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Richard Taylor - Weta Workshop

Weta Workshop's Richard Taylor shares the four qualities he looks for when hiring and how he att

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Stickability is the ‘glue that has allowed an island nation in the back corner of the world to emerge’, says Weta Workshop's Richard Taylor. It's one of four qualities - along with passion, enthusiasm and talent - that he looks for when hiring, he tells Ande Schurr.

“I'm as passionate today as the day I started our business. I can't wait to walk through the door in the morning."

"During the weekend I’m looking for any excuse that allows me to get into the workshop, even if just for 10 minutes, enough to get that fix.”

* * *

How do you get hold of Weta Workshop's boss Sir Richard Taylor? Try bumping into him at the New Zealand Body Art Awards. Fortunately for me, I was filming at this colourful event in Auckland recently. I approached him in the judges box and requested an interview which he very kindly consented to and slotted me in after the dress rehearsal. What he spoke of was nothing short of pure inspiration.

Aside from his insight into education, giftedness and working at Weta, what may interest you most could be how he finally broke into the American market on his own back - never giving up, experiencing failure after failure - or, perhaps, something more personal - how a freelancer can bring true creativity into their craft and life.

Having only seen Richard from afar in the media, this was an enlightening experience for me and a wake-up call to become committed to my craft beyond anything I have previously understood. This is a rare insight into the mind of a private man who has achieved great success internationally with his wife and team at the visual effects company, Weta Workshop, yet remains untouched by his fame; his innate itch to create focuses his efforts like a pinpoint on what is in front of him.

Ande Schurr: How important is it that you come to events like the 2010 New Zealand Body Art Awards?

Richard Taylor: Critical in my view. It's for my own professional development but also to share the knowledge I've gained over 25 years to people who are just starting. The critical thing, with an event like this, is that it creates a community atmosphere where burgeoning artists can come together and meet mentors, older more established artists and interact with them. There's not many opportunities where this can happen and that's why something like this is so critical that we support it. I've only missed one year as I was overseas but if I am unable to make it we send someone else from Weta.
 
AS: How does a makeup artist get your attention and work with you? Is it through events like this or is it through sending in a CV?

RT: We have 8500 portfolios on file. We're probably one of the larger make-up studios in New Zealand and we probably hire less than two-three makeup artists per year. Considering that there's probably 200 makeup artists coming out from schools throughout the country there is formidable competition.

In most people's lives, everything you do in your primary, secondary and tertiary education has been instructed by someone else (e.g. a teacher, tutor, care-giver, parent). The product of your labours over the whole of your early life until your twenties can often be driven by the motivation of someone else - even your team sports through the team captain.
 
What we look for is someone who's broken free of that and motivated themselves. Someone that may've spent three years at makeup school but as well as the curriculum work, in the back pages of the portfolio, they have their own work. Someone that has been motivated to break free from the tuition, the influence, the inspiration of others and just do their own stuff because we are looking for unique creativity.

Most importantly, what we look for when we hire someone (in order of importance) is passion, enthusiasm, tenacity and then talent. People think talent must come first but if the other three attributes came after talent you may not necessarily get a person who has all these qualities - passion is what's in your heart, enthusiasm is how you manage the passion to achieve the goal, tenacity is the stickability. You can be passionate and enthusiastic but if you don't stick with it till the end of the job you're not going to succeed as a freelancer.  So it's the passion, enthusiasm, tenacity and talent that you bring to your own work that is critical.
 
I don't consider it essential if someone is not demonstrating great skill in their portfolio. I am not concerned if it isn't perfect - a little rough around the edges, even incredibly rough around the edges is ok as long as you are motivated to do your own original work. It's not that I don't support people having a tertiary education in the arts - I did myself - but you could end up paying $10-20-30k, or more for three years at university, when you could spend $2k on a makeup kit, $1k on a high quality camera and then got every single friend and colleague to model for you.  If you did one makeup a day you can imagine the portfolio you would have, how inspirational it could be.
 
The other thing, everyone wants experience. It's incredibly hard to get experience. Your competition is fierce. Don't expect to be paid when you first start out. Of course if you're on a professional job and you're lucky enough to be hired, get paid, and you'll ask the appropriate rate for your craft. But if you're starting out, and you're wanting to build a portfolio and you want others to invest in you then don't think you can only work on jobs that pay, go and find other like-minded young people that are making short films, little theatre productions, photo shoots, the kid down the road who wants to make a gory horror movie, and volunteer your time because you need to invest in yourself, you've got to give before you can take.
 
Everyone else out there is your competition and you've got to build a professional portfolio. So if there's a short film down the road out of a garage where a guy's spending his life savings trying to make it, jump on board, offer to do the makeup for free because in three-four weeks suddenly you'll have some professional images from a shoot that actually happened, that was paid for by someone else.
 
A lot of people would be very critical of my words because you would argue that everyone deserves to be paid for their efforts but we're [Weta] a living example of the fact that we gave a long time before we took, in an effort to build our reputation, gain portfolio images, and to be recognised as enthusiastic and passionate people. Of course you need to be paid respectfully for your talents but when you're just starting out, the thing that you have is available time and unabashed enthusiasm, you don't yet have mortgages and families and things that are taxing you.
 
We're living in a new renaissance. Anyone in the film industry, indeed anyone in the world, now has the ability of owning the equipment to make feature films, or any visual images that are of a quality, that less than 10 years ago only a few could achieve. Today you can buy hi-def video cameras for low cost, you can buy an edit suit for your laptop, you can buy plug-in visual effects software for home computers that allow you to become capable film makers.
 
Of course it still comes down to directorial talent, it still comes down to a good story but the tools are now available to you. Through the wonder of mass-distribution on the internet, a kid that's living in Rawanda can tell his stories to a kid who's living in Iceland. That was impossible five or 10 years ago. Suddenly the opportunity to tell your unique stories from your cultural inheritance, your country, your view, and spread it to the world is at your fingertips.
 
So I would like to suggest to any film maker or want-to-be film maker to get out there! We have people as young as 13-14 coming in and seeing us that have already invested an unbelievable amount in their future aspirations for a career in film and who are doing competent visual effects from their bedrooms, recording sound, mixing, editing, shooting and making films.  They haven't relied on a university degree, they haven't felt compelled to go and learn it, they've just grabbed the gear and done it.
 
AS: Above my computer I have a quote of yours from the days when you were talking to applicants for Lord of the Rings: "If you couldn't rise to the highest level of enthusiasm, passion and professionalism, and grasp this task as if it was the single most important thing you have ever taken on in your life, then you weren't worthy of the task".

How do we free ourselves from the institutionalism of our schooling so we can become truly passionate and enthusiastic?
 
RT: Well it's in every individual; it's something that is only in you. You can't be taught passion and enthusiasm. You can be taught talent or at least the tools of talent. Of course you can engender passion and enthusiasm and others can inspire you, and you can be mentored, but it's a fire that is either burning in you or not.  Other's can fan the flames but until you actually find a way to generate the heat for yourself it's always going to be a challenge.

I'm as passionate today as the day I started our business. I can't wait to walk through the door in the morning. During the weekend I’m looking for any excuse that allows me to get into the workshop, even if just for 10 minutes, enough to get that fix. Because of course my craft is the love of making things – what I can with my hands, the love of manipulating materials to make original and creative objects. A lot of people get momentary satisfaction sitting at a console driving racing cars around a digital track. Cool!  But I find it stimulating to grab a bunch of materials, some old copper wire, some bits of styrene, balsa wood, matchsticks and glue them together and create something wonderful.
 
That's a lot of what events like the Body Art Awards and WOW [World of Wearable Arts] are about. It's people that just love the art of making – to have a vision in your head and then carry it to its eventual conclusion. But you also have to have the unabashed enthusiasm to give it a go; to do it. I don't want to have to drag someone kicking and screaming through the day because of a lack of enthusiasm or motivation for their craft; I want them to feel passionate and enthused and compelled to make the most of the opportunities on offer, and I hope that it is not just in relation to our workshop but also the opportunities on offer in NZ.
 
AS: What would you say to freelancers to help them ride through the quiet patches of work?
 
RT: At times it is a struggle. We have also struggled at times during our career but every minute when we weren't professionally working we were doing things that didn't cost us a lot of money. For example, it doesn't cost anything to go to the dump and pick out some cool material to create something. We had an old door out of one of the door jams in our house that my wife and I set up in the middle of the lounge and used as a plasticine animation table. The plasticine cost $10, we had our own video camera and did some of our own fun stuff while we were waiting for the next job, and we were able to create our own fun content that kept us amused.
 
I do have to acknowledge that there are some people in the world who are born with the ‘gift’.  In the workshop, for example, we probably have six-eight truly gifted people. We all recognise it; it appears to fall out of the fingertips of the individual effortlessly. In our craft you can see the gift in the illustrator who never needs to revisit the line and draw the line twice and in the sculptor who never pushes the same piece of clay around twice, because they knew exactly where it had to go. 

I consider myself to be modestly talented in my artistic crafts - more talented in some things than others [laughter]. So I know it's hard work. I've been doing this for 25 years, I'm now 45 years old, but I still hold a sculpting class each week (usually) where I practice to try and hone my sculpting skills. I don't sculpt professionally in the workshop because I'm managing the facility but if I'm expected to give quality feedback to the sculptors then I endeavour to be as good as I can possibly be.
 
So if you're not one of the truly gifted few and you want to be as good as you can possibly be, the only thing open to you is just hard work [laughing] and training and training and training; to stay ahead of the game. There can be a lot of luck involved also – as it can sometimes come down to being in the right place at the right time.  But of course you're never going to succeed when a lucky break is offered if you haven’t been honing your work and train yourself for this lucky break.
 
Someone once used the analogy: the All Blacks don't go back to [their day jobs] when the rugby season is over, or rather, they don't put down the rugby ball and retire because they have to be match-ready on the first day of the next rugby season. You have to be match-ready; you've got to be prepared in your craft.
 
It's not for everyone. People want recreation, they want to go skiing, they want to go surfing. For me though my craft is my recreation. So I make models for a hobby, I build objects, I sculpt, I do my work - as well as doing it for work - because for me the two are parallel. That can't be expected for everyone though. For example, someone who is a sound person may not want to record sounds in the weekend. They'd rather go and hike. That's their prerogative, but for me, I very fortunately have a hobby that parallels exactly what I do for a living, so it makes it very easy to constantly be training. Even with my two children, the time we have together outside of work, is an opportunity for me to share my love of art and my craft with them so we share in my hobbies by sculpting and drawing and moving clay around. Just this weekend gone we were doing stop-animation on the kitchen table.
 
AS: So what is business about for you?
 
RT: For me, it has to be fulfilling creatively before anything else. Even if we are in need of work we will turn down opportunities if they are not creatively fulfilling.  There's a misconception that we must have this wonderfully consistent life, but as freelancers, as we're a freelance company, we're on a wild and wonderful roller coaster ride and occasionally we will turn down work if it does not offer a creative reward, even though it may not make good business sense [laughter]. Because how can I run a workshop of artisans in our company who want to make great art, and then ask them to trivialise their craft on things that they do not enjoy or find fulfilling.

People perceive that we're a film company. We're not. We're a creative art and design company. We work on museum displays, children's playgrounds, theatre productions, shop window displays, private architecture, book design, clothing, jewellery, collectibles, chainmaille, bronze art as well as film work because it brings creative reward - it fulfils our passion, enthusiasm, tenacity and skill.
 
AS: Do you feel your competitors acutely?
 
RT: Of course. But they're also my friends. We're in a very unique and special place in the FX industry. This may not always be the case but for the past 25 years that I've been in business it has always been the case. If we have too much work on offer we pass it on to our nearest competitor. If we need someone, because we're overextended and need to meet a deadline, I'll ring our nearest competitor [laughs]. Within the industry we share staff and expertise.  We work with the considered thought that there are no secrets and within the model and creature effects industry there are publications where you can share all and everything that you've discovered and learned on each new film because it's the cross pollination of ideas that allows the industry to grow.

I'm talking about Weta Workshop of course. Weta Digital has Intellectual Property that they have to protect in this regard.  However at Weta Workshop we are drawing on mostly traditional skills, many of them have been around for over 100 years and have been built on over the course of time.  Sometimes you may only have to hire a freelancer to work for you for four months, they finish the contract and then move onto another project and effectively they're taking any IP, as a freelance is a nomadic existence. We have always found that that our nearest competitors are willing to share it back with us.

A great example is: I visited the set of Harry Potter (on the first Harry Potter film) and the FX were run by one of the great makeup artists in the world, a gentleman called Nick Dudman.  He showed me something in his makeup room, which at the time was a piece of technical animatronics that was ground breaking. Jump forward nine or 10 years, and three weeks ago, I needed the same solution. So I wrote Nick a quick email and a short while later he replied, told me to give him a week and the information would be with me.  Sure enough one week later, the information for the technical solution he invented arrived. Similarly, if he were to ring me and say "hey, I can't crack this one but I know you have", of course the gesture would go back the other way.
 
AS: What an extraordinary open mindedness there is between you..
 
RT: Because it's based in art and not commerce. The people that work in the effects industry are truly the artisans of the 21st century. When I say artisans I mean similar to the marble carvers of the 17th century in Italy, similar to the craftspeople that made the most beautiful furniture through the 18th century, these are people that are driven by passion and enthusiasm to wield their craft. That is the motivator. If the motivator was commerce and money making, they sure as hell would not be working in this industry. I am sure they would be off working in more lucrative fields [laughs].
 
In the effects industry you are using science and art, technology and art, and you're melding them together to  try to create something that surprises the audience and stimulates the mind, giving a unique experience to the viewer - whether that be in a museum, on television or in a film. That's the goal.
 
AS: If you were writing a film school curriculum for technicians, what would be the most important aspect?
 
RT: A creative curriculum that allows students to create original content while honing their craft and skill and therefore presenting inspirational and beautifully made content for the viewer. 

AS: Now I see you up close I realise that you live and breath this stuff.
 
RT: The living proof is what we pull off every year and you can't pull that off without fulfilling what I'm speaking off. Effectively we're running a marathon and it takes tenacity to run a marathon. Tenacity is stickability - something that has been at the very heart of New Zealanders for two centuries; the very glue that has allowed an island nation in the back corner of the world to emerge. Stickability, tenacity, bloody-mindedness, putting your nose to the grindstone, putting your back into it - whatever the phrase of turn you like but it's stickability. For example we’ve pitched approximately 13 television series into North America. So that's conceiving of the idea, building a pitch package, getting on a plane, facilitating with a lawyer, getting up to the stage, booking your hotel in downtown LA, organising the meetings, hiring the car, driving around - and not being successful.   But on the 14th time we got our first show off the ground: Jane and The Dragon.  We kept at it because the creative opportunity was too great to give up.
 
I don't talk to people like this normally because it's easy to come across as a know-it-all which people can misinterpret.  I’m still learning as I go all the time, every day brings a new learning experience; I am continually learning from the people we work with. 

I try never to talk about "I" or "me" - it's "us", "the group" "Weta", "the co-op", the team. Because I can't do it as an individual.

To answer one of your earlier questions, I don’t think anything in the world can be an individual pursuit. Look for like-minded people that you want to work with and you want to be with because together you have a much greater opportunity to have an impact.  Could I have achieved what I have if I hadn't met and had the support of my wife (since I was 13)? Absolutely not, because she's been there endorsing my motivation. I would most likely have achieved something but as a pair, a couple, a team, we've been able to play to each other's strengths. Even today we split the work up, we divide the work into appropriate divisions, that complements our strengths and therefore we're better than if we try to do it alone.
 
AS: How have you dodged Tall Poppy syndrome?
 
RT: I think it’s really dodged me, because I am just a typical kiwi. I still live in the same house we bought back on Meet the Feebles. I'll probably live there another 25 years. I enjoy a relatively quiet life outside the madness of our day-to-day work at the Workshop. 

We feel very blessed with the good fortune that's befallen us but it's also come through hard work, time and effort and with the help and support of the talented people we work with.  I have great respect for our team and pay homage to them before myself as they are an integral part of our success.

Written by

Ande Schurr

14 Oct 2010

Corporate video producer and production sound recordist now based in Singapore after a 15-year career in New Zealand. Video clients incl. universities, tech startups, medical clinics and business consulting agencies. Sound clients incl. Netflix, Discovery, BBC, National Geo.