Oscar-winning advice from Sir Richard Taylor

Sir Richard Taylor in a workshop at Weta Workshop

Weta Workshop visionary Sir Richard Taylor gives tips for the next wave of NZ creatives and why he never stops learning.

There are many ways to measure success. 

If you go by the number of Oscars won, no one in this country tops Sir Richard Taylor.

But despite being presented with an unfathomable five coveted golden statuettes - and the small matter of a knighthood - those accolades are not how Sir Richard gauges success.

Through an incredible career spanning more than three decades, the co-founder, creative director and internationally recognised figurehead of the Wellington-based creativity factory Weta Workshop has got the biggest reward from the company he keeps.

“Every day I have the good fortune of working alongside my wonderful friends and colleagues – and with them I am able to observe and inspire creative outcomes, drawing on a broad foundation of technical knowledge, incredible artistry, laser-focused discipline and passionate resolve.

“I also get to support and encourage other passionate and inspiring creators. The fact that we have been able to build an environment where young aspiring artists and technicians can come to realise their love of making and be trained, inspired and rewarded, is immensely fulfilling for me. For this, I am most grateful.”

Share the knowledge

To help more young creatives reach their potential, Sir Richard’s passion for sharing information has taken a more direct form, in the shape of the Weta Workshop School at Massey.

“At Weta Workshop, it is really important to us to support and encourage students going through the education system, both in New Zealand and overseas. Educational institutions often teach a significant number of disciplines and skills but they are not easily able to emulate a commercial studio environment, such as ours.  Therefore, it is beholden on companies like ours to try and provide students with some level of awareness and connection to the realities of what they will experience on leaving these institutions.  

“Also, I personally find it very inspiring to think that we can assist, in some small way, in the progressive education and inspiration of young people, as they aspire to become creative professionals in local and international markets.”

Learning never stops

In Sir Richard’s eyes, he’s been training for his role in the creative industries all his life. The son of a science teacher and an aircraft engineer, “every outing was a lesson,” he recalls. “I couldn’t help but become curious about the world with this wonderful upbringing and I think this was really the foundation for my future career. 

“A day doesn’t go past where I am not reading some form of literature on the creative process.  I am constantly exploring new and exciting ways to make and build things, while also digging deep into traditional techniques, artistry and craft to try and become more knowledgeable from those who have done it before.  

“I believe strongly that the core attribute of a creative mind is the ability to observe the world, learn from it and then extract your own creative thinking from that which you see about you.”

This mentality has filtered through to the visual artists entering both Weta Workshop and the Master of Design course.  Former student Ivan Vegar speaks with reverence in his voice about how Sir Richard and Paul Tobin (currently Senior Concept Artist at Weta Workshop and Master of Design co-supervisor at Massey University) never turn off their curiosity.

 “They’ll go on trips and catalogue different bits of rust that they'd find on a ship or a wharf. They’ve got folders of different rust types or references of bolts, anchors, knots that are roped together. It’s just insane how much dedication they put into finding ideas even when they’re not on the job, you always have it in the back of your mind.”

Practice makes perfect

But even for a man at the top of his industry, Sir Richard does look at those able to level up their learning with the Master of Design with a touch of envy. While thankful for his Polytech education for teaching him the practical skills as a base for his success, “the course wasn’t focused on teaching you how to think and how to invent,” Sir Richard admits. 

”What I craved was to be inspired by lots of learned people – experts at innovative thinking, collective brainstorming, the process of imagining and then realising fictitious worlds and characters.  Also, I would have relished a stronger understanding of how to approach the creative industry and build a portfolio more focused towards certain fields that I was aspiring to work in. It would have been greatly influential on me.”

And it has proven advantageous to those who have been through the Massey course to date. While there’s no questioning the benefits for the students, who get to work with and learn from some of the planet’s best at their chosen trade, the relationship works both ways. 

“First and foremost, Weta Workshop gets the wonderful sense that we have been able to play some part in the ongoing education and inspiration of a young group of New Zealand tertiary students as they set out into the world,” declares Sir Richard.  

“The tutors also, of course, get the chance to observe and assess these students as potential future collaborators here in the Workshop.  All companies are only as good as the people they surround themselves with and this is very much the case with us.  We could not achieve any of what we do, at the scale with which we do it, if we weren’t able to benefit from the immense talent of the people that join us each year!”

Bottom of the globe, top of the industry

When Sir Richard speaks about the entertainment design industry, people sit up and listen.  

New Zealand’s isolation at the bottom of the planet has made many Kiwi creatives feel they have to choose between their career and the incredible lifestyle we have in this country. But Sir Richard has found out first hand that you can have both.

“I feel that we (NZers) leave a mark on the world’s creative stage at a disproportionate level to our population size. And this mark is catching people’s attention, inspiring potential foreign clients and consumers to take notice of what New Zealand offers and how we can play a strong and positive role in the enhancement of their products, services, public engagement and overall creative presentation out to the world.  

“It is wonderful for a young person to venture overseas but I believe people can make their international mark from the same community where they studied.  At Weta Workshop, we love the thought that people coming through this course may ultimately choose to work with us or gain from the relationship they form with us, in turn enabling confidence to work in creative studios around New Zealand.”

Much like some of the quests Weta Workshop have made their name in bringing to life on the big screen, this is not a path just anyone can tread. There are two routes into the Master of Design - either with a four year Bachelor’s degree to your name or with a healthy dose of industry experience under your belt - with an undergraduate course also available to advance your skillset.

Advice from the master

When pressed for the best advice he can offer an up-and-coming creative, Sir Richard acknowledges his theme may have been delivered by a parent and teacher over the years.  

But just because it’s familiar, it doesn’t make listening to Sir Richard’s words any less important.

“Nothing can replace hard work!  

“This is a highly competitive industry.  The very friends you have made at University who sit alongside you for three to four years are now people competing for the jobs that you would like.  A portfolio that demonstrates talent and a depth of conceptual thinking will open the door.  Should you wish to pass through that door and then enjoy the stability of a good job or contract, then a determined and tenacious disposition, backing-up your talent, is a key characteristic your future employer or client will look for, in exchange for the trust they put in your talents.”  

He continues, “There is a saying - ‘you can’t turn creativity on like a tap’ - but in the commercial creative industry, this is literally what you have to be able to do.  Every morning of every day of every week of every year when you work, you have to sit down and turn the faucet to full noise and pour all of your inspiration onto paper, the Wacom tablet, the desk, the keyboard or the worktable in front of you. 

“Talent can inform the outcome, but dogged determination and passionate resolve will get you through.  If you do have that burning desire, coupled with a creative ability, an inquisitive mind and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed mentality of a driven enthusiast, then you are most likely to find great satisfaction in your career of choice and be acknowledged warmly for your efforts.”

Coming through COVID

Much as every industry, the entertainment world is feeling the pinch of the pandemic. Sir Richard remains confident there will be light at the end of the tunnel. If the modern world has ever needed the sense of escapism that Weta Workshop’s skilled and imaginative staff can create, it’s now.

“We are yet to see the full impact of COVID-19 on the world economy, but before this desperately sad occurrence, I would say the industry – whether it be animation, visual effects, physical effects, conceptual design, creative manufacture – was as strong as it has ever been. 

“We are all going to have to be highly adaptive, extremely flexible and willing to work even harder, to ensure we stay competitive when other companies around the world will be doing anything possible to win work.  We are doing everything we can to build a post-COVID working environment where people feel safe, connected and inspired to push forward in their specific and desired careers.”

He adds, “Creativity will no doubt play a huge part in people’s lives and the recovery from this global crisis.  I’m sure that good communication, inspirational entertainment, aspirational messaging and highly-provocative, emotionally charged, visually rich and inspirationally strong creative content will be of huge benefit to the people of the world, as they muster their resolve and attempt to climb their way out of this.  

“It is, therefore, incredibly positive to think that any young student investing in a creative career and inspiring to indelibly leave their mark on the world can speak through their art to millions - or possibly billions of people - and have a positive and lasting impression on them.”

This article was first published on The Big Idea.

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Toi Rauwhārangi
College of Creative Arts
Wellington, Aotearoa