Weta Workshop: Stepping Behind the Movie Magic

Weta Workshop: Stepping Behind the Movie Magic

As you may already know from my Hobbiton and Mount Doom … er, I mean Tongariro Crossing posts, I am a total Lord of the Ring nerd. I even studied Tolkien at university (they actually gave me credit for that!).

So, of course, I jumped at the chance to visit even more LOTR goodness while in New Zealand.

 

Unlike famous sites from the movies’ filming, I’d never heard of Weta before actually going to Wellington back in November. A friend I was travelling with mentioned it in passing.

The thought of visiting has been buzzing around in my head since then (with all the other insane bees I keep in there).

So, when I headed to Wellington for the Te Matatini Kapa Haka festival, I decided to stay long enough to visit the workshop. I even worked it out so I could head straight to the airport afterwards and catch a half priced flight!

 

What is Weta Workshop?

weta workshop

Weta is actually a group of companies built by former puppeteers Richard and Tania. They were discovered by Peter Jackson, back when all three were working out of their flat’s. Together, they’ve grown Weta into a group of film production and design companies that promote innovation and creativity.

The company works with filmmakers around the globe, but always play a special role in Peter Jackson’s movies.

Weta Workshop is the company that focuses on sculpting, prop design and miniature models (that can be as big as a real house!).

They designed something like 40,000 props for the Lord of the Rings movies. That includes prosthetics, costumes, swords and even hobbit feet.

When Peter Jackson signed on the film the Hobbit, Weta Workshop got started creating all new props for the movie.

weta workshop
The original Hobbit feet had to be put on like shoes! I always assumed they were just CGI (and glued on hair).

 

Weta Workshop Tours

To visit Weta Workshop, you have to book a tour. You can either just view the Weta Cave (my choice), only view the Miniatures Stage (featuring Thunder Birds Go) or book a combo of the two.

The individual tours cost $28 NZD. The combined tour is $45.

I only took the Weta Cave tour, because I still have no idea what Thunderbirds Go is. And I didn’t think the miniatures would be as awesome as they are.

weta workshop
Weta is themed even from the outside!

Purchasing a tour gets you access to a 29 minute documentary about some of the projects Weta has worked on. It’s in this room lined with red velvet and covered in armor and swords with fake flames flickering in the corner. I was living my nerdy dream watching the documentary alone and drooling over the intricacies of the armor.

You can book your tour online and select a specific time slot, or sign up when you arrive. I recommend booking ahead to make sure you don’t miss out. Since Weta is about 20 minutes by car from central Wellington, there’s not a lot to do if you get there and don’t go on the tour.

weta workshop
Collectible model made for a movie.
weta workshop
A recreation of the contract Bilbo signs in the Hobbit.

 

Weta Cave Tour

The Weta Cave tour is, in a word, awesome.

You learn, you gawk and you can even touch some stuff!

weta workshop

 

No Photos, Please!

Unfortunately, photography is prohibited since the studios, not Weta, actually own all of the items (seems a bit unfair since they made it, but, hey, that’s art in the 21st century for ya!).

I swear to God, it feels like all of New Zealand is anti-photo which is getting seriously difficult when running a travel blog. Anyway, back to the blog!

 

Intro to Weta

weta workshop

The tour begins with a short welcome video from the founders of Weta, before progressing to a room that lists every project the company has worked on. There was a literal wall of movies the size of DVD cases that was positively covered in their career.

From Meet the Feebles (“like Muppets, but with lots of sex and violence,” explained our guide) to Lord of the Rings to Krampus. The wall seems to cover every genre there is.

 

45 Minutes of Mind Boggling Magic

The tour essentially only goes through five rooms, but the information you get throughout the 45 minute tour could fill a museum (fingers crossed a Peter Jackson one comes soon!).

There were interesting things everywhere you looked. I have a tendency to glance around during guided tours, since I struggle to just stare at someone’s face when they’re talking. This time, that was actually necessary to see everything!

There were life-sized robots and fully-functional cars from video games that never made it to film. I didn’t even know what they were from, but the fact that they’d been brought into existence amazed me. (Who would have thought someone could figure out how to make a car drive sideways??)

 

Processes Unpacked

We got to see the process of building a helmet for Lord of the Rings: from design to paper mold on an actors head to heavy plastic test to the final silicone painted masterpiece you see in the movie.

At the wall of swords, our guide had us guess which two were actual metal versus painted plastic. It didn’t take long for someone to find the two shiniest ones. As hard as Weta works, it’s impossible to make plastic look like steel. It’s also impossible to expect an actor to throw around a steel sword for dozens of takes. Instead, they’ve compromised to use the steel ones only when necessary so the actor doesn’t get too tired.

Apparently, children on set are just like any other children: if you give them a sword, they’ll start playing with them. The dull swords adults get don’t cut it (see what I did there?). The kids actually get even lighter weight swords so no one gets a bone broken.

The only miniature we saw was a city from the Narnia: Prince Caspian movie of a city. The so-called miniature was actually about the size of a double bed and was nearly as tall as me. It was used to film scenes of the entire city, since the place obviously doesn’t actually exist.

That was the only moment I somewhat regretted not opting to do both tours.

But I guess I can just say I’m holding out for the Peter Jackson museum where they’ll all be available for display.

weta workshop
The mini museum of models in the gift shop. As close as I’ll get to a Peter Jackson museum for now.

 

Touch Everything!

The second to last room on the tour is the touching room. You get to basically touch whatever you want. The two kids on our tour went absolutely nuts just running around with their hands out. Honestly, so did I!

I probably grabbed every single thing in that room. From the half-processed swords to the remake of a modeler’s desk to the button that made the animatronic orc move.

It was a germaphobes worst nightmare, but whatever plague I’ll inevitably get from it will be worth it.

 

Create Create Create

weta workshop

The last room had two actual designers ready for our onslaught of questions. The man was sculpting a giant chess piece out of tin foil, while the woman built fungi onto a log with wet cement-like paste.

We were also, finally, allowed to take photos.

This room had less to marvel at, so we would actually focus on the real people in the room. (I still wandered away to stare at Azog (the evil white orc in Lord of the Rings. Don’t put a giant statue of an orc in a room if you want me to listen to you!).

I mean, I was still listening, but I was also plotting how to pose with the giant statue throughout her chat.

weta workshop

weta workshop

The speech basically encouraged everyone to try building things at home on their own. She showed us a modeled dragon skull built out of tinfoil and the plaster mold that had been built around a tinfoil Krampus head.

Weta Workshop aims to inspire people to be creative, to come up with innovations and not hold back. The team is honest about their failures and tell everyone to just keep trying.

To further encourage creativity, a former employee at Weta Workshop came up with a recipe for cements that essentially acts as clay when it’s wet. Once it dries, it hardens so that you could drop it on the floor and nothing would happen.

They also give out their recipe for fake blood. This is a huge deal since Weta actually won an award early on for creating a movie with the most fake blood ever. The film was Braindead, Peter Jackson’s first big horror movie.

 

Nerding Out

I finally got to hold a sword in that last room. This may not sound like a big deal, but I had been told that I would get to hold a sword throughout the entire tour to stop me from wanting to touch things. My source was very inaccurate. But I can see the flaw in that plan: the two kids on our tour nearly wrecked the place with the green balls of clay they’d been given. What hell would they have unleashed with swords?

The sword was what led to this, me at my ultimate nerdiest, living the dream:

weta workshop

 

Fun Facts from Weta:

  • Most swords in the movie are made of materials like plastic painted with metallic paint. The only ones made with aluminium or steel were for close up scenes, like brave speeches to inspire armies.

weta workshop

  • Weta Workshop grew out of Richard and Tania’s back room in their flat, where they used to do design work like creating puppets.
  • You can actually commission Weta for custom armor and swords. Queen Elizabeth II herself got a custom set of swords created by the geniuses at Weta.
  • The miniatures were made of things like cardboard, so they’re actually degrading. Somewhere Peter Jackson has a whole storage area full of amazing mini worlds that are slowly rotting away.
  • When Legolas was shooting arrows rapid-fire in Lord of the Rings, he was using two secret methods. Either, Orlando Bloom was shooting an empty bow and the arrows were added in later. Or, he had a loose stringed bow, so his shots basically just fell to his feet. This achieved the look of him perfectly lining up and pulling back shot after shot.
  • The Weta Workshop focuses on the physical design of elements for movies. Their affiliated companies do everything from sound stages to live action work to CGI. Basically, if you ever get rich and decide to make a movie, Weta can do it all!

 

What’s in a Name?

Weta are gross, monstrous looking bugs throughout New Zealand. Thankfully, I’ve never even heard of one before let alone seen one.

In Maori, weta means “God of Ugly Things.” And let me tell you they live up to their name.

Do yourself a favour and NEVER google these giant grasshopper-cockroach-cricket nightmare!

weta workshop
Instead of a photo of the nightmare bugs, here’s a happy model of Pip and Merry riding an Ent.

 

Weta Workshop Giftshop

Leave a lot of time to explore the giftshop! It is a literal treasure trove of props, books and other toys.

weta workshop

weta workshop

I could almost feel the money being pulled from my wallet as I wandered the aisles of Hobbit recipes and plushie Gandalfs. The fact that I was about to get on a plane and had literally nowhere to put the stuff are the only reasons I didn’t buy everything (and because I don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on a prop ring).

weta workshop

weta workshop

The giftshop is honestly like a second prop house tour. It’s so worth your time even if you aren’t going to buy anything.

 

Getting to Weta Cave

Weta Cave is weird to get to. The easiest way to get there from the city is probably to book the “there and back again” versions of the tours. They only cost about $20 NZD more.

I was going to take a bus, but the bus never showed. It would have cost a measly $3.50 NZD. Instead, I had to take an Uber for closer to $20 one way. Taxis run about the same as an Uber.

You can drive your own car, but you’ll have to find street parking. Leave plenty of time to do this, as there isn’t much available.

 

 

weta workshop
For those of you wondering, I did make my flight with plenty of time. The tour is super punctual so I wasn’t even rushed.

It turned out the Wellington airport is also riding the Lord of the Rings train and is full of sculptures from the movie. Smaug’s glowing amber eye greeted me when I first walked in the door with his dragon-sized nostrils flared. Further in, Gandalf hung from the ceiling riding an eagle.

Besides a cookie, what more could a girl want?

Maybe a ride home on that eagle….

weta workshop

 

New Zealand is 100% on board with the tourist obsession with Lord of the Rings and I am loving it. They don’t make it a huge deal or overpower the natural beauty of the country. They tie it in just enough to draw you to unexpected places or hide a secret treasure like the Weta Workshop on the edge of its capital city.

It’s such a great way to attract every kind of tourist there is. And since I’m like ten different kinds of tourist (and sort of a local now) all balled up into one, I’m completely satisfied by this country.

 

 

What movie or series do you nerd out over?
 

 
 

 



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