Monday, May 26, 2008

WETA ORK-SHOP

With the news that filming and production of The Hobbit is to be started in Wellington, every very short and overly tall aspiring actor will be thrilled and dusting off their broadswords for possible roles as extras. The artists of Wellington will be similarly excited for the work opportunities about to abound in Miramar. Hobbit feet don’t get made by themselves….
It was remembering my time at Weta Workshop and the piece I wrote about my experience there in 2004 that made me think I should put it up on my blog.
I have been told to be careful what I write here in case publishers decide I could be too difficult to work with; possibly the film industry may think the same. But whilst my postings are written with wry and possibly acerbic humour, I have a lot of respect for the subjects involved and I will never hide, poison pen, behind an anonymous blog. So read and laugh and if you do get a job as an ork, may the pay be mightier than the sword.

I was deep into decorating a bra for the Nelson Wearable Arts Show and deeply disillusioned. After twenty odd years of freelancing, cold calling, and provisional tax demands on an uncertain income, I decided I wanted a real job. You know, one with sick pay, holiday pay and a clearly defined task ahead of me for a daily 8 hour stretch. But what could I do in the NZ scene? Who on earth in their sane mind would employ an artist? (I knew Oscar Wilde was appointed editor of a women’s’ magazine at one point in his career, so the ridiculous could happen.)

Then I had it. Richard Taylor. Weta Workshop was obvious and what’s more, only five minutes drive down the road. Perfick! So I set about a campaign of artistic bombardment that he would not be able to refuse. I put together a portfolio of my Wearable Art collection from the past 8 years- all with a 3d hand crafted cover depicting the White Witch from Narnia, a fingers in many pies C.V and what I hoped was an enrolling letter. I hand delivered it to Camperdown Studios and gave it to a friend there who was heading up a large project. He promised to get it onto Richard’s desk- hopefully on top of the 500 strong pile that accumulates there on a weekly basis. The rest was up to my work samples and the Award Winner himself. Then I went on holiday.

I hoped Richard would remember me fondly as we had met in another life some years previously. I was a presenter on the kids’ programme ‘What Now’. I made things out of egg cartons and sticky tape, hopefully inspiring youth to do likewise and spend their weekends immersed in arts and crafts rather than blobbed out in front of the telly. Mr Taylor was a guest on the show one morning. He had just finished working on the Frighteners and came with his collection of distorted babies and creatures from Brain Dead and Meet The Feebles. He showed New Zealand kids the basics of animatronics and was friendly, humble and passionate about what he did. I really had no particular idea who he was but loved his work, and besides, we had gone to the same design school at different times. Wellington Polytech School of Fame- as I like to think of it. To celebrate his appearance on the show, I made a Drooling Alien, which involved a milk carton, paper plates, paint, glue and a lot of slime in the form of baking soda and vinegar. Unfortunately for me, in my attempt to get out of the house for my 7am makeup call and avoid having my small son see me leave (and therefore be a clingy wreck for his father all morning), I forgot the vinegar. So my alien looked somewhat unspectacular as I tried to emulate frothing sounds live to camera whilst assuring my audience ‘It really does work’. I hoped Richard would forget that bit.

Two weeks later, I got the call to meet the man himself and discuss the opportunity that awaited me. I told everyone; not just because I am vain and egotistical- but because I am the world’s biggest loudmouth and find it hard to keep anything to myself. (Especially when it concerns my private affairs.) If I were ever to become famous enough, no-one would make a cent out of exposing all my life’s secrets to the press. It’s all common knowledge, one sniff of a glass of wine and my mouth only shuts long enough to swallow.

So, for me, signing a confidentiality agreement took something. For those of you hoping to get the inside word on what exactly it was I ended up making at the Workshop, what famous people I met and how anything was done, stop reading now. I don’t have indemnity insurance.

Still with me? Righto. So in short it was all good and three weeks later I started work in Miramar. Now this required a deal of personal organisation. The hours are not for the faint hearted 8am – 6pm, five days a week. For the first time since our children were babies howling for morning feeds, I was up at 6.30am, making my lunch and putting on the Kathmandu jacket and rumpty old jeans that were my to be my Camperdown Couture for three months. The kids were rostered on making dinner a night each per week and I employed a house cleaner to keep on top of the grime. He earned more than me on an hourly cash basis, but it was necessary to my sanity. (Grocery shopping was done once a week only, and we bought a chest freezer to house the store of meat pies and chips that would satisfy the dietary needs of teenagers.)

I arrived for my first day, tools in hand, ready for action. The toolbox was a source of concern to me. Richard had said to bring one, and I was thrown into worry that it wasn’t big enough, didn’t contain the right things and might be sniggered at. So I opted for a selection of files, scissors, a soldering iron, hot glue gun and handy little screwdriver set with a fabulous pokey attachment in it that I later learned was an awl. For those wondering at this point; I was not going to work at Weta Digital. I was off to the factory, where hobbit feet were produced by the thousands and hazardous chemicals are used on a daily basis. I bought a respirator mask in the first week.

I felt proud to be an employee; a working girl of another variety. It was a whole new adventure away from freelancing and the domestic drudgery that working from home assails you with (I could abandon the nagging laundry pile and the mountain of dishes on the bench.) I was a cool Weta artist, (not some housewife in the burbs.) So I was a little nonplussed when my first job was to wash, dry and iron 20 metres of calico.

It takes something to do manual labour. First you have to sit on your ego and squash it firmly into a matchbox-sized thing, then glue it closed. If you open it up at all, little voices will squeak out at you declaring outrage and disbelief; filling your ears with tiresome complaints.
‘I don’t get paid enough, my arms hurt, my feet are cold, I’m hungry and the lunch break is too short’ they’ll whine. ‘ You’re too talented for this, you used to be a designer/ illustrator/ successful /rich /famous/ young….’ they’ll insinuate, appealing to your vanity. ‘What happened to your dream to be a writer?’ they’ll question. But then it’s morning tea so you down tools and head for the lunchroom.

I have to say, Weta is equipped with the best coffee machine in the world. None of these prefabricated milk and cappuccino button jobs which produce a sickly watery mess the like of which you’ll find on the ferries. The management in their wisdom and understanding of the caffeine needs of their staff (because they’ve been there themselves) has installed an espresso machine equal to the sort at any reputable cafĂ© serving a decent latte. And after my first terror, knowing that you must have to undergo barista training for 6 months, before touching such an altar, I found myself not only able to produce a coffee strong enough to fuel me through the morning, but froth the milk and even do a little heart shaped swirl on the top. The mystery of a flat white for me is now limited to how cafes can charge $3.50 a pop.

The lunch room was a challenge not only for its intro to espresso machines, but as a newbie, I was shy, inarticulate and apologetic for my existence- at least for the first three days. (When discussing this fear of work based eating places with an artist friend, he told me his wonderful tale of how as a school leaver in Tokoroa, he had a brief stint at a ship yard. The cafeteria had a food warmer; you ordered your pie at morning tea and at lunchtime it was there waiting for you, microbes heating nicely. Bob, then a gangly 17 year old, sat down and started munching his pastry. A hushed silence fell over the room. He looked up and found himself staring into the unforgiving eyes of Jim- the biggest meanest tattooed son of a steel worker there ever was, whose pie he had very nearly finished. It’s the unknown hierarchical rules when you’re new that have you worried. Whose pie is in what order, which seats belong to the old timers, are you still welcome in the smokers yard when you gave up years ago?)

At home, in front of my drawing board and computer, my only fight for dominance is with the cat, and he mostly wins, covering my favorite seat with hair and dribble. How do you assert yourself in a new environment when you can’t reach the microwave ? (There are some extraordinary tall people at Weta- I think they are Elvish).

In the end I did what I always do when feeling the underdog. I buried myself in a book. Which bought up that nagging question again ‘When are you going to write?’
I had done an MA in the subject the previous year and had one book published and another accepted for publication for 2005. So what on earth was I doing at an industrial sewing machine for ten hours a day, going home too buggered to talk to the kids or check my e-mails? All around me in the workshop were clever, talented people cutting out leather, riveting things, spray painting polystyrene and casting a myriad of unusual and beautiful items for the movie industry. Young fashion school graduates- and the drop outs, sailors, gardeners, welders, builders, roofers. I’ve never met such a variety of crafts people with such varying backgrounds. All those four year courses in film, television and theatre design that are offered by every institution laying claim to being a university or polytechnic seemed fairly irrelevant in the workshop. What mattered was finding the hole in the fence to get in. You could learn everything else on the job.

After three months, wide-eyed at previews of King Kong and other props, jiggling with quadruple shots of caffeine and sporting the worst case of repetition strain injury to date, I found I had learnt everything I could. I didn’t work in the paint room, or the molding room, or miniatures department. I never cast a single ear or foot. My airbrush lay unused in my tool box and the only thing I found I really needed was a sense of humour. Richard had said to me at the interview; ‘Bring your tool kit, not your baggage’. At 44, I found my baggage sitting on the doorstep every night when I got home. It took the form of my family, three unfinished writing projects and my paintbrushes solidifying with neglect. I was pale and possibly vitamin A, B and C deficient from working in a windowless, sunless environment. Even meeting three movie stars couldn’t make up for what was missing. My life.

You can’t avoid what it is you really want, and sometimes it takes something to see what exactly that is. For me, who has consistently moaned about the precarious nature of her work and with an idealized view of what constitutes a ‘real job’, I found that I actually had it all along. My job is as real as a neurosurgeon’s. We just operate in different realities. As I sit in the spring sunshine, with a pad of paper and contemplating the purchase of a laptop, I am doing what I said I would before I tried to hide away in an industry I was ill-suited for. I am writing, and it feels good.


Note: since writing that piece, I have written the next novel ‘Glory’ which will be published in April 2009 by Scholastic. I have a YA novel on the go and of course my Chick Lit highlighted in a previous post. I am still in the thick of Wearable art (sigh) but that’s just an addiction, not a career.

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