Five-time Oscar winner Richard Taylor's background is in practical effects. As far as he's concerned, that is where the future of filmmaking is, too.

Taylor co-founded the legendary special effects and prop company, Wētā Workshop, with wife Tania Rodger more than three decades ago. Over the years, he won Oscars for Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects for his work on 2001's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Best Costume Design and Best Makeup for 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Best Achievement in Visual Effects for 2006's King Kong. ("We've won across three disparate and very different departments," he notes, "which speaks very fundamentally to what I call the 'Jack and Jill of All Trades' mentality in New Zealand.")

Taylor's latest film is director Kiah Roache-Turner's Sting, a creature feature about a young girl who finds a spider and adopts it as her pet. (She names the spider Sting, after Bilbo Baggins' sword.) Soon enough, she discovers the arachnid is actually an extraterrestrial with a taste for human flesh. Taylor created the film's spider practically.

For Taylor, Sting speaks to a larger trend in the film industry of embracing a return to physical effects. "There is a swing back towards doing a lot of stuff practically," he says. "It's interesting watching young directors in their first two or three movies coming to the realization that they want to stay in charge of the process of filmmaking to the degree that they are desiring to utilize practical effects more than just one generation earlier."


A.Frame: From a creature creation perspective, the eponymous spider seems like something out of a B-movie, in the best possible way. What inspired you?

Kiah quickly referred to Shelob out of The Lord of the Rings, which is obviously a creepy spider, but it has a specific creep factor relative to a different director. We've done several movies that had spider-like or spidery creatures in them, and every director has a very specific set of ingredients that make up the arachnophobia of their specific spider. It's about how it relates to both the moment in their childhood that gave them the fear of spiders and also the influence of movies. So, in the first meeting that I had with Kiah, we didn't even talk much about his movie. We went very deep into '80s movies that we grew up with and loved, and it allowed us to talk about the things that inspired us.

We covered movies like John Carpenter's The Thing and the incredible work that Rob Bottin did on that. We discussed Arachnophobia, the excellent film that came out and used spiders from New Zealand, even though we have no toxic spiders other than one tiny little spider called a Katipo. That movie used Henderson spiders, which were very large, but that wasn't the type of spider that freaked out Kiah. He had this idea of a particular spider, which was the Redback. So, even though we went through all these influences — the Xenomorph out of James Cameron's Aliens was also referenced because of its chitinous, shell-like surface — he stayed true to the original inspiration of the Redback spider that causes him his highest level of arachnophobia.

Sting’s creature design also leans more toward fairytale spiders rather than horror movie spiders. Was that intentional, and if so, why?

You are the first interviewer to have said that, and you're absolutely right. What you're trying to evoke is a sense of malicious intent, not animalistic fear. Animals don't have malicious intent; they are driven by the need to find sustenance in the things they attack and eat, whereas more humanoid creatures — Orcs being a good example — want to be imbued with malicious intent. Therefore, if a character like Sting just becomes a horror figure, you have nowhere to go with it. Suppose it has a more fairytale quality that when it does attack, it attacks with intelligence and the fact that it is enjoying the process of attacking. In that case, you are elevating its characterization above being a rubbery puppet.

So it was more about creating a character rather than just creating a creature?

In our company, where the animatronics team is trying to achieve the best performance movement and the finishing team is trying to produce the best quality for the shell, what I'm trying to do is pull together all of those disparate elements, including the puppeteers, and create a memorable character. Because it can't be a puppet on set. It may be if you're not successful, but what you're trying to give the director is another cast member. Always. Whether it's Gollum or Sting, you're trying to produce another cast member that sits alongside the actors, where plausible ecology is at the forefront of the creature and so the creature elevates to a character in the movie.


It's pretty rare that you get to create a creature's evolution. In a lot of movies, you are working with an end product. Is that more fun or challenging? 

That was a wonderful component of the script when we read it. An important thing to say here is that there should never be a competition between physical effects and CG. It needs to be a beautiful synchronized amalgamation of the two, and this movie is a perfect example of that. Kiah used CG in a very skilled way to evolve the idea of a creature growing quickly. Then, he used models and puppets, so he had the ability to direct something practical on set that was physically interacting with his actors. If you think about it, if you choose to do something in post, where you are going to put a digital creature in later, you are removing yourself as a director from the spontaneity of the moment. Instead, you're planning how you will drop it into your shot, maybe weeks or months after you've left the set. Kiah wanted to know that he could choreograph and capture this intense interactivity between his actors and the creature within the camera at the moment as much as possible, but he was constantly aware and intended to utilize the skill of the fantastic digital effects team to create the plausible evolution of Sting's growth.

We talk here about evolution, and both you and the work the team at Wētā does has continuously evolved across your career. Your background is in practical puppets, but Wētā has grown into a visual effects powerhouse in its own right. There seems to be a shift happening now where filmmakers want to embrace practical effects again.

I was one of the co-founders of Wētā Digital, but we've only ever run the practical effects side of the Wētā companies. My wife and I were building puppets for film and television before we really got heavily involved in doing significant prosthetic makeup effects, so practical puppetry has been part of our company's DNA for 35 years now. Our love of doing practical effects is such that we've managed to keep a business ecology within our company that will give us the opportunity to work on a low budget, fast-turnaround film from a young director, such as Sting and many other movies like it, because the scale of the film or the experience of the director is irrelevant to us. It's all about the fact that they want to do practical effects.

There is a swing back towards doing a lot of stuff practically. We've just done a very significant film — that unfortunately I can't name — where the director came to us with the desire to do everything practically. Ten years ago, five years ago, maybe even two years ago, everything that we did practically would have predominantly been done digitally in post. This shift back to physical effects, it gives the director the ability to stay in the hot seat. They don't transfer the filmmaking process to a large number of other people later on in the post-production process; they remain the choreographer and capture mechanism for the visual information and storytelling that they want to tell in the moment with their actors.


You've won five Oscars across your career. Do you have a favorite Oscars memory?

The first Oscars that we went to, we were nominated three times and some of our crew felt very awkward that I would have to go to America and be on international television to be seen and potentially not win. People in the workshop would tell me, "Make sure you keep smiling even though you're not going to win." I used to say to our team, "Why can't it be us? Why shouldn't it be us?!" We never set out to win awards, but we certainly set out to do the best work we could. So, that first Oscars, Tania was pregnant with our first child, Sam, and couldn't fly because it was too close to the birth, so I took my mum. She ran a cattle farm, and I took her to Hollywood. Mum rode in the limousine, and she got dressed up for the Oscars, and we had a lovely time together. Sadly, my mum has passed away, but in her final year of life, my wife and I and the children would fly up to Auckland every weekend to be at her bedside, and she always wanted to talk about that three days at the Oscars.

She was hilarious. I was invited to all of the after parties — you get personal invitations after the awards if you are holding Oscars, and I was lucky enough to be carrying two — however, my mother wanted to go and watch the rerun of the Oscars and have a hot cocoa, and I had to massage her feet because they were sore. So, instead of going off to the glamor of post-Hollywood Oscars parties, I ended up rubbing my mother's feet, which generally were in a pair of gumboots! That's one of my favorite memories because it summed up my mother so well, as well as how charmingly awkward the whole thing was.

When we won the second time for the third film, I wrote to Dick Smith. Dick is a real hero to me. He had been retired for 10 years, was in his mid-80s, and hadn't traveled for years; it took me months, but I finally convinced him to come across the world to New Zealand. I picked him up at the airport, drove him to the Wētā Workshop, and he kept saying, "I didn't think anyone cared anymore. I thought I had been forgotten." We pulled into the front parking lot of our workshop, and our whole crew was standing outside waiting for him, and he was like, "What's going on here?" I said, "This is everyone waiting to meet you." He got out of the van, everyone burst into applause and some people started crying, and he started crying too. It was this incredibly powerful and beautiful moment, which wouldn't have happened if the Oscars hadn't happened. He then spent two weeks with us in the workshop and rediscovered his love of sculpting. We got to have dinner with him every night, and he gave so much of his time and his inspiration to our crew. Those are very precious moments inspired by the fact that the Academy has been so kind to us and recognized our work.


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