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New Zealand - Hobbits and heroes

A crate full of sushi arrives. Workers wearing wetsuit shirts or in bare feet bustle past with slim laptops. With days to go, a buzzing intensity fills the once-dilapidated warehouses where Peter Jackson's visual-effects studio is rushing to finish the opening film in "The Hobbit" trilogy.

The fevered pace at the Weta Digital studio near Wellington will last nearly until the actors walk the red carpet Nov. 28 for the world premiere. But after "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" hits theatres, there's more work to be done.

Weta Digital is the centerpiece of a filmmaking empire that Jackson and close collaborators have built in his New Zealand hometown, realizing his dream of bringing a slice of Hollywood to Wellington. It's a one-stop shop for making major movies, not only his own, but other blockbusters like "Avatar" and "The Avengers" and hoped-for blockbusters like next year's "Man of Steel."

Along the way, Jackson has become revered here, even receiving a knighthood. His humble demeanour and crumpled appearance appeal to distinctly New Zealand values, yet his modesty belies his influence. He's also attracted criticism along the way.

The special-effects workforce of 150 on "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy a decade ago now numbers 1,100. Only five of Weta Digital's workers are actual employees, however, while the rest are contractors. Many accept the situation because movie work often comes irregularly but pays well. Union leaders, though, say the workers lack labour protections existing in almost any other industry.

Like many colleagues, Weta Digital's director, Joe Letteri, came to New Zealand in 2001 to work on the "Rings" trilogy for two years. The work kept coming, so he bought a house in Wellington and stayed.

"People come here because they know it's their chance to do something really great and to get it up on the screen," he said in a recent interview. "And you want to do it in these next two weeks, because the two weeks after the movie's finished are useless."

Jackson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, launched Weta in 1993 with fellow filmmakers Jamie Selkirk and Richard Taylor. Named after an oversized New Zealand insect, the company later was split into its digital arm and Weta Workshop, which makes props and costumes.

The Canadian Press


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