There is a door in Paul Tobin's brain, and he's worked out how to open it. Don't picture that too vividly.

Though if you do happen to be someone who can't help turning metaphors into visual images, you and Tobin have a gift in common.

Not, he insists, that he's gifted, to speak of. Tobin is an artist, illustrator, teacher and conceptual designer, whose primary day job for the past decade has been to help turn unlikely ideas into concrete reality at Weta Workshop.

His after-hours work has generated a major New Zealand art book, and now a touring exhibition, which is why we're talking - but let's start with that day job.


"From quite a young age I wanted to work for Jim Henson," he says.

"I loved his films. But I'm a Nelson boy, and all that happens in London or LA, right? So I went off overseas travelling, and while I was away Weta took off here. When I came back to do some more study, Rings was in full swing. My flatmate was working on it, half of Wellington was working on it, and I ... wasn't working on it. Which was kind of frustrating."

Tobin, who is in his early 40s, remembers first becoming interested in fantasy and science-fiction art - fantastic art, as it's sometimes modestly described - as a teenager, in the wake of Star Wars and Henson's Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. He and his friends used to write their own fantasy novels, often using the popular choose-your-own-adventure format.

"And those books were always illustrated, so ours needed to be too, so I started trying to illustrate them."

The whole process of trying to show other people what the fabulous worlds inside his mind looked like became an enthusiasm, and then a passion. He enrolled in art at school.

"And I was crap at it. My initial foray into art was disastrous - I failed both my bursary art papers. I even failed getting into design school the first time. So I did a degree in ancient history and pursued archaeology for a while - that was my original childhood dream - before I came back to New Zealand and retrained, and got into design school the second time.

"The thing is, not everyone's born an artistic genius. My experience is that a lot of people have creative interests and a creative bent, but very, very few individuals are truly gifted.

"The bulk of it comes down to being interested in art; it's a skill you can learn. If you love it, and you keep at it, you will learn it. It's persistence more than anything."


He showed Weta his final-year design project - based around a beloved book from his childhood, Maurice Gee's The Halfmen of O - and was offered a two-week trial.

Ten years later, he's still there, with credits on the Narnia films and Avatar. He's worked for the past three years on The Hobbit. ("We've toured the sets when they're not shooting and met some of the actors. I've never seen so many excited people at Weta as when Stephen Fry came through. I was having Blackadder flashbacks every two seconds.")

Weta has been a major catalyst for fantasy art in this country, bringing talented people in from overseas and enabling local artists to upskill and to network with like-minded peers.

The company has also produced several books and gallery shows; Tobin was the art director for the HarperCollins title The Crafting of Narnia.

So when a group of artist mates, inside Weta and out, began talking of their ambitions to put their personal projects in front of the public, Tobin realised he had the right skills and connections to organise New Zealand's first major fantasy art book, then turn it into an exhibition.

"We all spend a lot of our time working for clients, with budgets and restrictions, so most of us escape from time to time into our own little worlds, by doing private projects.

"Once you create a world like that, you find you want to let people into it.

"That's the core value of the White Cloud Worlds project for us - getting to open up these worlds we've made to the public."

The book Tobin and his team pulled together featured rich selections of work from 27 artists.

HarperCollins snapped it up - "It all happened quite a lot faster than I expected, actually" - and while the book was still in production, Tobin sat down with Leanne Wickham of the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt.

"The Dowse had done Weta's King Kong exhibition, and I'd heard such good feedback from the people involved with it. We showed Leanne a mock-up of the book, and explained that a lot of these artists tend not to exhibit, so this was a rare opportunity to follow through from what the book was doing and bring their work into the public arena.

"She ended up curating the exhibition, and we had 47,000 people go through in two-and-a-half months."

And now the exhibition has come to Auckland's Lopdell House.

Tobin is particularly keen for people to bring their kids to see it.

"We had so much great correspondence from kids and parents after the Wellington run, saying how blown away they were. And for us that's magic. I think most of us have very fond memories of our first experiences of fantasy and science fiction when we were kids, and how that fed our creativity and imaginations."

What: White Cloud Worlds - NZ Science Fiction and Fantasy Art

Where and when: Lopdell House Gallery, 418 Titirangi Rd, Titirangi, to April 15