horror workshop on modelling, sculpting or other set creation aspects. Our guide told us that they were looking at running a ‘Tinfoil Sculpture’ workshop that I think would be much more interesting.