The name of Richard Taylor is often mentioned in the same breath as Wellington special effects and design empire Weta — which Taylor helps command — and director Peter Jackson. The blockbuster success of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong has allowed Taylor to apply his imagination, lateral thinking and leadership skills across a range of areas, from monster-making and costume design, to children's TV programming.
Taylor and his partner Tania Rodger have been helping bring Jackson's visions to life ever since the director's second film, Meet the Feebles. Having done so much work for one director, "there is an almost unwritten language between you", Taylor argues. "It means that you can move forward with intent, knowing that the director is always going to have thoughts and ideas, but he’s also confident that you’ll deliver what’s required and something special is going to come out of it in the end."
A passionate advocate for local talent and ingenuity, Taylor was proud to have hired "almost completely a New Zealand crew" for Lord of the Rings.
Taylor grew up on a farm south of Auckland. The child of an engineer and a science teacher, he taught himself to sculpt using mud dug from a creek behind his house. Keenly interested in art, he was 17 before realizing that soap opera Close to Home was filmed in a television studio, instead of someone's house. Moving to Wellington with his creative and romantic partner Tania Rodger, he studied graphic design at Wellington Polytechnic.
Afterwards Taylor got a job designing board games. But he soon quit to concentrate on making props, models, and sets for television advertisements, and the occasional stage play. Taylor heard that producer Dave Gibson was considering making a Kiwi version of Spitting Image, the English show that used a cast of puppets to satirize public figures.
Taylor created a puppet of Gibson and left it on his desk. He got the job. Over the next eighteen months Taylor, Rodger and future production designer Clive Memmott created more than seventy puppets for Public Eye, sculpting with time-saving margarine.
During this period the couple met another enthusiast of model-making and DIY special effects: director Peter Jackson. But plans to work together on Jackson's sophomore feature Braindead fell apart, after a key investor unexpectedly withdrew. Instead Jackson turned his energies from zombies to low budget puppet movie Meet the Feebles. Based in a rat-infested freight shed, Taylor and Rodger helped build the movie's cast of dysfunctional animals, working under the command of puppet designer/maker Cameron Chittock.
When Braindead was reborn three years later, Taylor and Rodger were key members of the team that created the film's extensive make-up and prosthetic effects. Working under the mantle RT Effects and working from a variety of locations, the pair also provided props for a number of television commercials.
In 1993 this burgeoning effects operation was reborn as part of a new company called Weta Ltd. Taylor, Rodger and Peter Jackson were among the founding partners. Heavenly Creatures has staked its claim in Kiwi filmmaking history partly because it marks the first work by Weta's digital effects arm, which began with one staff member (George Port). But Taylor's physical effects team also contributed impressive work, including the pseudo-plasticine suits worn by the inhabitants of the imaginary kingdom of Borovnia.
Special effects can be divided into two categories: those that are physically built (Taylor's area of expertise), and those created in post production: either photographically or in a computer, long after live filming is complete. The division was made clearer in later years, when Weta Ltd was split into two arms: Weta Digital, and Taylor's Weta Workshop.
The mid-90s proved a key period of expansion for both arms of Weta. Weta Workshop was kept busy providing extensive props and models for Jackson/Costa Botes mockumentary Forgotten Silver, and Tony Hiles' effects-heavy fantasy Jack Brown Genius.
Taylor's team also provided prosthetic effects for some of the nastier moments of Once Were Warriors, and Scott Reynolds chiller The Ugly. The latter won Taylor his second design award at the NZ Film and Television Awards (Braindead being the first).
In between the Kiwi productions, Taylor kept his Weta Workshop crew busy on a number of American-funded projects — making dead aliens for Stephen King mini-series The Tommyknockers, sundry monsters for the Xena/Hercules shows, and a miniature city for a tele-movie about a tidal wave.
In 1995 the Workshop team created a wealth of ambitious effects for Jackson's big-budget ghost comedy The Frighteners, including miniature townscapes and an animatronic ghost dog. Some of their creations did not make the CGI-heavy final cut, though they can be found on the extended edition Frighteners DVD.
Then came Tolkien. When work began on adapting the Lord of the Rings epic into cinema, Weta became a creative hothouse, with a team of designers, craftspeople and effects technicians collaborating to bring Middle-earth and its inhabitants to life. Weta Workshop's brief was dauntingly wide: the Workshop team took on the jobs of designing and creating the film's armour, weapons, make-up effects, and physical (as opposed to digital) creatures. Plus a great many miniatures. Doing the initial budgeting was an epic in itself. At their height, Workshop staff numbers edged past 180.
Thanks to the Rings movies, Taylor went on to share Academy Awards for visual effects, costume design and make-up. Weta Workshop would later bring its many skills to bear for three further movies, based on Tolkien's first Middle-Earth tale The Hobbit, earning Taylor further Bafta nominations in the process.
In 2005 Taylor won an Oscar and a BAFTA for Weta Workshop's effects work on King Kong. Such blockbuster-sized calling cards drew industry attention New Zealand's way, helping the miniatures crew at Weta Workshop secure a number of overseas projects.
Weta Workshop built miniature ships for Master and Commander and Van Helsing, model trains for the climax of both Tangiwai - A Love Story and The Legend of Zorro, and was a major player in the look of sci fi hit District 9. The company has also opened merchandise sidelines in collectable sculptures, and made weaponry and armour for film (including the first two Narnia movies).
New Zealand stories have not been forgotten. Weta Workship created a vital prop - a dead one - for Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers, and was awarded for its work on a host of gruesome makeup effects for WWII horror The Devil's Rock (helmed by Weta protege Paul Campion). Weta Workshop also built the animatronic puppet sheep which feature in horror romp Black Sheep, and reunited with Sheep-meister Jonathan King for his second feature Under the Mountain, based on the Maurice Gee bestseller.
Long keen to create television shows for younger viewers, Richard Taylor began collaborating with author Martin Baynton on two shows that they brought to life at Weta Workshop: multi-nominated adventure series Jane and the Dragon, based on a series of books by Baynton, and The WotWots. The latter follows the adventures of an "energetic pair who embrace their adventures with gusto and enthusiasm".
In 2008 Taylor, Tania Rodger and Baynton set up Pukeko Pictures. The company's slate also includes a remake of beloved 60s puppet series Thunderbirds, using a combination of models and CGI animation.