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Imaginary play

Wellington’s Wētā Workshop is one of New Zealand’s finest exports.

  • 23rd Jun 2023

When Wētā Workshop won two Academy Awards for its work on The Lord of the Rings in 2001, it catapulted the Kiwi company to international stardom.

Since then, the visionary business has been synonymous with creativity and innovation, utilising the latest technology to intricately craft everything from Thor’s iconic costume to art installations at an upscale Chinese shopping complex.

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Wētā Workshop head of manufacture Rob Gillies ensures the company is up to date with the latest cutting-edge tech and oversees the design and fabrication of thousands of movie props, sculptures and art installations.

“Our mission statement is to make cool stuff and with a workshop full of artists, that’s exactly what we do. We bring imaginary worlds to life for the global entertainment industry, as well as immersive visitor experiences,” he says. “For us, providing an environment where clients feel comfortable to allow us to take risks and push the boundaries is crucial – we want to ‘wow’ them with our work.”

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Founded in the back room of a Wellington flat by Sir Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger in 1987, Wētā Workshop is a brand built on excellence. Working with Sir Peter Jackson in its early years (Peter owned the Wētā Digital division of the company, which he sold in 2021) Wētā Workshop has designed and created props and costumes for Hollywood blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Avatar and Taika Waititi’s two Thor films.

“I heard Richard Taylor say the other day, ‘Strive for creative immortality’, and that’s something I really like as an idea,” says Rob. “We don’t think of ourselves as a film company, we’re a community of artists who strive to share their artistic offerings with the world. This happens to be through the medium of film, experiences, collectables, and games. Art underpins all our aspirations and everything we do.”

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While the company may have cut its teeth on films, commissions such as the Haikou International Duty-Free Shopping Complex, in which they created a fully immersive and interactive art experience inside the mall, have been projects that enable the team to flex their creative muscle. The same can be said of the emotionally raw, life-like Gallipoli: The Scale of our War exhibit at Te Papa or the New Zealand Liberation Museum – Te Arawhata experience, which opens in France later this year.

“Approximately 80% of our film work would be from international markets. A large percentage of our ‘location-based experience’ clients are also international,” adds Rob. “But like any Kiwi company, our location can be a challenge. We’re down the bottom of the South Pacific so some clients won’t consider us due to our proximity. However, that’s changing – we have really strong shipping options, and you can fly to Los Angeles overnight. Zoom meetings have also made the world smaller.”

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Today, Wētā Workshop has five Oscars and two BAFTAs to its name, as well as more than 300 staff based at its Miramar HQ. It’s also a strong player in the tourism field, with visitor experiences in Auckland and tours of the workshop in Wellington.

“Our newest tourism attraction, Wētā Workshop Unleashed, opened in Auckland in 2020 with the idea of encouraging creativity and inspiring the next generation of creative New Zealanders,” says Rob.

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Learn more at wetanz.com

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