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Interview with Richard Taylor
Xoanon had a chance to speak with Richard Taylor, the Head of WETA Digital, over the phone.
Richard Taylor: G'day, how are you?
X: Very good thank you, could you give us a little background on these medallions, where did the idea come from, how did they start out?
RT: As the world is becoming aware, we have been working on Lord Of The Rings for so many years, for five years at least and having worked on so many departments, the creatures, the design , fabrication, and the on-set operations, of the amour-weapons, miniatures, creatures and prosthetic make-up effects, as we drew towards the end of the film we knew that we wanted to be part of the merchandising. However we wanted to be only part of a very special aspect of the merchandising, the high-end collectables, which has a particular fascination for me because I've been collecting garage kits for the last 15 years and indeed have a sizeable collection myself. I knew that if there was another business outside the film industry that we wanted to pursue and with any possible product line in the world, it was the high-end polystyrene collectables for Lord Of The Rings. That set us off in the last ten months on the most wondrous journey. The group of people at WETA in Wellington New Zealand, along with our business partner Sideshow Toys here in LA have set about an endeavor with a huge optimistic and hopeful outcome which is to put the maximum amount of product out there specifically angled at the fans of Lord of the Rings and the fans that will hopefully come from the movie. To that end we've chosen to produce up to 200 separate characters in the form of busts, figures, wall plaques, helmets, dioramas, so on and so fourth.
What became apparent to me as we were working on these collectibles about 5 months ago was that although we were producing what I believe to be a beautiful line of 3 dimensional artwork, it is still geared very much towards the true collectors of that sort of product. That is really something that real fans who enjoy collecting figurative artwork would want to own in their house. We wanted to make some of the product mote accessible to non collectors so without even telling our business partners at Sideshow Toys WE decided that we'd just experiment a little bit and what we began experimenting with was the idea of these medallions.
3 Kings of 1936 Medallions
I am a very big fan of the early works of the royal academy of the arts, the British academy of the arts, the work that they used to do around about the turn of the century, that type of sculpture. One of the things that they explored in a great deal was the art of the medallion, it is a both a beautiful art and quite a science to force the perspective and crush the three dimensional image into a two dimensional plane. That coupled with the fact that I thought we would generate a product that would be appealing to a market that we wouldn't touch with our figurative work, which was the homeowner that didn't have shelf space for a very specific sort of culti-ish product but would be interested in hanging moments from the film on their walls or sitting on their mantelpieces. A series of beautiful, low relief figurative art, and that's what really began to percolate in my mind.
We went to the Cannes launch, in France and the castle where this beautiful event was put on, for this party, set into the walls were these low relief religious icons, in bas relief, and at that point I had been fermenting this idea in my brain and that just solidified it. The moment I saw these I knew that I'm returning to New Zealand and we would begin this line of product.
X: Can you explain to us how the Medallion goes from an idea in you mind's eye, to an actual product?
The strength of any commercial artwork is the art direction. It is the subtle control of the art of the piece, the truth of it is what we are making is a commercial product for a collectors market. But under no circumstances do we take that as the primary consideration in our workshop. We believe in ourselves that we are making fine art, it happens to be fine art that we can produce in numbers and sell on the marketplace, but each piece is cautiously and carefully art directed at a level that will generate fine art. Even things like the chess-piece-style black base underneath our busts and our helmets has been carefully considered as it generates the aesthetic of fine art, like a piece of royal academy of the arts sculpture. In no way, as would be the case if it had been themed, does it take away from the visual effect of the piece.
Likewise the medallion program, we chose from the beginning that we wanted to offset a dramatic foreground component, with a higher detail background component, taking up one third of the picture and setting this inside a bronze medallion, making it look like it could be something found chipped off a wall at an archeological dig when you found Minas Tirith. Or perhaps they would have been inset in the tile work in the bathhouse where possibly Boromir as a child would have played; that is the sort of feeling we wanted. It's imperative that there is a feeling of antiquity to them, that these could be relics from a lost era and it was that aesthetic that we pursued.
The Orcs of Moria Medallion
We initially started with the concept that they would be sandstone, or a stone look. But what became apparent as we experimented more with that was that the solidity and permanence of bronze gave them a higher perception of fine art. So I made a decision after test-producing a number of stone pieces in the workshop that the bronze was a nicer way to go. To that end we decided which technician, which artist in the workshop would undertake each piece: who had the greatest empathy for the particular subject matter that we wanted in each piece.
Once the work was divided up between the technicians, those people selected to work on the medallions began to sculpt them. They primarily sculpted either super-sculpty or chevant, and they take about two and one-half weeks to sculpt. Once the artist has completed the sculpture , we have a system in the shop where we all decide when to proceed with them. Although I oversee production of the pieces in the workshop I want to have the ability to incorporate all the talent in our workshop in the final art direction of every piece. We have a system in our facility where every person who does a piece of artwork has to put it up for voting. We have voting sheets: if your piece gets a score above eight out of 10 the piece is good enough to go through for molding, but if it gets a score below eight, it means that the technician that's scoring it doesn't consider that it's quite there yet. If you give a mark below eight you have to write a comment that suggests why you don't consider it as quite there. In doing this you can incorporate 45 people's input, and in the process you can build a better final result because the group is having the opportunity for input, rather than just the individual.
It very much celebrates the attitude of collectivism and working as a whole until the final end. That is very much how the medallions are being developed. Once we produce the final sculpture, we take a silicon mold of it, pour it into a plaster gypsum, and then we very subtly sandblast with fine grit sand to create the illusion of aging that only weathering can do to the surface of the medallion. Then we take another silicon mold and from that we produce 6 masters; 3 of them are mold masters and 3 of them are paint masters. We very carefully simulate a bronze finish on the surface, then the three mold masters, and one of those paint masters is sent off to our manufacturing partners. The second paint master is sent off to Sideshow toy in America for photography and promotional purposes and to be sent on to New Line for approval. The final paint master is kept in our display cases at WETA in New Zealand.
The Orcs of Moria Medallion (Back)
X: Did you use that system of community voting on the film as well?
RT: We don't necessarily vote on film work because the process of design is too fluid when working on a film, you have a greater master. Although you have your own inspirations and visions, you are still working for someone else, which is the director of the film. In the case of Lord Of The Rings we were working FOR an even greater master than that, which was the original vision of Tolkien and his writing. But what we do in fact do is have a very collective design process where every single piece of design is pinned to the wall and through collective discussion and through a process of evaluation as a group, we develop our ideas. So no one individual will go on a singular design pursuit, it's very much a collaborative process of which fortunately Peter Jackson is a major part. He has such a strong vision, and he's an integral part of any of the design processes.
X: Did PJ oversee the medallions or any other Sideshow Toys items?
RT: No, Peter would be involved if he could, but he's got three massive films to finish (laughs). He therefore is incredibly busy; Peter is my business partner so therefore is a partner in Sideshow /WETA collectables. He has been unable to be involved more than just being the mentor that he is. He likes to pass comments on when he can, but due to his massive and overwhelming job of completing the films to a level that he will be happy with, he can't allow himself to get too involved.
X: I can see him being a fan of these pieces; I know he likes to collect King Kong art
RT: Peter, I think, is the biggest collector of beautiful figurative artwork in New Zealand. Indeed he has a comprehensive range of figures, ranging from the Ray Harryhausen creatures through to, as you say, the Kong stuff that he has. We get really excited when Peter requests a series of each piece because we know he appreciates them and will treasure them.
X: As far as the figures and busts, who is it that decides the position each of them will be in, where they're looking and how they're standing?
RT: That is ultimately my final decision; I will make my final decision if it needs to be made in that process. That all makes it sound like it's lacking in democracy, but it is very much a collective decision. It is very much the artists' decision initially with a subtle amount of what we call tweaking by me. I have an overall look that I'm trying to achieve, but if I don't trust in the fact that the artist who is on the project with me to understand that, then we're not going to get the inspiration that we're after.
A piece needs to come from the sculptor's heart: it cannot appear labored, or it cannot be labored, so therefore it's got to be of a design that the sculptor wants to do. It's got to be a captured moment from the film that they remember fondly. And you've got to remember that we're working in a very unique climate here, the sculptors that are doing these collectables for the world of collectors are the very technicians that either sculpted, prosthetically applied, operated or wrangled, creatures, armor, weapons, actually on set. We have the senior miniatures technicians that work for me at WETA who built the original 1/32ND scale miniature of Helms Deep that is seen in the film, making the miniature of Helms Deep, there is no one on the planet that knows that environment better. We have unique situations like the original sculptor that sculpted the prosthetics for himself to play a cameo of a dwarf in the film went on to actually make a model kit of himself in those prosthetics that he sculpted. So they're toleranced and accurate to the vision that is inside the head of that artist who was the artist that did the original job.
The weaponry that we're making for our collectables line are being made the two individuals that hand made the original weapons for Lord Of The Rings, a gentleman who hand-ground out the blades that characters like Aragorn, Sauron, and Arwen wield in the films. He has now had to downscale 6 times his craft to produce the originals with the exact same materials, but at a tiny scale. He is now tolerancing them to 1/10th of a millimeter to get them accurate to what was in the film.
X: What are the future plans for WETA/Sideshow Toys, anything that we do not know about yet?
RT: Yes, absolutely! We will continue on to 'The Two Towers', we are already about 8 or 10 into 'Towers'. We're having a lovely time doing those, but you know it isn't exactly perfect business sense in creating a vast wide range of collectables. I come from an intense fan base myself and by fan I mean someone that just loves wondrous things… people that love the fantasy, the drama and the reality of what Tolkien created. Therefore there are going to be moments, characters, things in the movie that people love, as only fans can do, things that not necessarily the world's population would love. There are going to be certain characters, certain moments, that only a true fan of the film will really appreciate, and it's those select moments, those select characters, that I'm absolutely adamant that I'm going to try and capture in these polystone collectables and put on the market for those specific few to be able to buy. With that process we now roll into 'Towers', and we're going to put out an equal amount for 'Return of the King'.
David Imhoff of New Line has been instrumental in allowing us to do this product line and is one of the great people that we've been involved with through out business dealings. David has now given us the opportunity to do the bronze contract for merchandising, so we've just completed our first statue to be cast in bronze, which is a very large piece of the cave troll from the battle of Balin's Tomb. It is a beautiful and exquisite piece sculpted by one of our senor sculptors Jamie Beswarick, and it will become the corner piece to our collectables line. Over and above that, our next piece we intend doing is a very large bronze of Gandalf, as seen in the battle with the Balrog on the bridge of Khazad-dun, so we do visualize going on into the next year or two, with a vast and varied level of art to come.
X: So will you be doing some retroactive art, such as statues of the Balrog or Gollum, once the movie comes out and we all know what they look like?
RT: Yes we already have a Gollum and a Balrog sculpted in the workshop, but very much under lock and key. At the end of the day we've been, for the most part, ultimately respectful of your site, because you seem to have a very good understanding that, just like I do, film is about discovery. Watching a film is about discovery; it's not that we're trying to be overly smart or rude to the passionate fan of Lord Of The Rings, we're just trying to make a filmmaking experience - an experience you'll remember when you go to the cinema. So WETA has been absolutely fanatical about controlling confidentiality. In 15 years of business we haven't had a leak of anything from our workshop, and as you have been aware, there hasn't been a leak in the 5 years that we've been working on Lord Of The Rings.
It's likewise with our product. We want to control it in a way that New Line chooses that we should control it so that the story is revealed when Peter sees to it that it is appropriate… when the story is to be told, and not by little momentary flashes and glances that proceed the experience of discovering Middle-earth through the telling of PJ and New Line.
X: Your entire team, the folks that I speak to, are very respectful to that, and they also know that TORN (TheOneRing.net) feels the same way.
RT: We have been touched about your sensitivity to the project on a whole, you guys have found out stuff just because you are so close to the project. We have approached you and asked you to please hold off, and all we've got is nothing but favorable responses, where your guys have understood, that they're helping generate a culture around a momentous moment in cinema making history. They're not trying to be cheap press reporters, where they're trying to get the scoop, where they're trying to get into the worlds limelight to reveal the scoop on the film. It's more on helping to develop the culture of the world we all live in which is the world of Middle-earth.
X: Yes, there are other folks out there who are trying to get any scoops possible to get into the spotlight
RT: We are very aware of them (laughs) and it's no small wonder why interviews like this would never take place on their sites.
X: Well thank you it's much appreciated, I know we're both dying to talk about the film
RT: Yes (laughs)
X: But let's get back to the WETA/Sideshow Toys merch for a minute. You were at ComiCon and even came up to speak during our special Lord Of The Rings presentation, I also saw you milling around the WETA booth and talking to a few fans, can you tell me more about what you got out of the ComiCon event?
Yes, well you've got to look at it this way, we're in a very very fortunate position in our careers, our work is stressful and extremely arduous at times, but we are blessed that we have an amazing career, make wondrous worlds come to life through cinema. In that we have 3 payoffs, we have the delivery of the product on the set where we get to see it being operated. We have the second payoff, which is seeing the thing come to life on the screen at the premiere, and knowing that we are part of that massive family that has made that product for the screen. The third and ultimate payoff is seeing the response of the world, if it's favorable, to what we've done. I've never felt such a rush of emotion, and that incredible feeling of that tingling up your spine that I felt when I was in San Diego, being amongst, probably one of the largest groups of people that have grown up in the world of Middle-earth.
The WETA Team
When I was invited to step on stage impromptu, I was just hiding in the back with great interest (laughs) and someone realized that I was there, Quickbeam, yelled out 'come on upfront' and I was suddenly thrown in front of all these people (laughs). Rather than stepping back aghast and not realizing the opportunity, what I appreciated was that I was suddenly given this 2-minute moment to tell everyone in that room how thankful we are of their interest and passion. Of the fact that they're appreciative of what we're doing. Of course we're never going to everyone all of the time, but what I tried to put over was that we have made every effort, every imaginable effort to try and do it to the best of our ability, and if we have failed at some level, it is simply due to our human and limitations. We brought it all in front of the cameras for this project, and that could be said of no one more than Peter Jackson. If any director in the world would have dedicated their lives, and their whole mastery of vision to something it is this person, on this film.
X: Did the Sideshow Toys folks go down to New Zealand to see what you were up to?
RT: No they didn't, it's a very unique situation about how it happened. We didn't take them on and they didn't take us on, it was a collective coming together of like-minded people. A collective friend of ours, Gino Acevedo, who works at WETA with me, is good friends with the Sideshow Toy guys as well. He knew I was very keen to try and launch our own product line, but we were very aware that we didn't have the marketing savvy, the manufacturing knowledge to do this, and New Line were very aware as well. It was a very bizarre point in time, the synchronicity of it was uncanny because at the same moment that Gino was coming back from America with an impromptu visit to Sideshow toy Dave Imhoff at New Line was suggesting to us that we make contact with them, and so on and so fourth.
We just knew that all this coincidence had to mean that these were the right people. We had a single phone conversation, of which Greg, the president of Sideshow toy, sent us an incredible collection of their product. This showed us the level at which they operated, and how similar their philosophies are to those of WETA. From that a new company was born basically. The first time I met these people was the day before we pitched the idea to New Line to give us this product line. 11 months later we have 120 pieces completed and we're selling throughout the world to a select group of very enthusiastic collectors. We've setup the most wondrous and pleasurable business relationship. You've got to appreciate that New Zealand is culturally quite significantly diverse to America. We are totally different countries, but to find a company that we've so comfortably fallen into business with and to form a union that we are all operating on a similar philosophy, which is quality and artistry first above all else, has been a really wonderful thing for us; we could not have done this without Sideshow Toys. Because we don't have the business savvy in this field that you need to delve so deeply to make this a commercially viable product. To that end David Imhoff and his people at New Line have been very complimentary to what we've managed to do as a paring of companies.
I must also say as well, that integral to all of this is another individual who is working in New Line which is a gentlemen who is called John Mayo. John's job is to control and oversee the overall art direction of all the licensees, and his interest and celebration in us and his immense ability in his job, his cleverness and astute calls have been instrumental in the success in what we've done. Of course this is also a great opportunity to thank both John and David for their confidence in us. We had no history to prove to them that we were going to be able to take this on AT the level we have, but they had confidence in us, and we are now attempting to deliver our end of the bargain.
X: Thank you for your time Richard.