Weta’s Wellington

Wellington greeted us on Sunday morning with rain. The steady patter followed us out as we searched for a late breakfast. We lingered in a café as the clouds emptied their load onto unhappy passerbys. During a break in the downpour, we decided to risk our chances and venture out into the world. We split up then. Yvonne and I went off to geek out and Kirsten dived into the theater to escape the weather.

The bus Yvonne and I took trundled through the streets of Wellington and out to the suburbs. The windswept Wellington sign wave a sweet hello to us as we passed the airport. Soon a series of short, white houses with fenced in lawns lined the streets, the quintessential “Pavlova Paradise.” It wasn’t long before we reached our destination.

Weta Workshop and Weta Digital are responsible for the creation of many of films most iconic characters: From everything in the Lord of the Rings movies to the latest rendition of King Kong to the alien creatures and landscape of Avatar to the Planet of the Apes prequels to the more recent Pete’s Dragon. They physically and/or digitally craft entire worlds out of pixels and plastic. And being the film majors and major nerds that Yvonne and I are, we were excited to see the place where all the physical effects were made.

Thankfully the Trolls were made of concrete. Photo credit: Yvonne Corbett.
Thankfully the Trolls were made of concrete. Photo credit: Yvonne Corbett.

Trolls guarded the entrance to the Weta Cave and snarled at the crowding visitors. Inside was the gift shop, chalk full of figurines, models, hats, T-shirts, books, and other knick-knacks from some of the most famous movies and TV shows they’ve had a hand in bringing to life (mainly the LOTR series and the Thunderbirds TV show remake). Prints of the concept drawings floated above our heads and hand-made or recreated props from some of their projects lived in glass cases in the corner. It was cramped in that tiny space as people huddled around the evidence of movie magic.

Having booked our Behind-the-Scenes tour before we left Auckland, we picked up our tickets before filing outside behind our (good looking) tour guide to one of the warehouses behind the cave. We gathered at the entrance area as our guide explained that we were about to see real props from their movies and therefore no pictures were allowed. However, as one of the artist that worked to help create them, he could answer any questions that we had about the process. And from there we entered.

It was another cramped space covered in set pieces, costumes, and props: everything from the models of heads to suits of armor to various types of weaponry. Using a gun from District 9 as an example, our guide took us step by step through the crafting process, revealing along the way the sad truth that 90% of props on screen are really just made of plastic. Further on we went and more and more props were revealed to us: Hobbit feet behind glass. A Halo car parked in the corner. Sauron’s armor standing along the wall. A demonic bunny glaring from behind.

Gollum also greets visitors at the Weta Cave.
Gollum also greets visitors at the Weta Cave.

As we looped around the section of the warehouse, our guide explained in more detail the painstaking work that went into every creation, some of which would never be on screen or only appear in the final edit for a few seconds. (Peter Jackson was particularly finicky.) The tour ended with a chat with another creative on the Weta Workshop team. Chilling out, working on his own personal project, the artist energetically elaborated on our guide’s information and answered our questions.

When we left the cave, the clouds were breaking and we celebrated with a cornetto ice cream cone before heading back to the bus stop. We met up again with Kirsten once back in the city center. There was one more stop we had to make before we left Wellington: the Museum of New Zealand or, as it’s more commonly known, the Te Papa Museum. It’s a state-of-the-art, massive multi-story complex that covers just about everything you would want to know about New Zealand from its ecology to its history to its indigenous population to its art. And we had only two and a half hours to explore it before closing time.

My energy was severely waning at that point. I had been battling a sinus headache all day, and the fighting had zapped my energy. The intricately designed lights and sounds and displays of the museum overwhelmed me, and I was only able to take a small bit of in even though I wondered through every exhibit.

The final solider loomed over paper poppies placed by visitors.
The final solider in the exhibit loomed over paper poppies placed by visitors.

However, I couldn’t ignore their WWI display. Gallipoli: The Scale of War covered the day-by-day carnage of New Zealand’s most famous military engagement. A running timeline snaked along the floor (complete with a red cross for every kiwi to die on that day) through displays, placards, miniatures, models, historical videos, and first-hand accounts of the nearly six month campaign against the Turks. The information focused on the personal tales of the soldiers (both Pakeha and Maori) and the doctors and nurses that walked the battlefields, centering on bigger-than-life models of a handful of everyday participants. Here was Weta’s handwork again. Our guide at the cave had explained that every pore had to be hand-carved and each air implanted one by one. It was hard not to be affected by the power of it all.

When we stepped into the evening, the sun was once again cowering behind the clouds and Wellington’s characteristic wind was finally present, clinging to our jackets and tangling our hair. As much as Wellington called to us, we didn’t last much longer. After all, we had an early morning flight to catch.

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