Designing Fantasy Worlds the Weta Way

Daniel Falconer fondly remembers a childhood of Jim Henson’s Muppets and Star Wars. Little did his parents know that young Daniel’s fascination with fantastic worlds was really on-the-job training. Today from his studio within Wellington, New Zealand’s Weta Workshop, the grown-up Falconer still gets to play with cool toys—only now he helps design them for global film and television industries.

Falconer’s interest in design was sparked by films he watched as a boy. “I was profoundly impressed as a child by Jim Henson and everything he touched. His amazing fantasy films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were every bit as influential on me as Star Wars. These movies created deep and rich imaginary worlds that I could believe in and which seemed to live beyond the confines of the screen. I watched ‘making of’ documentaries on television that showed how creature shops designed, built and brought to life these worlds, and I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life.”

During part of the work-experience phase of his coursework, Falconer began to spend holidays working with a studio near his West Auckland home. After a fateful meeting with Weta Workshop founder Richard Taylor, the young artist was invited to see how he liked the Wellington-based company. At the time, Weta was putting together a design team and “seeking enthusiastic young artists … I spent a week at Weta in Wellington and loved it. Fortunately, they liked me, too, so I returned home, finished up the last handful of weeks of my design degree and moved to Wellington as soon as I was done to start work with Weta at the end of 1996. I have been here ever since.”

Working Where “Cool Stuff” is Made

Although Falconer explains that “Weta is primarily a service-providing physical effects company for other people’s films and TV projects,” he also knows that it was formed “to facilitate Richard Taylor’s insatiable desire to make cool stuff.” Because film audiences only see the results of months, sometimes years of planning and design, they may not realize that Weta does more than develop elaborate creatures for the film industry.

Falconer clarifies the company’s multitasking approach to entertainment that goes beyond film. “We have an arm of the company dedicated to making collectible sculptures; we do publishing, public art sculptures and bronzes, a children’s television development and production offshoot and other side ventures.” The one common element of all Weta’s (and Falconer’s) projects is that they must be creatively fulfilling. When a major film, such as a Lord of the Rings or an Avatar, comes along, the designers “feast” on film, but all too often, the film industry suffers from “famine”. Weta’s many projects in many media ensure that its creative employees will always be busy.

One of his first projects involved the popular syndicated television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Falconer worked collaboratively with other artists, as well as designed creatures on his own. “Most of our creatures were very collaborative, but I can lay claim to a few that were based on my designs. One that was featured on Xena was Dahak. I designed both his monstrous true form, seen as a creature suit in Hercules, and as the devilish Deliverer.”

Another collaboration resulted in Hercules-featured creatures “gremlin-like baby Harpies Fee, Fie and Foe-Fum, [which] were based on one of my sketches, but evolved somewhat in the sculpting process with input from Weta sculptor and designer Jamie Beswarick. Arachne was one of mine and ended up looking very faithful to my original artwork. I designed the fire-breathing Ghidra, which was an amazing full-scale puppet when finished, being several meters long and with real, working flame throwers in his mouths that could shoot jets of flame fifty feet!”

Strangely enough, these early projects fall into the “normal” range of Falconer’s job description, but he finds it difficult to decide which of his more recent designs can be classified as the weirdest. “There have been some very strange ones come across my desk over the years, probably the strangest being for projects that haven’t quite made it out yet. It’s hard to single any one creature out as stranger than the rest. I was part of a team designing a living symbiotic insectile creature with wings that would bond to the human body and effectively grant the ability to fly. That was a weird one. I don’t think that project ever was produced in the end, but it had some fun design challenges.”

Just as Weta has grown over the years to become an international powerhouse, Falconer’s career has developed in new directions that give him a variety of responsibilities. Although his job keeps him busy, he calls it “play,” and Weta offers plenty of playgrounds within the corporate structure. “Richard [Taylor] rewards enthusiasm and initiative, so I have been allowed to take on roles in the collectibles work we do… plan and write for our publishing work, art direct licensed products associated with our proprietary children’s television shows, and help brainstorm ideas for new projects.”

The only downside to his job seems to be the number of deadlines competing for his attention, but Falconer’s intriguing unofficial job title just may make up for strict deadlines. The Weta Workshop website notes that the artist “designs worlds”. Just what does a designer of worlds do on a daily basis?

Unlike artists who develop only a few items for an established world, Falconer’s job “demands taking a broad view and developing a complete world on which a story plays out rather than simply plugging the design requirements of a story with solutions that don’t relate or complement each other. When we worked on The Lord of the Rings, we tasked ourselves with helping to visualize Middle-earth, not just for each shot in the movie, but at a wider level so that everything was interrelated and there were reasons why things looked the way they did beyond a simple aesthetic choice. We love developing and helping conceive new worlds with directors and writers for their projects, and increasingly we have been involved in this process long before a script even exists. It’s actually a service we now offer to directors or writers who are still in the earliest stages of developing their pitches.”

Making Middle-Earth

Falconer is a long-time Tolkien fan, and, once again, his childhood interests later paid off in his grown-up career. He first fell in love with Middle-earth when he was ten years old and The Hobbit was read to his class at school. When his mother gave him her copy of The Lord of the Rings the next year, he avidly read it, too. His favorite character? Gollum, because “I love the complexity of that character and his tragic story.”

Another favorite is Treebeard (and Ents in general), “just because they are so unexpected and remarkable when they appear in the story. I love the idea of giant, enigmatic tree people guarding the forest. I wish we had them in our own world! Tolkien also left them just undefined enough that my imagination had free reign to conjure all kinds of looks for the Ents when I read the books, which was great fun.”

When Weta began working on Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of The Lord of the Rings, Falconer got his wish to work on a live-action version of the story. Ironically, the films also allowed him to revisit his early love of all things Muppet. Helping to design the Ents, including Treebeard, was fun in part because “they’re probably the most Muppety and Hensonesque, to coin some new terms, of all the creatures in The Lord of the Rings, so I think my love of Jim Henson’s work is coming through there.”

Despite the joy of “playing” at Weta, sometimes Falconer’s job can be a bloody mess. Because the artist is knowledgeable about Tolkien’s works, he was a go-to guy for Tolkien trivia. Falconer remembers one time when the designers were determining the right blood color for Orcs. “Peter Jackson was reviewing our tests in the cinema at work to see what he liked the best. We had green blood, blue blood, brown blood, yellow, black, etc., all created to help differentiate the Orcs from the other races and also to skirt the blood issue, which can affect ratings. Non-red blood can be splattered in much larger quantities before a film receives an extreme classification, so if our Orcs bled a different color, we could see quite a few more receive grizzly deaths than if they spouted crimson. After looking at the tests, Peter asked aloud of the darkened cinema, ‘Is Daniel here?’ ‘Yes,’ I gingerly replied. ‘Does Tolkien mention anything about Orc blood?’ he asked, to which I was able to reply, ‘He describes them as black-blooded, sir.’ Peter responded, ‘Well, there’s our decision then.’ That felt great and legitimized many a school lunchtime spent indoors reading when I should have been outside kicking around a ball.”

Exploring District 9

District 9 not only provided design challenges but showcased Falconer’s work as an author. The Art of District 9: Weta Workshop (which he happily signed for lines of fans at Comic-Con last July, when I first talked with him) is one of Weta’s books that tells “the stories behind the movies we have worked on… So much thought went into what appeared on screen. A given thing may only flash through the screen for a few seconds, but it has been considered and designed with great attention to detail.

“It’s this kind of stuff that we have enjoyed sharing in the books we’ve created at Weta and which I have been fortunate enough to write and help shape. I love telling stories and creating worlds, be they in pictures or words. To me, writing and designing go together and aren’t too distinct, each one either describing the other or helping to expand it.” The District 9 book allowed Falconer to be involved with every phase of story development, from initial art to publications about the finished film.

Daniel Falconer

At this stage of his career, Falconer’s work day is “typically split between publishing stuff (either writing or planning), meetings and art directing duties concerning our collectibles, designing for our current projects, and [tackling] administrative responsibilities. Each day usually brings a concentration on one of those responsibilities, then it’ll swing to another the next day, but most involve at least a little of all. I usually start work at 8 a.m. and plan on finishing by 6 p.m.-ish, though sometimes when we are busy… I will work on into the evenings or weekends.” The artist loves what he does but looks forward to the time when he can devote more energy to developing his own projects.

With Weta’s slate of film and television projects, Falconer should anticipate plenty of overtime. Even so, “all work and no play” must be more fun when all that work involves creative “play” time. Despite the long hours, Falconer undeniably has one of the coolest jobs on (Middle) earth.