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May 3, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Making monsters

Salient feature writer Josh Cleary talks to Daniel Falconer, a designer at Weta Workshop.

Josh: What do you do?

Daniel: I was hired back at end of ‘96 as a conceptual artist. I was one of a group of concept artist/designers—a kind of interchangeable term really for us—all hired about the same time when Weta was looking to build a design team. Until that time, they had a couple of artists who would do design work for them, and on the kind of projects they had been working on until that time, that was as much as they needed or could sustain. But the company was looking a bit bigger at the time. Lord of the Rings was the major film that came along straight after the original King Kong fell through for us. And I really cut my teeth on that—that was a pretty amazing experience. I tried to spread myself around at the time.

Since then Weta Workshop has diversified a lot more, and we have got more strings to our bow. Now the company does collectibles…we have a little bit of publishing [and] our own TV production group now as well. I’m finding I’m less involved in the actual art design side of things, and a bit more in art directing other things, like we have got Weta Productions, which is making children’s TV programmes. We did Jane and the Dragon a few years ago, and most recently is The Wot Wots.

My role with those, or with The Wot Wots, has been liaising with companies that come on board as licensees. So there has been a toy company come on board to make toys for them, and I am in charge of supplying them with reference imagery, and art directing the toys they bring back and say, ‘Hey we want to do this’, and I’m like, ‘Well it doesn’t quite look like the character so change to this’, whatever. I am a toy collector as well, so it’s been quite cool to see how the other side of that works.

Most recently I have been helping get some books off the ground for Weta. I wrote the World of Kong book that we did, which was a fictional bestiary of Kong’s islands. We did a behind-the-scenes art book for the Narnia series and I wrote the text for that as well… At the moment, I am just in the last couple of weeks or so of finishing off the District 9 book, which we are hoping to have out for Christmas this year. A little late behind the movie, but I think everyone was surprised that the movie was such an amazingly big hit—not because it wasn’t cool, but because nobody was expecting it to get the exposure that it did.

Josh: How did you get to doing what you are doing?

Daniel: I have always been interested in creatures and costumes and monsters and all that kind of stuff. Most importantly world building, because that is something we really pride ourselves on doing. I’ll explain a bit more about that as we get along. But I have always been interested in that ever since I was a kid. It wasn’t until I was at Polytech—I was at Auckland University of Technology—and was doing an illustration course [and] within that I was trying to twist it as much as possible towards creature design for the movies and that sort of thing… There is no degree you can go and do in that. Fortunately, my tutors—once I had convinced them and shown them there was actually a career to be made in doing that—they were happy to support me as long as I met all the broader curriculum requirements.

I found out about Weta in my last year that I was there—I found out there was a company here in Wellington doing that kind of stuff, which blew me away as I imagined you would have to go to the States to do it. I contacted Weta and came down and did some work experience here, and walked away three months before my degree was due to finish—when I left they said there was a job waiting for me as soon as I had finished. So I graduated and moved to Wellington two months after graduating, and have been here ever since. So it was a pretty wild ride.

I think there is a combination there of luck and good timing, but also being passionate about what I was doing. I wasn’t necessarily especially good about what I was doing in the beginning, but I had a real passion for it and Richard [Taylor] really responds to passion. As I say, good timing as they were looking to put together a design department for King Kong, didn’t have any people, and I walk in and say I am interested in this kind of stuff. So really, really lucky.

It is a lot harder now because everyone knows about Weta. The kind of career I am in is something that a lot of folks know about and would aspire to be in, so the competition is much bigger and fiercer. We get dozens of portfolios every week and you look through them and just go ‘wow’. There are some incredibly talented people out there… but obviously there is only a certain number of people the company can hire and it’s all built on what opportunities are available at the time for work… So I feel very fortunate to be there and I can’t see myself going anywhere in the near future.

I touched on world building earlier… World building is—say you get a script for a movie and it needs a monster—we want to think about what the whole world that monster lives in is like and how does that affect the way the monster should look and how does the monster look in that whole world. The whole package.

Often you go to movies and you will see a monster run on screen and [it] is wearing a crazy costume—maybe it’s a medieval setting—but you look at the costume and think ‘Well that looks like cast rubber’ or ‘that looks like some sort of kevlar composite or something like that’ and ‘that creature looks really really clean but everything around is dirty’. There is something in it that makes you go ‘that is not fit for that’.

What that tends to be a product of is that they will have one company doing the set design, they’ll have another company doing the costume, another guy doing the creature and you end up with a weird jumble of parts that doesn’t usually mesh. What we try to do at Weta, and why the company has in the past taken on so many different roles on a different project, is to try and get that singular brush stroke that paints the world believably from start to finish.There are many artists working on it but they are all pulling in the same direction and they all understand each other.

Josh: What if someone, at uni say, shared your passion and wanted to get into this notoriously close-knit industry? What would their path be?

Daniel: It shouldn’t discourage people from pursuing the dream. I am proof that it can come true. So if you have a dream and a passion for this kind of stuff, then throw yourself at it. I think nothing will sell you better than a portfolio that is filled with really cool work that demonstrates how passionate and excited you are about what you are doing. Because you can’t engineer passion, that has got to come from the person. That is the one thing when you come to see an employer [that] you have to have from the beginning. You can learn and get better as you go along, but [passion]’s got to be there.

I think an important ‘to do’ is to be creative in where you go to. Weta is obviously the big name in town at the moment but there are other companies around. [They’re] obviously not the same size as Weta, but something that is really opening up, particularly in the last five to six years is video gaming, and there is a massive need for conceptual artists and designers in the video game industry. The gloves are really off there because you are creating completely fake worlds so you don’t have to be restricted to the kind of visual constraints that say somebody making a costume to fit on a guy has to. Even if they [designers] want to end up back in film eventually it is a great place to get in and some of the smaller gaming companies could certainly use talented young artists.

Publishing can be a way in, I think. [It is] tough in New Zealand because it is a small market for an illustrator to break into, and I can’t really speak too much about it because my experience has really been based in film design. But comics or illustration, particularly if you can find overseas clients to work for in addition to New Zealand companies, so you can get the amount of work you need, there [are] possibilities there as well. And the internet also makes it possible to work for clients overseas so Weta need not be the only company to come knocking on the door of.

Josh: So it’s hard for fresh faces to get house room at Weta. Is there room for smaller outfits to develop their own corner of the market?

Daniel: Yes, certainly there is. And Weta is not the only guy in town. They are obviously the best and most well known, but there are plenty of other companies doing stuff. Three Foot Seven is going to be doing a huge amount of work, arguably much more than Weta would be on The Hobbit. And in Auckland you have a massive film and television industry up there as well, which shouldn’t be forgotten about. In fact we get all the press down there and typically we are doing the movies down here. But a huge amount gets done in Auckland—like six TV shows being done up there at the moment. There are plenty of opportunities around… It’s tough because the work comes and goes, and it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride in getting work [security], but there is definitely work around to get.

Josh: What keeps you in a famously fickle business?

Daniel: The one really amazing thing about Weta Workshop—and it is totally to Richard Taylor and Tania Roger’s credit, the founders and runners of the company—is that they are in it for the long haul. The film industry is feast or famine, jobs come and go and there will be lots of work for a short amount of time and there will be no work for a time. Richard and Tania have really tried to build a crew that they then, as much as possible, keep during the hard time and sustain during those times. Also they will find work to suit the crew they have got, rather than necessarily finding crew to suit the work they have got—I mean they do that too, but definitely they try to keep the core group. My limited experience with friends overseas is that the [visual] effects companies tend to shrink and grow according to the jobs—they will fire everybody when a job finishes and then hire a new bunch of people when the next job comes along. Richard as much as possible tries to create that sustainability of work all the way through where people can go to work and know that they have a job eight to six every day, five days a week, forever.

Richard wants crew to be there for the long haul. He says that his greatest pride is not the number of prizes on the shelf or certificates on the wall, it is the number of babies born to the crew. He says that if people are having babies it means they have sustainability and security in their work, and that is something to be really proud of in the film industry where the whole industry is anything but sustainability and security. That loyalty comes back in the other direction because of his attitude.

I would say the values of the company are part of it. Staying in New Zealand because I still think it’s the best place to be and definitely where I want to raise my kids. That keeps me here. A lot of it is definitely that loyalty you get from the company.

Josh: Do you have a favourite outsider who has come in to employ your services—someone you personally dealt with? I mean obviously Peter Jackson is probably going to be a notable figure there.

Daniel: He’s pretty awesome but I tell you what—I can’t say too much because this is still in the works­—but Guillermo Del Torro, the time I have spent with him so far is amazing—just incredibly giving, friendly, open guy who is just all about the artistic merits of what he is producing, and not at all about ego and political nonsense and that kind of stuff, which makes him a joy to work with. So from the amount of interacting I have had with him, which is not a lot so far, he is amazing. An incredible guy. And whatever happens with The Hobbit—it happens or it doesn’t happen or whatever—that in the future we will get to work with him more because he is awesome.


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