Welcome to Wellington

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Living in Wellington, New Zealand, just up the road from Weta Workshop, is like having your nose pressed against the glass at the weirdest candy store on Earth.

It’s a pain in the ass of the highest order.

The selection used to just be elves, orcs and the odd giant ape, but now things are multiplying like a virus: Everything from 1940s warplanes to Master Chief is in the air. Weta and the Peter Jackson industries are big business in our small city. You can hear them sometimes, at night, loud explosions in the hills. You can run into James Cameron or Bungie employees down at the local dairy. You can smell the chemicals that hold imaginary creatures together while their sculptors inhale and gibber.

Can I has some? Please?

Sounds like our kind of town, said The Escapist. Get into Weta, grab them by the curlies, find out about convergence – mushing movies, games and everything else into one big sticky whole. See what it’s like to work in a genuine south seas dream factory. And if you’re shot by security or get pictures of Peter Jackson en flagrante with a midget in a monkey costume, there’ll be a bonus in it for you.

Security would indeed be a problem; dobermans, lasers, helicopters, instincts honed by a decade of keeping intrusive assholes away from Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Shoot first, feed ’em to the man-eating penguins of Rocky Bay later, never get around to asking questions.

“Sounds fun,” said Rachel at Weta Workshops on the phone. “You promise not to ask us for the thousandth time about Hobbits or continuity errors or what Jack Black’s really like?”

“What about Wellington and videogames and how doing what you love isn’t what it used to be?”

“Great. Come in for a chat. And bring chocolate.”

The Far Side of Nowhere
Flying into Wellington airport, you can see where the old gods went mad. As you clutch your seat, you feel Tawhiri the wind-lord blowing up the plane’s tailpipe. To the right, Papatuanuku the Earth-mother bashes the hills into shape, and just over there’s the earthquake fault-line where she’ll go for The Big One someday. Tangaroa the sea-master hurls storms into the harbor. Out to the east is the spot in the Pacific Ocean that medieval Europeans thought of as the end of the Earth.

The whole place is tiny and mad, a mini sandbox of hills and hurricanes and forests and rocks, cute little houses and the seat of the New Zealand government.

Gino Acevedo got the tailwind his first time, but he also noticed something else.

“Richard [Taylor, Weta workshop founder] had warned me about flying into Wellington, that it gets a ‘bit’ windy, so just be prepared. I came in and it was a really gusty day, very … memorable,” he says as the terror scars cross his eyes. But the memory that stuck was the rooftops – “they all had different colors, that’s something I’d never seen before. Then coming into town and looking all around, it seems like everybody has a bit of an artist side. Even the manhole covers have a koru [fern] design on them. There’s lots of art here, lots of creative people.”

Weta Workshop sits under the hills and near the sea, up the road from Peter Jackson’s Stone Street Studios and post-production lab and the Stone Street Film Studios. There are no signs or overt security; it’s easy to wander right past and end up in a local chip shop begging for directions. People in and around Weta are friendly, and they’re in all shapes, sizes, types and colors. The artwork, sculptures and miniatures are, well, it’s a helluva candy store all right.

Richard Taylor, a kiwi with a serious gleam of insanity in his eye, formed Weta Workshop with his partner, Tania Rodger, in 1987. The idea of a dedicated special effects outfit in New Zealand was crazy. What existed of the local film and TV industry at the time was notoriously changeable, with surges of work as projects came through then a hard unemployment bump right after. Weta formed an early partnership with Peter Jackson and film editor Jaime Selkirk that went from psychotic Muppet variants (1989’s Meet the Feebles) to Lord of the Rings, King Kong and, well, everything: worldwide acclaim, five Weta Oscars and several hundred million dollars and counting in regional economic impact.

Acevedo’s a skin, fangs and eyeballs man, the Workshop’s Prosthetics and Creature effects Art Director. Growing up in Arizona, he loved two things: animals and monsters. Classic monsters, Creature From the Black Lagoon era. Vet school was an option, but monsters really weren’t, until he got a Hollywood-style break. Working at a Halloween mask company, he met several special effects artists, said the right things at the right time and got into the picture business.

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As a veteran of the American film industry, Acevedo is clearly aware of the odds he played, that in a very real sense he won the lottery to get from Arizona to Los Angeles. The move across the Pacific Ocean to Wellington was simpler – Richard Taylor took a liking to him. “Yeah, the usual rules don’t really apply down here.”

Between them, Weta Workshop and Weta Digital (sister but separate companies, physical effects on one side and CGI on the other) now have their fingers into every orifice of entertainment that’s going, from big films (Peter Jackson’s Dambusters and James Cameron’s Avatar) and live-action anime remakes (Neon Genesis: Evangelion) to a whole pile of game-related projects, including figurines for Hellgate: London, motion capture work for the recent Heavenly Sword, a new Halo game that seems to be happening and the Halo movie that keeps getting abandoned like a diseased orphan. There’s even a sideline chainmail business and children’s television arm set up by Taylor.

It’s varied work that involves mixing many things, some with pyrotechnic results that I’ve heard from my house. “We’ve never actually destroyed anything,” says Acevedo with a look of pure, evil innocence on his face.

That mix is increasingly reflected in the workshop’s structure: Weta’s self-consciously morphing into a creative entertainment shop, an interbreeding pool for idea sex. Acevedo now spends half his time on digital work, and the gap between digital and everything else is vanishing.

New people, presumably hired because they’re good at something and Weta has noticed them, don’t just get trained in their specialization. They’re thrown in the deep end, pushed around lots of different areas and ideas. In some ways, this works against the career specialization that has dominated film and is coming to the fore in game development. The advantages are clear on projects like Gollum, where cross matching between the physical artists and CGI people produced innovative digital skin textures that neither side had been able to achieve in isolation.

For Acevedo, the aim is cross-fertilization of ideas, applied to as many different areas as possible: “Nobody really holds secrets for themselves; everybody shares, which allows you to grow, and everybody feeds off each other in that way.” The different backgrounds and wide skillsets are crucial, “otherwise you’ve got a whole bunch of the same people in the same room, and there’s nothing new to feed off.”

I’m sitting there on a nice day in the southern seas, surrounded by banshees and demons and plastic fumes, and a picture whoomps into my head: game development studios that look like a giant darkened bedroom, row upon row of identikit young men with comp sci, game development and design degrees. Monochrome idea sex in a genetic wading pool. Games that are clone-stamped like artillery shells, the same damn thing delivered over and over again with a bang and some flashing lights.

Maybe we’re learning the wrong things from the movie business.

The Coming of the Plague Rats
Lucy Cant, 21 years old and smart as an electric eel, didn’t need to sign up for the lottery. She came out of a local high school four years ago liking fine arts and physics, went for an industrial design degree because it sounded halfway between the two, did well, won an award and got hired at Weta.

There’s a fantastic simplicity to it that Acevedo (and I) would probably have killed for.

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Cant, too, has been thrown into the Weta blender: From her industrial design base she’s had a go at 3-D modeling, fabrication, laser cutting, machine printing and milling. She’s getting good with some of Weta’s favorite software packages, including the digital sculpting program Mudbox. “Weta’s not very hierarchical; everyone here is trying to learn new things. You do get specialists, but they’re helping other people, you’re helping them, it all cycles round. Every time you make a little discovery, you go running round and show people, and you’re like, ‘Hey, look at what this does.'”

Bridging educators will sometimes talk about career horizons, about how realizing that something is genuinely possible is a huge step toward attaining it. The vast gulf of expectations between Richard Taylor, Gino Acevedo and Lucy Cant is living proof that finally, in our little polar paradise, there’s a dream factory pathway to follow. Things have moved beyond that pioneer stage where a group of enthusiasts had to make a leap of faith into the unknown. Now, if you’re good and you work hard and you’re just a little bit lucky, it can be a career. As both Cant and Acevedo note, there’s an incredible strangeness and excitement about this that’s hard to convey in words.

And it’s catching.

The idea sex goes well beyond the walls of Weta. In a tightly woven environment like Wellington where everything from tectonic plates to the local council has something to say, you can’t just drop in a dream-factory candy store with no effect. This is a place where the only option available used to be politics, with its ranks and levels and hierarchies and utterly obscure scoring systems.

Finally, there’s a new game in town.

For years, Taylor had been calling for a sustainable creative industry with pathways and an investment base, and now it seems one is appearing. Spin-offs even include a homegrown Wellington game development company, Sidhe Interactive, which started with gems like Barbie Beach Vacation and has made it to some award-winning sports titles and original content, including the PS3/PSP/Xbox Live release Gripshift.

I wonder if this is what Hollywood was like at some imaginary point in time. Hollywood: where a group of dreamers, capitalists, sirens, geniuses and madmen converged on another piece of land near the Pacific to follow their interests and build an empire. I wonder if the leeches, scabs and bottom feeders are circling, ready to move in and destroy it. If we’ll find some kind of antidote. If they’re already here.

If they’re us.

Last Mile
There’s a strange smell around people who are doing exactly what they want. It’s something a little bit like sausages. Or maybe lemon. Either way, it’s rare and difficult to bottle. And tough to write about.

Wellington right now: an outpost near the back end of Antarctica, a mad testament to the idea that not all the action is Somewhere Else. That if you get the conditions right, you can interbreed creativity, business and surroundings until the line between “film unit,” “special effects workshop,” and “game development studio” blurs to the point of vanishing. That maybe the best way to build a sustainable creative environment isn’t to hire identical clones and give them fixed jobs, but to find smart, interesting people who follow their interests, put them in a fresh landscape, and let them fertilize.

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Perhaps, God help us, the way to grow the games business and make better games is not to put 100 young men in a room together and then tell them to excrete another shooter.

But I digress. It’s good to know that the maniacs up the road at the end of the Earth are having fun. Hell, let’s follow them, head into the Wellington hills, hunt down some elves with blaster rifles. We might just catch that thing that’s going around, the follow your interests and fuck the bureaucrats virus we’re all just dying to be infected with.

The door to the candy store is open.

Colin Rowsell is a writer, strategist and very bad Dance Dance Revolution player. He can be contacted on giantmonkeyvirus@gmail.com

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