Richard Taylor, co-founder of Weta Workshop, takes us behind the scenes
Auckland is currently the first city in the world to experience Weta Workshop Unleashed, a new guided visitor attraction from Weta Workshop. This project represents the fulfilment of a long-term vision for Weta Workshop co-founder Richard Taylor to provide an insight into the Workshop’s creative processes uninhibited by the health, safety, and confidentiality restrictions of the actual Wellington Workshop.
For over twenty five years, the Workshop has applied its craftsmanship to blockbuster films including The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Avatar, Blade Runner 2049, and most recently, Mulan. In recent years, the team have expanded into the creation of consumer products, interactive projects and immersive location-based experiences. Over the past four years, Weta Workshop’s location-based experience division has enjoyed steady growth and critical acclaim in the industry, most notably for their creative collaborations with Te Papa. The record-breaking Gallipoli: The scale of our war, which has exhibited in the capital since 2015, won a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement, an accolade that recognises the very best themed entertainment and design projects, worldwide.
Weta Workshop Unleashed uses three original film concepts, horror, fantasy and sci-fi, to showcase how physical effects and props are imagined and then created. The experience aims to unleash people’s aspirations “to make cool stuff”.
We talk to Richard Taylor about designing the exhibition itself, and the potential for the live entertainment sector of the latest technologies being used in film production.
Who did you work with on lighting, audio and visual elements for Weta Workshop Unleashed?
Our internal team includes production designers, producers, artists and technicians who developed the concepts and briefs for the AVL [audio, visual and lighting]. To execute our AVL we collaborated with a number of vendors.
For the experience we collaborated closely with Marc Simpson and his team at Toulouse Lighting on the technical systems design, procurement, install and implementation. They were excellent at working with us to bring this experience to life. Tane Upjohn-Beatson, a brilliant local composer that we have done many productions with in the past, was the composer and sound designer for the experience and consulted on the audio install. And, working alongside them, were our in-house media production team, animatronics department and manufacture division.
As the space can transform into an events venue capable of hosting up to three hundred and fifty guests, Streamliner Productions came on board as our vendor for the event production requirements. This team also delivered fantastic work to the Unleashed experience.
What was the brief – and the challenges – from a lighting, audio and visual perspective?
From the moment you enter Weta Workshop Unleashed you’re thrown into a world of creativity and can explore Weta Workshop’s process of developing props, special effects, prosthetics, miniatures and costumes for film. The overall brief for AVL was to complement and enhance the storytelling and immerse our guests into the theme of any given space in a wonderful and sometimes wild way. Some of the spaces transform visually with the use of light and sound so this added to the challenges for these teams.
Much of the work that most people are familiar with would be our involvement in film. We love this because our clients and collaborators produce incredible stories and our creative contributions are enhanced due to the way a director may choose to show our work within their film.
What we can’t showcase via screen mediums though is the physicality of the objects created. With Location Based Experiences you can see, hear, touch, and at Unleashed, dare I say smell what you would usually only see through someone else’s lens. Weta Workshop Unleashed provides a unique opportunity to get up close to the details within a miniature (and even climb underneath it!); see a lifelike animatronic talking to you from only a metre away; and be fully immersed in worlds usually so distant.
And the solution?
Right as we were in the middle of building Weta Workshop Unleashed and as procurement for production equipment was about to take place, COVID hit. The decision was made to continue development and bring this experience to the world. The uncertainty though did mean we had to figure out how to bring a world-class experience together on a much tighter budget. Through a bit of a process we landed on the following:
Ambient audio for each main space is provided by QSC K.2 series speakers. In addition to this we needed a small and flexible option to provide spot audio for effects and sonic changes as you move through the experience. We settled on JBL104 reference monitors. Overall there’s about 105 speakers installed providing the sonic experience designed by Tane Upjohn-Beatson.
Lighting is a combination of custom-made LED fixtures installed into set pieces, such as fireplaces, UFOs and glowing creature organs. These were made by our animatronics department led by Zolio Abad. Room and spot lighting is made up mainly of Showpro photon multi RGB washes, EK EprofileFC profiles and a number of birdie pars. Overall there’s more than 230 fixtures lighting the experience.
Projectors are all Panasonic RZ970. We were fortunate enough to get our hands on the new DLE020 lens, allowing us to project a curved, blended image of 11.5m by 2.9m with a throw distance of only 1.6m.
Over 50 various sized displays are also installed into custom housings and mounts, including a 9x 5” circular LCD panel installed into mechanical eyeballs.
Show control is custom built by Toulouse on a Brightsign network.
What was the most exciting solution that your team came up with?
In the fantasy area of Weta Workshop Unleashed the real showstopper is the Everclan miniature castle and this is partly due to the thoughtful and beautiful lighting element. The lighting of the intricate castle subtly moves from the first light of dawn, through the day, and into the blackness of night. It is perfectly in synch with an epic movie quality soundtrack delivered by Tane and lit by Mark and his team. The goal was to make the experience as authentically cinematic as possible as the light emerges to reveal the castle.
Now that the display is up and running, is there anything that you would do differently?
We’re always proud of the work we bring to the public eye and Weta Workshop Unleashed is no exception to that. Of course, when we do it all again, either for ourselves or a client, our fresh learnings around equipment, integration and guest experience would play a key role in the design and development of the next project.
The beauty with technology today and what Toulouse could provide for us, is its adaptability. An advantage of Unleashed being an experience we own and operate means we can adjust elements as we learn more about our guests’ experiences and preferences. Swapping out multi-screen content can be done from the Workshop in Wellington, adjusting lighting palettes in different spaces, with only a couple of clicks.
What’s coming out of the Weta Workshop at the moment that is transferable to live entertainment?
We have been heavily involved with Mixed Reality technology due to our early relationship with Magic Leap and this and other similar head mounted displays will change the face of immersive theatrical, theme park or live experience interactions for the visitor and audience. This offers immensely exciting opportunities for the integration of environmental sound combined with that delivered through the head mounted displays. Couple that with haptic and interactive lighting cues prompted by MXRL content specific to the viewer, and you have something really dynamic and significantly game changing for our industry.
And what’s next?
The technology available today including stuff still being developed and stuff we can only yet dream about is just mind-blowing. Live events and location-based experiences are only going to become more immersive and more awe-inspiring. The blending and interaction of digital and physical worlds is a space we are exploring and the potential to seamlessly jump between real world experiences and the Metaverse really excites us and is something we are exploring at the moment.
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