This is my third time interviewing Richard Taylor, the capo of WETA. The guy doesn’t talk, he declaims. It’s always fun listening to him, not just because of his unique take on the monotone but because he still manages to get such passion across.
King Kong, on DVD today, is certainly Taylor and WETA’s greatest moment. Say what you will about the film, the digital character of Kong is so far beyond anything that we’ve seen before as to be completely mindblowing. Back in the 1920s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took Willis O’Brien’s early test footage for The Lost World to a gathering of magicians and illusionists. They were blown away, and convinced that real dinosaurs had been filmed. Even Houdini was fooled. Imagine if they could see this film…
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Q: So how many Oscars is it now?
Taylor: I’ve been fortunate enough to bring home five for the team at WETA.
Q: That’s pretty impressive.
Taylor: That’s good, isn’t it? I think WETA has now won 6 as a total.
Q: Was that something that, when you began, you envisioned – being the cutting edge of effects houses?
Taylor: No. We never set out intentionally to win awards or be recognized at this level. The intention of all filmmakers is to ultimately make the best possible product you can. The greatest reward, of course, is if the critics and the general public enjoy the work. In the case of Kong, this film was exponentially more difficult than Lord of the Rings, and it’s actually a blessing that we had Lord of the Rings preceding Kong to get our facilities, mindset and our creativity to a level to tackle an American iconic piece of cinema. In turn you all get together and set off to just try to make the best possible movie you can. The fact that it gets recognized in the end at an awards ceremony is just an amazing thing that puts an exclamation mark at the end of the effort.
Q: Do you think that the way that Oscars are handed out is going to have to change now? This is the second time Andy Serkis has been discussed as an acting nominee for a role that was done in conjunction with FX people. Do you think this needs its own category?
Taylor: I’m obviously extremely biased, but I honestly think there does. There have been many changes in the industry over the past hundred years and over the 78 years of the Oscars, which has meant that the Academy has shifted their thoughts. The make-up Oscars, when Rick Baker won for American Werewolf in London, shifted from pancake make-up and lipstick and hair to full animatronic puppetry associated with human actor.
Likewise, we’re in a new renaissance of filmmaking, and the realities of serious characters that can induce an audience to cry being played by motion capture performers such as Andy, is going to become a consistent reality of the industry. Bob Zemeckis is making Beowulf right now with a totally digital cast. Should that mean those performers are excluded from recognition as great performers? No, of course not. In turn I think there will be an appreciation that the industry once again is shifting to incorporate the magical world of technology.
Q: The world of technology itself has changed a lot. Once the big hurdle for CGI was water, then it was hair. What are the big challenges now?
Taylor: I think the greatest challenge that we’ve successfully overcome with Kong is the fact that for the first time in cinema a totally digital character raised the audience’s emotional levels to such a point that they cried. They cried at the loss, at the death of that creature. That has opened up so many opportunities going forward with cinema, because that means digital technologies and cinema – once again, it’s about heartware, not hardware. It’s about the ability for those technicians to invest that incredible empathy and love and human emotion into a creature such as Kong and transcend the issues that have effected digital creations that we’ve all worked on in the past. Digital effect characters can now hold a relationship with the audience that’s the equivalent of a great actor.
Q: Richard, do you ever take a vacation?
Taylor: We took a proper vacation about fifteen years ago, when we went to the UK for holiday.
Q: It’s been incredibly busy for you lately.
Taylor: We’ve been on a roll for about five or ten years. I never regret being busy because we ride the rollercoaster of the ups and downs of the film industry, so we’re just incredibly thankful that we’re busy. We’ve got a wonderful and dedicated group of people around us, and that makes you want to keep working. At the moment we’re working on a very small New Zealand horror movie called Black Sheep, and it’s equally as exciting and challenging as Kong or Lord of the Rings or Narnia, but in a very, very small-scale New Zealand way. It’s great fun.
Q: Do you guys make a point of working with local filmmakers as much as possible?
Taylor: We work with local filmmakers as frequently as they will have us work with them. Last year we did a local children’s television series called The Killian Curse, that had a variety of monsters in it. The total budget of the total series was probably less than a quarter of a million dollars, but try to look for opportunities. In fact we just started our own children’s television production company and they’re in production on our first TV show, called Jane and the Dragon, which is very exciting.
Q: So King Kong was Peter’s dream project since he was a child. Is there a dream project you have?
Taylor: There are many ideas that I would love to one day bring to fruition, but I respectfully put them on the back burner while we develop other people’s ideas. But right now probably my greatest desire is to see Neon Genesis Evangelion come to life. I’ve been working on that nearly four years with ADV, the people who own the rights to the live action film. We’ve traveled to Japan, we’ve met the original creators, we have done development work on it. I believe Evangelion, to the Asian market, could be up there with the Lord of the Rings. Of course the Western market has grown and is ready for this amazing film genre.
Q: What is the current status of that film?
Taylor: I don’t honestly know, but that’s not to say that it won’t happen. Everyone’s intentions is to see it happen. It’s a very, very complex property to bring to the world cinema because of its incredible following. It has to be done, hopefully, with great sensitivity and aesthetically with utter perfection. That requires time and thought.
Q: When you were in New York for the King Kong press day, you mentioned that you guys were trying to produce some statues for Shaun of the Dead. Is there any update on that?
Taylor: Our line of collectibles continues to grow. We have Superman coming up, and Hellboy. We pursued Shaun of the Dead and Edgar [Wright] was very keen, we were very keen, but the rights are so complex – you have to buy territory by territory. It became unfeasible. Just the legal cost alone to pursue each territory became unfeasible. It’s a shame, because it could have been a great piece. But we’re certainly intent on doing several things with Edgar. We look forward to that day.