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Weta Workshop is a special effects and prop company based in Miramar, New Zealand, producing effects for television and film. Founded in 1987 by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger as RT Effects, Weta Workshop has produced creatures and makeup effects for the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess and effects for films such as Meet the Feebles and Heavenly Creatures. A digital division, Weta Digital, was formed in 1993.
Weta Workshop's output came to worldwide prominence with director Peter Jackson's film trilogy The Lord of the Rings, producing sets, costumes, armour, weapons, creatures and miniatures. It supported the creation of Reclaiming the Blade (2009), a documentary film on stage combat, historical European and Asian swordsmanship. The company name comes from the weta, "New Zealand's coolest little monster, a bizarre and prickly prehistoric cricket.
PETER AND RICHARD CREATE MIDDLE EARTH
Peter Jackson hired longtime collaborator Richard Taylor to lead Weta Workshop on five major design elements: armor, weapons, prosthetics/make-up, creatures and miniatures. Notable among the concept artists were Daniel Falconer and Warren Mahy, who enjoyed creating the forces of good and evil respectively. Jamie Beswarick and Mike Asquith also helped with the maquettes, as well as Ben Wooten with his extensive zoology knowledge and many others.
John Howe was the supervisor on armor, having studied and worn it. Stu Johnson and Warren Green made 48,000 pieces of armor from the numerous molds of plate steel. A small group of crew members spent three years linking plastic chain mail, eventually wearing their thumbprints away. Peter Lyon also forged swords, each taking from three to six days, creating spring steel "hero" swords for close-ups, aluminum fight swords and rubber versions, too. Weta also created 10,000 real arrows and 500 bows. Howe even created a less crude type of crossbow for the Uruk-hai (the first army-approved), based on a 16th-century manuscript.
Weta created numerous pieces of prosthetics and continually monitored them on set. They created 1,800 Orc body suits to go with 10,000 Orc heads, lasting six days and one day respectively. Weta also spent a year creating hobbit feet that would look like large, furry feet yet act as shoes for the actors. In total, 1,800 pairs were used by the four lead hobbit actors during production. Actors would also go in for face casts to create pointed ears and false noses. Most extensive was John Rhys-Davies as Gimli, whose Dwarven prosthetics required four-and-a-half hours to apply in the morning. Gino Acevedo worked on creating realistic skin tones for the actors, such as Bernard Hill's possessed Théoden and a younger Bilbo. Peter King and Peter Owen also led the make-up department in making numerous wigs and creating general dirt on the actors. As well as applying make-up, at the end of the day there was an hour of carefully removing the make-up and prosthetics. Numerous corpses of actors and horses were also made.
Weta's first completed creature was the cave troll. Production designers originally wanted to make the Orcs totally animalistic before the switch to prosthetics. They gave specific designs to the Moria Orcs, Uruk-hai and Mordor Orcs so as to give variety to the characters. They also spent time making creatures biologically believable, rooting them sometimes in real creatures: Shelob's body is based on that of a funnel web spider, and the Wargs are a bear/hyena/wolf hybrid. Howe lent himself for Beswarick to study when shaping Gollum; Beswarick also took inspiration from Iggy Pop due to his skin-muscle ratio. Whilst most creatures were destined to exist in the computer, Weta did create a 14-foot-tall (4.3 m) Treebeard puppet (which needed five people to operate it), a single dead mûmak and, later on, a "Phoney Pony" for close-up shots of riding actors. Designing continued throughout production, such as Gollum's redesign in May 2001 and the Great Beasts in early 2003.
The backstories of several of the cultures depicted in the films had to be shown through only subliminal glimpses on screen, as are the miniatures, and for the Elves and Gondorians, fictional histories had to be presented within the changes of armor. The Elves have an Art Nouveau influence that involves leaves and flowers, while the Dwarves have a preoccupation with geometry that was intended to remind the audience of their digging nature. The Hobbits hark back to 18th-century England, the Rohirrim feature numerous horse and sun motifs and draw visual inspiration from Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon artifacts found in the Sutton Hoo burial ship, and the Gondorians reflect 16th-century German and Italian armor as well as tree motifs. The evil Haradrim Men take influence from Aztecs and Kiribati after bad feedback from Phillipa Boyens over looking African. Most of the Orc armor is sharp, reflecting secateurs, and has runes written on it to reflect a worship of Sauron.
Several liberties were taken in adapting Tolkien's weaponry and armor to the screen. While plate armor is used in the films, it is unmentioned in any of the author's writings (except for vambraces), where scale and especially mail predominate. Some swords, like the broken royal sword Narsil, are also interpreted as two-handed longswords. These design choices help evoke the Late Medieval and Renaissance periods, whereas Tolkien's original atmosphere is generally more akin to the Early Medieval period. In a private letter, Tolkien compared Middle-earth clothing and war gear to that of Dark Age Europe and the Bayeux Tapestry. Weta also invented Elvish inscriptions for weapons like the spear Aeglos and the swords Sting and Narsil. In some cases, Tolkien writes about runes on sword blades but does not give them in detail. The Elves in the film series use curved swords, whereas the author mostly assigns such swords to Orcs and enemy Men (he mentions one Elf in particular bearing a curved sword in very early writings). The designers went so far as to invent new weapons, such as the Elvish sword Hadhafang, used by Arwen; while the design is original, the name is derived from Tolkien's "Etymologies" in The Lost Road.
To develop fight and sword choreography for the series, the filmmakers employed Hollywood sword-master Bob Anderson. Anderson worked directly with the talent, including Viggo Mortensen and Karl Urban, to develop the film's many sword fights and stunts. Anderson's role in The Lord of the Rings series is highlighted in the 2009 film Reclaiming the Blade. This documentary on sword martial arts also featured Weta Workshop and interviews with Mortensen, Urban, Richard Taylor, and John Howe. All discussed their roles and work on the series as related to the sword.
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