Sir Richard Taylor and his wife Tania Rodger, co-founders of the award-winning and world-leading Wētā Workshop, are a compelling business romance.
They’ve worked through horror, fantasy and, of course, reality to create a hugely successful creative and practical effects company.
Wētā Workshop has won five Oscars and four Baftas. They’ve helped attract millions of cinema-goers around the world via their involvement in more than 160 films, including the film trilogy The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Avatar.
They attract tens of thousands of visitors each year to guided tours in Wellington and the exciting Wētā Workshop Unleashed exhibition in Auckland.
They have built attractions all over the world, but the Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa Museum is their proudest endeavour.
Taylor and Rodger have well and truly helped put New Zealand on the world’s film industry and tourism map. Their involvement with director Sir Peter Jackson in The Lord of the Rings wrote an important chapter in the history of the country — “The Home of Middle-earth” was included in the 100% Pure New Zealand campaign.
Wētā Workshop designed and manufactured 48,000 objects — props, weapons, armour, prosthetics, costumes, miniatures and bigatures – as well as special makeup effects for the production of The Lord of the Rings trilogy over seven years. They’ve done many more since.
They started production on The Lord of the Rings with 38 staff, and added a further 120 artists and technicians – only one-eighth of the crew had worked on a film or television show before.
Today, Wētā Workshop, operating out of Miramar in Wellington, has grown into a multifaceted team of 360-400 people across seven business units.
Wētā Workshop has general manager David Wilks to handle the management workload, while Rodger looks after the facilities and many other tasks.
Taylor, as chief executive and creative director, meets clients, chases work and helps innovate the new methodologies that make the workshop tick every day. He spends time on the floor when he can to direct art, build and provide technical assistance for the varied projects.
Wētā Workshop prides itself on its capability to deliver on almost any creative brief to the highest quality, anywhere in the world. As they put it: “We design and manufacture cool stuff for the world’s creative industries.”
Deloitte Top 200 success
Taylor and Rodger’s drive, passion and creativity has earned them the title of “Visionary Leaders” in the 2023 Deloitte Top 200 awards.
The Deloitte Top 200 judging panel said Taylor and Rodger had been instrumental in the success of New Zealand’s creative industry.
“But what Richard, Tania and Wētā Workshop do stretches well beyond what we’ve seen on the big screens. They also operate popular tourist attractions and two retail stores, run a digital game studio and new emerging technologies division, produce high-end collectibles (they have made more than 10 million), and design and manufacture location-based visitor experiences.”
Taylor and Rodger co-own Stardog General Partner, a fine art and IP development company, and operate children’s IP and television production company Pūkeko Pictures in a partnership with friend and colleague Martin Baynton.
The panel said Taylor’s relationship with China (over 25 years) has been key to Wētā Workshop’s ongoing success, allowing the company to diversify and utilise the country’s unique skill set.
“He’s not only formed robust business relationships that have made an impact on both countries and their respective creative industries, but also helped to bridge two cultures and peoples,” said Top 200 judge Hinerangi Raumati-Tu’ua. “Richard and Tania’s passion and creativity has brought imaginations to life, and inspired millions.”
“They are New Zealand icons and true visionary leaders.”
The couple first met at the age of 13 at Ōhope Beach. He was in the third form at Wesley College near Pukekohe and she was at Whakatāne High School.
They have known each other for 46 years and worked together for 36 years, sharing the same office until last year. They have two children, 21-year-old Sam and 17-year-old Amelia.
They got married 12 years ago. “That was nice. We had two children and wanted to acknowledge we were a family. We had been a little bit busy up to that point,” said Rodger.
Taylor and Rodger moved to Wellington after school in 1984. Taylor “got into the wrong queue” at Wellington Polytechnic and studied for a diploma in visual communication and design rather than his first choice, industrial design.
Rodger went to Victoria University, but after two years wanted to join the workforce. She started as a telephonist at the Abel Tasman Hotel and ended up in management by the end of the year.
“Looking back, that was helpful for dealing with clients and guests. The thing you learn is that your people are your asset — the crew, technicians and management,” said Rodger. “Richard would come to the hotel on the Friday night. There was a big buffet, and he and the chef made margarine sculptures together.”
Back at their flat, Taylor was making models and pouring rubber latex on a carton board on top of their double bed and dreaming of a career in the film and television industry.
“We’d get a lot of our early materials diving in to the skips along The Terrace.
“People will throw out a crazy amount of cool stuff, for some reason,” Taylor said.
In 1987, they formed RT (Richard and Tania) Effects and were soon commissioned to produce the wickedly grotesque latex puppet caricatures (of topical personalities) for the Gibson Group-produced satirical television series Public Eye, a take-off from the British series Spitting Image.
Taylor said the basic training for everything he does now was not only gained through polytechnic education, but also helping to build the family home between the age of 11 to 17. “My father was an aircraft engineer and my mother a science teacher. Six years after we emigrated from Cheshire in England, they bought a 10-acre block at Patumāhoe [near Pukekohe].
“We hand-built the house in the evenings and over the weekends. Those six years gave me the knowledge and discipline for construction and problem-solving and figuring out things on the fly,” Taylor said.
Enter Peter Jackson
A mutual friend introduced Sir Peter Jackson to Taylor and Rodger, and Jackson invited them to join the puppet-making team on his second film Meet the Feebles, and then on to providing physical effects for his zombie comedy splatter film Braindead.
“Peter kindly came and met us when we were doing some television commercials at the sound stage in Avalon. We hit it off and became instant friends. His film-making skills and creative and technical abilities were so inspirational; we knew we would love to work with him.
“Also, Peter had a vision and early understanding that visual effects were going to change the film industry. He conceived 14 visual effects shots in his film Heavenly Creatures. A computer was leased from the United States to complete these shots.
“Afterwards, a group of friends including George Port [computer effects], Jamie Selkirk [film editor and producer], Jim Booth [producer], Peter, Tania and I teamed up to buy the computer,” Taylor said.
Animation and computer-generated imagery, and Taylor and Rodger’s practical effects, came together to form Wētā in 1993. That company was eventually divided into two — Wētā Digital and Wētā Workshop.
Taylor and Rodger continued to have an involvement in both until they moved on from Wētā Digital a decade ago and concentrated on Wētā Workshop, taking sole ownership in 2020.
In 1996, Taylor and Rodgers started working on King Kong, but production stopped because of studio issues, and the they went back to making television commercials.
“Then one day, Peter phoned us and told us we were going to do The Lord of the Rings. The rest is folklore,” said Taylor. The first instalment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, premiered in December 2001.
In the early years, Taylor’s business approach remained relatively uncomplicated. He describes it: “As cliched as it might sound, we were ultimately learning on the job and armed with a Kiwi can-do attitude — [we] just gave it a go and saw where it led.” Taylor acknowledges that today, the combined expertise of the senior leadership in the company is “the critical mechanism that allows the cogs to turn in such a synchronised way”.
Taylor fancies a saying from Douglas Adams (author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy): “The art of flying is to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”
“Well, the art of innovation is to throw yourself at possible failure and hope to miss. If we fail through our lack of knowledge or being overly ambitious, we analyse what tripped us up and go back and do it again.
“We gathered around us a group of talented and bright-eyed artists and technicians with the amazing ability to adapt, learn quickly and do incredible things. And you have just got to stick at it.”
Taylor said: “We never set out to win an Oscar and walk the red carpet. We just set out with the aspiration of doing the best we can. You strive to stay at a standard, and if we miss that standard, then it’s potentially a slippery slope back down the hill.”
Rodger said Taylor has enormous artistic energy. “He’s enthusiastic, determined and a very three-dimensional thinker. He’s a problem-solver, thinks on his feet and makes fast decisions. He is a prolific reader when he wants more knowledge about a problem he’s faced with.”
“Richard is more optimistic, and I’m the realist. We trust each other in our decision-making. Yes, I’ve had to help modify his thinking from time to time. But then he finds another optimistic way of looking at the problem,” said Rodger, who leaves Taylor to be the frontman of the company as she works behind the scenes.
“One of the things we both feel strongly about is certainty of work. We want our team to have a feeling of security in their jobs when they come to work,” said Rodger.
Taylor said diversifying to find opportunities like new and emerging technologies is incredibly important. “We are focused on finding people who want to push the boundaries of technology and creative capability.”
“We can’t solely rely on people my age, and even the technicians who have followed. We need the continued inspirational work from the superpowers of the young people coming out of universities, polytechs (or their own hobby rooms) to stay relevant in these incredibly fast-moving markets we work in.”
Wētā Workshop today
Wētā Workshop continues to provide props and special effects for films and television series, make high-end collectibles and develop location-based experiences such as the Expo 2020 Dubai Mobility Pavilion, with more than 26 million visitors to date. There’s an involvement with a major Hollywood feature film that “didn’t fall over due to the strike”.
The tourism division is refurbishing its Wellington-based tours. The consumer products division is constantly exploring new licences, including creating large-scale collectibles of the 1970s rock band Kiss and even larger collectable statues for the Warhammer table-top gaming world.
Wētā Workshop designed and provided creative manufacturing for the New Zealand Liberation Museum Te Arawhata in Le Quesnoy, France and the Traditional Chinese Medicine Museum in Zhubai, China.
Wētā Workshop transformed the large atrium of the Haikou duty-free shopping complex, the largest in the world, into a multi-sensory, immersive experience called The Forest at the Edge of the Sky, setting the benchmark in the emerging “retailainment” (retail entertainment) sector.
Just recently, Wētā Workshop sent its first performance robot to the United States, and is building another one for Europe.
It is designing the Pounamu Pathway, telling cultural and historical stories of the West Coast with four visitor centres at Haast, Hokitika, Greymouth and Westport.
Through Pūkeko Pictures, Taylor and Rodger have collaborated on the first official children’s television co-production between New Zealand and China.
Rodger said the journey has been really fulfilling and rewarding. “I’m proud of the scale and diversity of the business, and I’m proud that I shared the journey with Richard.”
“He was the artistic person with a passion for sculpture and model-making. I was the enabler who developed the process to get things done,” she said.
Taylor said “in this industry, it’s amazing the people you meet who are fascinating, and then you to get to work alongside them — how awesome”.
Upon learning they’d won the Visionary Leadership award, Taylor said quintessentially: “What a lovely compliment.”
Wētā Workshop — “We stand on the shoulders of giants” — has won more than 30 national and international awards (including five Oscars and four Baftas) with the help of lots of clever people.
Academy Awards (Oscars)
2002: Won Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Also nominated: Best Costume Design for the same film.
2004: Won Best Makeup and Best Costume Design for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
2006: Won Best Visual Effects for King Kong.
2021: A Los Angeles-based Themed Entertainment Association award for Wētā Workshop Unleashed, a location-based interactive experience in Auckland. Also, Best Award for Lighting Design; and a Blooloop (website for visitor attractions) Innovation Award for storytelling.
2018: A Visual Effects Society (VSE) award for an outstanding model in a photo-real or animated project for Blade Runner 2049.
2017: A Themed Entertainment Association award for outstanding achievement regarding Gallipoli, The scale of our war.
2009: Critics Choice Association for Best Makeup.
2006: A Bafta award for achievement in Special Visual Effects for King Kong.
2004: VSE awards for Best Miniatures with The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Return of the King. Also, a Hollywood Hair & Makeup Society award for Best Special Makeup with Return of the King.
2003: Hollywood Hair & Makeup Society and Bafta awards for Best Costume with The Two Towers.
2002: Bafta awards for Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects with The Fellowship of the Ring. Also, a Phoenix Film Critics Society award for Best Costume Design with The Fellowship of the Ring; and a Las Vegas Film Critics Society award for Best Costume Design with The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.
1997: A Catalonian International Film Festival for Best Model/Miniature with The Frighteners. Also, NZ Film Awards for Best Contribution to Design with Forgotten Silver and The Ugly.
1995: Catalonian and Portugese Film Festivals and Silver Screen (Holland) awards for Best Special Effects with Braindead. Also, NZ Fim Awards for Besty Contribution to Design with Braindead and Heavenly Creatures.
1993 and 1991: Fantasy Film Awards (Italy) for Best Physical Effects with Meet the Feebles.
1992: A Sitges Festival Award (Catalonia) for Best Special Effects with Braindead.
Other film involvement
The Hobbit Trilogy: An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies.
Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water.
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian.
Thor: Ragnarok and Love and Thunder.
The Last Samurai; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Mad Max: Fury Road; Blade Runner 2049; Power Rangers; Mulan; Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Richard Taylor himself
2012: A King Vidor award (San Luis Obispo International Film Festival) for career achievement in film.
2012: Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year.
2010: Awarded Knight Companion of the NZ Order of Merit for services to film; and a Wellington Institute of Technology honorary bachelor of creative technologies.
2009: Supreme Winner of World Class NZ awards.
2007: Ernst & Young World Enrtrepreneur of the Year; an Export Year honorary award; and he was inducted into the Massey University Hall of Fame.
2004: A Designers Institute of NZ John Britten award; appointed officer of the NZ Order of Merit for services to design and film.
The Visionary Leader award is sponsored by Hobson Leavy.