Weta Watching

2016 07 July 27



Out of this world!

More than I could have hoped for!

And of course…


What a brilliant day!

But let’s start with the night.

Remember how beautiful yesterday was, sun, warmth, no rain, no wind…?

There was a complete reversal during the night.

The Bay Plaza Hotel is the tallest building around for quite a distance. (That was one thing we noticed, when we went for our walk yesterday.) We’re on the seventh of eleven floors. That means that when the winds pick up there’s nothing to stop them from slamming into our room.

They started slamming. And they are slamming now.

But we still managed to sleep. It was too important not to. Today was going to be a good day.

We’d paid for $20 for breakfast, which meant we could have had cooked or continental. We decided to have the porridge, which was continental – and too much of a good thing. So by the time we’d finished that we only had room for a slice of toast and marmalade.

Now we had to find the bus stop that the #2 stopped at. After we’d made our decisions about what to wear. After last night’s weather we thought we’d better take our raincoat, but leave the warmer jacket behind. (Our coats are 3in1 so it can be warm, rainproof, or warm AND rainproof.

We stepped outside into beautiful wind-free weather again.

We also found the bus stop with no issues. (I owe D.C. $5 for my fare) The bus driver wasn’t that welcoming when we said we wanted to go to Weta, but he made a point of letting us know where Weta’s stop was (I’d actually recognised it from last time… and the time before) and gave us directions how to get there.

So we got there before the Weta Cave shop/museum opened, and well before our 9.30am Weta Workshop Tour. Time to get some outside photos (especially of the 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 pathway to where the Thunderbirds are Go bus left from), wander around, and do a little shopping – Thunderbirds’ notebook and Thunderbirds are Go lanyard.

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Initially there were only four of us on the Weta Workshop Tour. Then another couple came along. And a couple more. And…

But it wasn’t too big a group.

Taylor was our guide. He was a self-confessed Weta baby. That is both his parents worked for the company and he’d practically grown up here – including taking his first steps. Now he was one of the prosthetics creators.

The beginning of the tour was much like the one we did two years ago (except that this time I took notes.) One of the first things we were told was that there could be absolutely no photographs (which was why I took notes.) This is because Weta Workshop don’t own the copyright to the characters/props on display and they didn’t fancy some hot-shot American lawyer slapping a lawsuit onto them.

Taylor started off by showing us a gun from “District 9”. It had taken 525 drawings on a computer before the director had been satisfied with the final design. Then the mould was cut out of a plastic that looks very much like MDF using a CNC cutter. (Computer numerically controlled – Or is it Controlled numerically computer? I think it’s the former). They don’t use wood because this can hold more detail. “CC60” (if I can read my writing) is poured into the mould and then heated to 70 degrees Celsius. This creates a black, plastic item that is heavy duty and able to withstand much of what’s thrown at it.

It is then sent to the Painting Department – aka “Dept. of lies” or “Panic dept.” we didn’t ask why. Once the painting’s finished the item is dirtied down by the staff taking it outside and throwing it about and hitting things with it – to make it look well used.

Because the underlying material is black plastic, they can’t just scuff or scratch the paint to make it look, well… Like a scuffed, scratched, thing. So they do some foiling. That is, they get some thin aluminium or foil and melt it on like a glue gun.

Taylor pointed out that there’s no copyright on the human anatomy, so they can reuse those creations wherever they please.

We were shown Sarin’s armour from Lord of the Rings. (At this point I’ll offer apologies to any fans. I don’t know the books or the films.) This character is supposed to be 14 foot tall. Because it’s so hard to find a 14’ actor, the actual person who filled the costume is actually a seven-foot-tall Wellington cop. And that’s not the only “cheat”. What looked to be heavy metal, was actually lightweight foam.

This same policeman was also the body double for Gandolf whenever they were filming conversations between this taller character and dwarves. They’d film the cop, in Gandolf’s costume, from the back as he looked down on the dwarf. To film the other side of the scene they’d film Ian McKellar (have I got that wrong?) looking down onto a child stand in, or a 3’5” actor.

For the fight scenes, because killing off or maiming your cast isn’t a good idea, the swords were either made of soft foam, or CGI’d in afterwards.

To make the prosthetic head pieces, the actors would have to sit still, wearing a bathing cap or skull cap, and Vaseline on their eyebrows (never a good look to over-pluck your eyebrows) and then have their entire head covered in dental alginate. After that had sat for fifteen minutes, then plaster, like a plaster cast, was applied for about an hour.

How’d you like to sit, absolutely motionless, with straws up your nose for breathing, covered in slowly hardening stuff for over one and a quarter hours? Elijah Wood, who was quite young in the first Lord of the Rings and matured over the intervening years, had to go through this process every six months.

“Statues” can be manufactured out of lightweight materials, such as fibreglass. They are then painted gold, overpainted with browns, scrubbed down to reveal the gold highlights, and then sprayed with green to simulate Verdigris. It looked genuine.

Weta Workshop have a replica skull of “Lucy” the human species, earliest known link in the evolutionary chain. They used her facial shape as a basis of the Orc’s skull.

We were shown an animatronics mask that had cost a million to build. Its eyes rolled and its mouth snarled, but the wearer couldn’t hear because of the noise of the servos, so in the end they used CGI for the thirteen second scene.

Taylor showed us a castle – used in the Narnia series of films. At 1/100th scale, it stood taller than me on its platform and was constructed out of such high-tech materials as tin cans, takeaway containers, and toilet rolls for the turrets.

But this wasn’t the largest model of this castle they’d used for this movie. They’d also made what they termed a “Bigature” – i.e. a model that’s bigger than a miniature. The tower of this castle was so tall that it couldn’t fit within the room and had to be built, and filmed, lying on its side down the length of the room. Once the filming was completed it was CGI’d onto the top of the castle.

Other points of interest:

  • Sir Richard Taylor gets excited about train scenes. I’m not surprised as we know someone though our small gauge railway membership, and he says Sir Richard has his own train and goes to conventions around the country. I wonder if he was ever at any we’d been too… Must dig out my old photos…
  • Some of the plastic that they use is APS. The same as used in Lego.
    When making prosthetics such as masks and gloves, they make the it out of silicone. It moulds to the actor’s body, so if they’re built, their character’s built too!
  • Silicone for skin is impregnated with red flock (blue for aliens) to simulate the veins etc in the skin.
  • It costs $150 for each silicone nose, which can be used only once. Some actors needed three noses a day. And we wonder why films are so expensive to make.
  • Foam latex is also used, but can be toxic to some people. So much so that an actor in Lord of the Rings was mainly filmed using a body double.
  • Another actor was such a proponent of method acting that he refused to have anything except for real chainmail and a real sword. He wouldn’t take the helicopter to the set; preferring to walk or ride a horse. He was arrested a couple of time for carrying a weapon in a public place.
  • Real, metal chainmail (not the plastic chainmaille that Weta Workshop developed) can give you frostbite in the cold.

I kind of covered this last time, but when Weta Workshop started making its own chainmaille (I’m not connected to the Internet, so I can’t check spelling etc) it used plastic tube which was sliced up. Staff members did this assembling job for two years. At the end of which they’d worn down their fingertips and fingerprints. What’s interesting is that the fingerprints do return – in a different pattern.

Since it’s 100 years since WWI, Sir Richard helped create a display at Te Papa – our national museum. (We’ll be seeing it tomorrow.) Each human figure is 2.4 scale – so chosen because that’s the maximum height Te Papa’s rooms could handle. Remember this next bit for tomorrow – It took some ladies six weeks to do the hair. That’s installing every thread of hair on the head or body individually. They went through a lot of audiobooks, including the complete Harry Potter series. I wonder if it was the English version read by Stephen Fry?

When sculpting Weta Workshop sometimes use Plasticine. This is hardened by spraying it with “CRC Freeze Spray”. To make the Plasticine malleable again, they heated it.

One of the last things we saw on this tour was a “small” scale model of King Kong. This had been covered in yak hair and had taken four women six months and a lot of audio books to complete. They used it for such things like to see how water would naturally run off Kong’s hair.

That tour took approximately an hour, and was worth the price of admission. But I was waiting for the next event at 10.45am…

We followed the path: 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1…

Actually we just stayed outside where the tour had finished until the bus turned up.

We were the only ones in the bus until right up to 10.45. Then another man came, and then a couple more, and then a group of six, and then…

And then there were more people on Thunderbirds are Go tour than on the Weta Workshop one. I was a little disappointed as I thought it would make it difficult for me to see stuff.

Not a problem.

We were transported in the bus on a short jaunt, that almost seemed to double back on itself, to a rather non-descript warehouse-type complex that only had a relatively small “Pukeko Pictures” sign to mark it out as anything special.

That and the door with the Thunderbird One badge logo on it. The first thing that we saw when we went through that door was a model of Thunderbird Two.

THE Thunderbird Two! The original, not the Thunderbirds are Go variant.

Inside we were greeted by Amy, who informed us that we were in a top secret location somewhere the South Pacific. She asked how many people knew Thunderbirds and Thunderbirds are Go and a remarkably small number put their hands up. Of course mine went skywards as quickly as Thunderbird Three.

We were taken into another room which had more models of original Thunderbirds, FAB1, Elevator Car 1 and other machines. All made by David Tremont after years of collecting bits of Trade Me and Ebay and other places for kitbashing – this is breaking down existing kits to use the parts as they weren’t designed. Except he was looking for the exact same parts that Derek Meddings and team used on the original models.

I want my camera!

But my camera had to remain in my bag and my bag was put into the first room. Which was when I told Amy that I’d sent through questions.

I’ll have to make an admission here. I’d asked the members of Fanderson if they’d like me to ask any questions on their behalf. I got 19 in total (including my own) and most were not of the type that you could expect a guide to know the answers to, so I’d sent them through to my friendly “Weta Guy” at Weta Workshop, so he could give the guide the answers.

Amy said she’d explain more about what had happened to those questions later.

We returned to the rest of the group and Amy started explaining the rationale behind making Thunderbirds are Go. Apart from the fact that it was one of the shows that had got many of Weta Workshop’s craftspeople interested in model making, they wanted to encourage young people to be creative.

I won’t mention that Amy said the series was from 1963.

After being thrilled by seeing vacuum cleaner tubes and other bits turned into the original Thunderbirds craft, we were introduced to the updated version. On a wall were various pictures of design sketches of how the various characters and craft were going to look. I want my camera! Amy told us that Gordon Tracy, with his love of beach shirts, wears one not with Hawaiian palms on, not Tracy Island palms, but New Zealand Nikau palms! She said to keep an eye out for the odd bit of Kiwiana. I asked if Virgil’s wearing a Swanndri, and she didn’t know what that was. I told her it’s an iconic woollen bush shirt, and she’d never heard of it. Judging by her accent I’m not surprised.


Nikau Palms – I had to wait until I was in Auckland’s central business district before I could get this picture. All the others I saw were juveniles – or seen from the train.

Tin-Tin, of course, has become Tanisha Kyrano “Kayo”. They didn’t want to cause any confusion between our Tin-Tin and the Belgium(?) cartoon reporter.

Thunderbird Shadow was designed by the lead designer on Transformers. He’d heard that the show was being made and sent it in to them on the off chance that it would be of use to them.

They loved it.

On the wall was a silhouette of the original Thunderbird One with the silhouette of the new Thunderbird One superimposed over the top. The new version has “dropped wings and a tucked tail.”

We were shown some hand drawn storyboard pictures… Including a hint of what’s coming up next season…

Like the original version, the Pukeko Pictures team are using various items made unrecognisable. Like a skyscraper was made out of a CD rack. Take a plastic soap container, glue a latch to it, paint it silver and you have a safe door… One that Parker has to break into.

Coloured mattress foam is used to add texture and create bushes.

A zoomed in circuit board scales up 1000 times to be a futuristic city.

And of course, the old favourite… The lemon squeezer! Amy asked what its relevance was. I was the one who explained that it was on the hangar wall of the original Thunderbird One and it’s also on the wall of the new Thunderbird One’s hangar.

Expanding foam is used everywhere and coloured in all sorts of manners to crate all sorts of shapes. It could be lava. It could be rocks…

Talking rocks, they took casts of the rocks on the foreshore and used them as moulds for hundreds of different rocks. As they owned those rocks they could use and reuse them in different shows.

3D printing and printers are used sparingly, but they were used to make models of the characters, which are, of course CGI on screen. (We got to hold Lady Penelope.) The scene is set up and then the plastic model is seated where the CGI character will sit. This gives the camera something to focus on. (As someone who attempts to take decent photos, I can relate to that.) It also creates a shadow. Something that CGI finds it difficult to replicate easily.

Then we came to a door.

A black door…

A door with the markings of International Rescue and Thunderbird One painted on it…

This was the door to the secret base. This door had to be opened by a voice activated password.

Anyone care to guess was it was?

I was in there saying “Five, Four, Three, Two, One. Thunderbirds are Go” as soon as Amy was.

The door slid back and I was the first to be allowed to enter. I think by this stage, the rest of the group had got the idea that I was something of a fan and were quite indulgent in letting me get to the front and take more of an active role. It wasn’t that I was wearing my interest on my sleeve – more like my jumper’s front and blouse’s collar, which were both adorned by the International Rescue logo. Kally’s similarly adorned bear bag was back with my other bag. She was strapped to my arm.

I walked through the door. “I’m in heaven.”

To my left was the full sized Tracy Villa. To the right, Tracy Island. Further on… Well, we had to yet discover what was further on.

Tracy Villa:

  • 1/12th scale
  • The only things not built by hand were the chairs.
  • It’s built in segments to aid in filming scenes.
  • There’s a trapdoor behind the piano that can be opened up for a lipstick camera to pass through for a different filming angle.
  • When the first Thunderbird One launch scene was filmed, two ladies had to get underneath the set and slide the swimming pool back. It took three attempts before they could do it without splashing water everywhere.Tracy Island
  • Modelled on Bora Bora and New Zealand’s White Island. (Not learned today, but the water cave that Thunderbird Four exits out of is modelled on Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel Peninsula.)
  • The model has 3000 trees.
  • It also has some “straw huts” that I don’t know why are there.
  • The palm trees are made up of screws and palm fronds.
  • The water around the island (it had its own pool) was coloured by ten litres of blue food colouring. By the end of the shooting it wasn’t only the water that was blue – especially for those who were wearing longs.Further on was Thunderbird One’s launch bay – including the famous lemon squeezer. (“juicer”) Which actually was a fraud as they couldn’t find one the right size and had to make one.At the base of Thunderbird One’s launch platform are some round fire extinguishers. These, partly as a nod to the original show, are made from animatronic eyeballs.

    A smoke machine is used to create the smoke at launch. A leaf blower blows the deck chairs away from the swimming pool.

    The runway with the iconic palm trees were there and I was beckoned forward. Would I like to pull on that lever?

    “D.C. Hold this.” Shove notebook and pen into her hands.

    I rotated the lever up and over and the cliff face retracted and the palm trees fell back.

    I helped make International Rescue go!

    A model of FAB1 with functioning headlights and tail lights was used in a similar fashion as the 3D models. To shine realistic beams of light through the CGI car.

    On to the interior of Thunderbird Two’s hangar. One of the craftspeople, Sophie, spent three weeks preparing this model. She was the only one who fitted inside the cavern. The trolley that pulls the pods/modules along to be selected to slot into Thunderbird Two for the rescue, was at the time of the first series, the only model vehicle used. Series two is going to make a greater use of models – including at least Thunderbird Two.

    The wider scale models of Thunderbirds Three and One’s hangars used an extractor fan tube for Thunderbird Three and Kinder Surprise egg cases at the base of Thunderbird One’s storage platform.

    Standing next to this model was a rocket ship that looks similar to SunProbe in the original series’ episode of the same name. This is Jeff Tracy’s rocket.

    “Who’s Jeff Tracy?” Amy looks at me.

    “The father of the boys and the creator of International Rescue.”

    For the first series the creators wanted children to realise that it was possible for kids to go out and help others without being told – which is why Jeff has disappeared.

    However, for the next series………

    The creators also wanted to create a series with no weapons. With no violence. Showing a group of people who helped others, who were anonymous, and didn’t wait around for thanks.

    The next model was the Creighton-Ward mansion. You know how I said that parliament’s debating chamber was smaller than expected? This was much, much, bigger!

    The grounds are created by astroturf, mattress foam for the hedges, and fabric flowers. The gateposts’ figurines and the door knockers are based on one character. Lady Penelope’s dog Sherbet. Why has Lady Penelope gained a dog? (Much to Parker’s disgust.)

    Amy: “What did Lady Penelope always have that she couldn’t have now?”

    Me: “A cigarette.”

    So instead of having a puff. Lady Penelope has a pug.

    The other side of the room had the interior of the Creighton-Ward mansion. There’s a picture of Sherbet on the back wall, with a Banksie inspired mural. (Amy confided that a lot of Weta Workshop’s craftspeople were former graffiti artists. (I’m not sure if that’s the legal term for what they did.)

    It was at this point that my pen ran out of ink.

    Being a good Girl Guide, (thanks to those who offered me the use of theirs) I had a spare.

  • The furniture inside the mansion is hand sewn.
  • The tea cakes have actually been baked.
  • There is a lot of Kiwiana such as Koru and a Tiki decorating Lady Penelope’s shelves.
  • A sculpture of Sherbet inside the house has a nose that lights up blue when Lady Penelope is called.
    Amy: “Instead of what used to be used?”
    Me: “The teapot.”The Hood’s ship is made out of (appropriately) rubbish.
  • The main body is made of two washing machine drums.
  • Dyson vacuum cleaners form the side bits.
  • The tail is a rubbish bin lid.
  • And some of it is made out of car parts.
  • When the ship “flew”, it was lifted by a crane.The CGI characters have been deliberately made to move in a slightly stiff manner, as an homage to their puppet origins.We were then shown some models from future episodes. I won’t tell you about the, but will say that “Attack of the Alligators” and the Crablogger could be getting a retelling.

    I have more to say about today, MUCH more, but it’s ten to 11.00pm and I need some sleep. I’ll try to finish it tomorrow.


It’s twenty past six in the morning and I’m not going to get more sleep, so I may as well continue typing. I’ll have enough to say tonight and, since we’re visiting, I won’t have so much time to type it in.

We were also told that Thunderbirds are Go has been shown in 40 countries around the world. So they are very pleased about that. Series Two is in the works and series three has been commissioned. (I knew that.)

And that was the end of the tour.

Amy asked if we’d be able to stay behind.

Do I really want to? Stupid question!

One of the other people with us, Reece, was a trainee guide. He was one of those craftsman who’d made chainmail and had lost his fingerprints. Ever since then he’d had synaptic gas build up in his finger joints and they cracked easily.

He gave me a gift from Weta. I was not expecting this. I didn’t fully look at it until we got back to the hotel, but it was a Thunderbirds are Go poster, a Thunderbird Two logo badge, and a Thunderbird Two toy.

Brilliant! (And thank you.)

I was allowed to wander around and look at anything and ask questions. By this point it was serious Thunderbirds overload and I wanted to look at everything, but was taking in nothing. But I did have another go at preparing Thunderbird Two’s runway for launch.


Amy offered to get the Thunderbirds are Go models and miniatures supervisor, Steven Saunders to come and have a chat. As with all the rest of Weta’s staff he was very open and welcoming to talk to. Of course now is when I think of all the questions I would have loved to have asked. I’m not great at thinking on my feet. I’d be no good as a member of International Rescue! I did ask him what he liked specialising in and he said that he loved getting the casts from the rocks around the coast and using them as much as possible. I said he should go to Rangitoto Island, because the rocks are newer and more raw – and that we had a bias because we had a bach there.

He told us that so far they’ve made 200 environments over the two seasons – obviously that’s roughly 100 environments per season. These are real, 3D, you can touch them environments, onto which they can project (if that’s the word) the CGI figures and craft.

I also wish now that I’d asked to go back and look at the storyboard and design pictures. But I was just overwhelmed by these amazing, huge, detailed models.

Amy explained that the eighteen questions I’d asked (five of which were actually mine) have been sent to ITV for answers. They would be emailed to me when they got them back.

The bus was waiting for us to take us back to the Weta Cave and we asked the driver if he could recommend a good place to eat. He said that a café at the end of the street seemed popular.

We went back into the Cave, bought some more souvenirs (Weta notebook, Weta Badge, Weta mints – “Ah, was it you we got the gifts together for,” said the lady), watched the video on the various Weta productions. And listened as D.C. had a coughing fit in the middle of it. Should have got out the mints.

And then we went and had lunch at the café. We had crepes with… I can’t remember aside from almonds. There was fruit. But it was yummy. And to drink I had Laders lemon, ginger and honey and D.C. had Laders hot chocolate and chilli. Also yummy.

As we were leaving four people who’d been on the Thunderbirds are Go tour asked what we’d done after they’d left. I said treated like royalty.

It was only when we were waiting for the bus to take us back to Wellington Central that I thought that I should have given Amy and everyone else one of my Purupuss cloth badges as a thank you. If the studio had been where the Weta Cave was we would have gone back, but it was too far away (and we didn’t know exactly where.) I’ll have to post them.

It was a brilliant morning, and I want to thank everyone who went above and beyond what I expected to make this a memorable day.


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