Peter Jackson's fantastical visions come to life in the Weta Cave, says Pamela Wade.
When you hear the sentence "Once we were asked to make an animatronic bun" and, knowing that here both options are equally likely, you wonder for a moment whether that last word was actually "bum" - that's when you realise you're in a special place.
In Wellington's otherwise unremarkable suburb of Miramar is the home of Weta, recognised the world over for creative and practical excellence. It's the trolls that are the giveaway: three of them, hulking and ugly, facial hairs waving in the breeze, slouch outside the Weta Cave, the only part of the enterprise open to the public and now operating Window into Weta tours.
A shop selling themed miniatures and reproductions to the avid fans trooping here from all over the world - everything from a Tintin T-shirt to a copy of The One Ring ($4875, solid gold, uninscribed) - the Weta Cave includes a small museum and a 25-minute video of the company's history. But next door is the real magic.
Guided tours each half-hour take people through a sample workshop where every stage from design to construction of props, models and costumes is shown and explained. From floor to ceiling, the space is crammed with weapons, armour, animals, monsters and people, hardly any of it quite what it seems. While that's a relief when it comes to a glass case full of grimy human skulls, it's a marvel to look at an apparently lethal hatchet, all wood and leather and gleaming metal, and see the guide casually bend its rubber blade.
An artist herself, Kimmie Sowter is full of enthusiasm for the work, and it rapidly becomes clear that at Weta this is as essential as actual talent. One of the first items we see is a finely detailed plan for a raygun from the movie District 9, numbered version 458. She shows us a fully finished alien suit that was never used; and tells us that a typically vague Peter Jackson instruction - "I want an orc" - can lead to 500-plus drawings before the artists crystallise his vision.
The production of the props and costumes also involves an exhausting amount of physical work: the two men in charge of assembling the 250 million plastic rings for the chain mail in the Lord of the Rings movies actually wore away their fingerprints. Never mind that items might be on screen for a matter of seconds, or at a distance, everything is finished perfectly. Most of the tour members are fans of the various movies, but even people to whom The Hobbit is literally a closed book are fascinated by the level of workmanship on display. Sauron's suit of armour, for example, is a work of sinister beauty, its gleaming metal, chased with intricate designs, actually made of plastic for practical reasons: the real metal version, used for close-ups, weighs 70kg.
At the end of the tour, we meet two contracted artists, busy making models and gluing on artificial fur, strand by strand: they're a changing exhibition, depending on Weta's work schedule. "Richard Taylor would love to be in here every day, sculpting and creating," says Kimmie. After only 45 minutes, we can understand the compulsion.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Wellington, with up to 23 return flights daily. Inflight product choices include; Seat, Seat + Bag, Flexitime and Flexiplus.