The New Zealand Chronicles:Part 3 – Hotel Rooms and the Weta Tour


*** First written June 14, 2002***

Never make it a plan to live out of a hotel room.  Sure, people clean up your room and make your bed.  Fetch your car when you need it. But confined to a room with 5 channels of television and being charged by the minute for Internet access certainly does have serious psychological drawbacks that I won’t see for years.

Tomorrow, we have an appointment to go over the terms of the lease, but I’m not sure when we can settle down and get focused.  Until then, I’m going to have to just avoid going stir crazy.  The weather has it prohibitive to go walking around downtown.

The day starts by heading out to WETA for a formal tour of the facilities.  Getting there — no problem.  Parking?  I’m reminded of Los Angeles parking by the beach on Memorial Day.  But that’s what you get when you have 280 artists swarm into an area that didn’t expect it.  I spot a small and questionable space.  But the car is small — not Mini small, but more like VW Cabrio small.  Some of you may know that I am the King of U.S. Parallel Parking.  I can now claim that title for the International sector. Two point park job. 6 inches front and back.  While piloting from the right side of the car. On the first try.  I wear the crown if someone wants to try and knock it off my head.  Bring it, Bitches!

 Walk in with 5 minutes to spare.

All the new recruits are there, waiting for the big tour. 15 new people.  These are people who just arrived this past week.  And more are on the way.

Mikkel – Swedish – Lighting TD – Double Negative in London

Eric – American – Compositor – Rhythm & Hues  (This guy was the guy at the airport with us)

Matt – American – Compositor –  R&H

Jill – American – Lighting TD – Cinesite-Los Angeles

Keith – American – Compositor – Digital Domain

Tim – Canadian – Animation TD – Alias/Wavefront

Kareem – American – Compositor – Tippett Studios

Oliver – American – Animator – Foundation Imaging & Nickelodean

Jess – Kiwi – Editorial

Demitri – Russian – Texture Artist

Deborah – American – Compositor

and three others that eluded my introduction.

These are the people who are going to be riding the learning curve along with myself.

We are led by Kim Rickard into WETA Workshop – the hub of all the practical effects for the films.  Miniatures. Prosthetics. Armor. Weapons.  Basically — anything that is not created in the computer.

Did I happen to mention that Weta is named from a huge, ugly, indigenous cricket.  And this ain’t no cute Jiminy Cricket with a tophat and cane that happens to be your conscience and recommends that you wish upon as star, convincing you that it makes no difference who you are.  It derives its name from the Maori name “wetapunga”, which translates to “God of ugly things” — an ironic name for a company that churns out such beautiful imagery.  If it were tiny, like our crickets here in the States, maybe you could saw “awww, its adorable as it chirps its little song”.  But, no, these things are INCHES long.  Imagine a cricket the size of gerbil.

We pass through a large shelving unit of the designs and maquettes. These are all the small sculptures of all the creatures in the film.  Not only for the production, but also for the marketing team.  Some of you may have seen the enormous variety of busts found in bookstores and hobby shops.  All the original sculptures are created at WETA Workshop before being mass produced from the molds pulled from the originals.  Otherwise, these maquettes are used in the Workshop side to create the life-size prosthetics for the actors and well as over at digital for modeling and texturing the digital creatures.  I can’t even express the amount of detail that is present in these.  Just looking at the store-bought busts and you get an inkling of what I’m talking about.

A full-size sculpture of the Cave Troll was intimidating.  Standing around 20 feet tall it dwarfs all of the artists.

In the maquette area, a few artists work in clay as we admire the sculptures around the room.  A sculpture of Gandalf holding his sword, Glamring, with robes flowing violently in a hurricane of magic.  Looks like he stands about 12″.  We are told by the artist that this is going to be for a bronze casting that will be put up for sale.  The current size is 1/4 of the final product.  This means that the bronze will stand 48″ high and will retail for probably $7000 US.  Only 1000 will be made.  The cast and crew have already put dibs on most of them.  I hate them for it.

Everything that we see and touch is absolutely astounding.  I don’t know how much I can really reveal at this time, so I’ll leave it at that.  I wouldn’t want to be escorted out of the building before my job has started.  I’m going to check with production to see if I can take some digital photos of some of the sculptures to send to you guys.  But no guarantees.

The next building was the animation building on Weka Street.  Animators sit at each of their desks divided with the same Japanese-style walls as the digital production building.  You can tell the tenure of animators based on the amount of glaze on their eyes.  The late arrivals still have a spark.  The older ones generally communicate with non-descript grunts and groans with occasional biting.

The dailies cinema is also located at Weka.  The cinema is currently setup for ADR (Automated Dialogue Recording).  This is a process where actors re-record their dialogue while watching their performance.  ADR is necessary usually when the sound onset of on location wasn’t clean — aka polluted by other sounds like wind, planes, cars, etc.  Its also used to dub voices for overseas presentations and/or the producer doesn’t like the accent of the actor, so they have someone else read for it on top of the actors performance — for examples see these dubbed actors — Mel Gibson (Mad Max), Arnold Schwarzneggar (Hercules Goes To New York).

The cinema looks like it holds around 300 people (which is closely becoming the size of the staff at WETA).  Its immaculately designed with friezes and a waterfall curtain at the front.  Detail work on the columns are sculptures and molds showing characters from Peter Jackson films including Bad Taste and Meet The Feebles.  The murals on the walls, showing expansive-Tolkienesque landscapes, are actually printed carpeting rather than painted directly on the walls.  This decision feels like an acoustic consideration to deaden any potential echo.  Overall, the cinema is more ornate than 99% of the theaters in the US — barring of course the older theaters such as Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood and the Westwood and Bruin just south of UCLA.

Saying goodbye to the animators and leaving them to do their work, we head back to Manuka Street and the digital production facility.  I won’t bother describing the rest of the tour because I’ve already shared with you the ins and out of the Manuka offices and all of its eccentricities, reminding me of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose — another example of improvisational architecture.  That one however was a result of an insane woman thinking the victims of her husband’s invention, the Winchester rifle, were haunting her and that continually adding onto the house would confuse them.

Kim asks the artists if they wish to go visit the facility over on Rongotai Street.

Side note: if you’ve noticed some of the names (Manuka, Weka, Rongotai).  These are words coming from the Maori, which is the race of Polynesian seafarers who happen to be living here when Great Britain decided to move in (sound familiar?).  The area is filled with reminance of Maori names.  This is parallel with the United States’ habit of adopting words from its previous indigenous tribes. (Seattle, Nisqually, Milwaukee, Mackinac, Dakota, etc).  The language and culture – stemming from Polynesia – sounds very similar (not surprisingly) to Hawaiian.

The Rongotai Building is filled with the rest of the departments (rotoscoping, painting, camera matching, modeling, and the creature department).  The building is located about a five minute drive from the rest of the facility, so it feels like a completely different company. I question how we will be effectively sharing digital assets with them — how can we share a network over such a distance. I also sense that because of this inconvenience, that there is relatively little interaction between Manuka/Weka and Rongotai.  Its like Rongotai are the rogue artists — which is understandable because Roto (tracing elements on every frame), Paint (painting elements out of every frame), and Camera Match (recreating the onset camera for every frame), is extremely tedious work and would drive most normal people into a state of insanity within a few minutes.  If you doubt me — ask Taz Goldstein — he went insane after rotoscoping 3 frames on Pearlmageddon.  Its a very thankless job, but without these detail-oriented unsung heroes the shots just simply wouldn’t be able to be completed.

Kim informs us that the tour is over (which makes me wonder if she is now saying that we have to walk back to Manuka).  But her final comment is that every Friday at around 6, it becomes Beer O’Clock.  This means, oddly enough, that the artists gather around and drink beer and wine and basically relax.  I ask if Beer O’Clock happens at Manuka or Rongotai.  She sighs and says that they used to have it up at Manuka, but since they’ve grown, Beer O’Clock at Manuka is for Manuka artists, and there is a separate Beer O’Clock ay Rongotai. (I didn’t ask if they were in different Time Zones).  This feeds my theory that there will be two separate cliques based on being a ManukaWeka or a Rongotai.  If it weren’t wintertime and it wasn’t raining 15 inches a day, I could see softball teams started — or Rugby, just to keep with the local culture.  Although seeing a bunch of digital artists playing contact sports would either be very funny or very sad — especially if the teams are shirts and skins.

Each month, there is a Weta-wide Beer O’Clock where everyone gathers at the cinema to drink beer and watch all the shots that have been finalled over the last month.  This isn’t unique to Weta.  In by days at Imageworks, they also held Monthlies followed by an outside gathering with Beer, Wine, and Crackers.  The only difference is that Imageworks is in Los Angeles, where you can safely have a Wine and Crackers affair in the outside court yard.  Weta is in Wellington, where an outdoor event in the winter would be either crazy or futile.  If the torrential downpour didn’t wash the keg down the road, then the winds would pick it up and loft it into the Cook Straits where penguins and seals would grow fat and drunk on the hops.

BTW — did I happen to mention that in our briefing that we have been informed that due to the proximity to the hole in the ozone layer, the UV rays from the sun are much more potent than in the States.  So, if we happen to see the sun while we are here, we should where sunblock and a hat if possible.  And if we decide to do outdoor events on the water, like Sea Kayaking or something, that the sun will fry us in about 15 minutes.

Back at the homestead (which is the hotel room — sigh), Jennifer and I get a chance to relax and have a bite to eat.  The food here requires some getting used to.  However, I can’t really put a finger on what it is that we are supposed to get used to.  There is a split between a British-type of cuisine and Polynesian/Thai.  Pizza Haven offers a Satay Chicken pizza. Eggs are poached, serves with a boiled tomato and a sausage.  And these sausages aren’t the little, dinky, spicy sausages — these are like Johnsonville Brats.  Things are either spicy (the Thai side) or heavy and thick (British).  I’m sure that we’ll get used to it.  Coca-Cola tastes the same though.

I have to get some cables for the 220V outlets here, which can be found at Dick Smith’s Electronics.  So, I go out into the city to get my cables. Jennifer stays behind to maintain business affairs back home.  The rain is coming in sideways with the extreme winds.  I figured I would be more protected walking amongst the highrises downtown.  Not the case.  The rain is everywhere.  I feel like Forrest Gump. “There was stinging rain.  Big fat rain. Rain that came in from the side.  There was even rain that came from below”.  I think I’m going to pull out my winter jacket with the hood.

A successful mission prompts me to return.  I pick up some ice cream — a scoop of chocolate and a scoop of banana.  A lame attempt to recreate Chunky Monkey.  Jennifer concurs that its not the same.  Oh well.

The rest of the day/night is divided between Midnight Club 2 and relaxing.

This is Todd on a Friday night. Signing off.  And I just realized that its way past Beer O’Clock.

New Zealand Terms:

Takeaway = Take Out (like food)

Give Way = Yield (driving)

Way Out = Exit

Seems like “way” is a VERY popular word.

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