Face to face : Richard Taylor – Creatively Kiwi

You can tell Richard Taylor is having bit of mental squirm about an interview with “Management” magazine. He doesn’t really do management, is quick to say he’s never studied business, doesn’t even think of himself as business person. God forbid we should talk theory.
The CEO of Weta Workshops sprawls amiably in boardroom chair, long legs extended, solid work shoes sporting patina of dust. He’s undoubtedly itching to get back to the hum of activity happening below where 160 staff are closing on the next deadline – special effects for five films within two weeks. That’s about 8000-9000 separate elements that have to come together.
But there’s no hint of impatience – just easy, interested engagement.
Taylor reckons “passivity” is one of his most beneficial attributes because “being service provider in business that requires you to work at the very edge of possibility all the time” involves fair bit of stress.
“Your clients are on this anxiety ridden journey waiting for you to deliver so they will ride you hard. And if you were an angry person or found you couldn’t hack it, you’d have trouble in this business. But being quiet, passive person I’d never deal with something through confrontation or anger but through discussion…”
“Passive” doesn’t seem like quite the right word. Laid-back, probably. Good tempered – definitely. Inspirational – absolutely.
“I hope I don’t look stressed,” he adds with big grin. “But it’s such fun. It might sound bit goofy – but every morning you unlock this Pandora’s box and you get to play with this train set with your mates. And man, it’s an absolute scream.”
The enthusiasm is infectious. And his later posing for the camera suggests Taylor does ‘goofy’ pretty well. But this is serious fun. There’s reason why ‘Weta’ has become synonymous with quality Kiwi creativity. Even with the tightest of deadlines to meet, second rate output is not an option.
Taylor personally checks everything going out of the Miramar workshop and not all of it passes muster. He recently knocked back one project at delivery stage because he felt it needed re-working. But that’s relatively rare these days – and never done in judgemental spirit. He knows the time and technology boundaries Weta workers are constantly pushing; they know and do their best to meet his quality expectations. And it’s something he’s learned not to compromise.
“I discovered long time ago that clients will only remember the consequences, never the circumstances. They’ll beg you to do the work under any conditions – it doesn’t matter how it turns out, they just need something on the day. But in reality they’ll only remember how it turned out on the day. So you have to be very cautious while stretching boundaries that you don’t push beyond what we can deliver.”
If you want to work at Weta – and file of 7500 portfolios being added to at rate of up to 50 week suggests plenty do – the required attributes are passion, enthusiasm, tenacity and talent – in that order. Tenacity is biggie.
“If you’ve got stickability, you can do anything and we are very blessed that of the people who join us, about 98 percent have tenacity in bucket loads. Almost nobody does faulty work out of maliciousness or poor attitude. If there’s fault, they haven’t got the formula quite right – if they stick with it, drive through the problem, they invariably come up with good solution. What we do is encourage people to stick with it, give it go and brand their work with their own mark within the collective of the Weta companies.”
That collective creativity is everywhere evident – life-size creatures loom from every corner, the boardroom table is graced by beautiful bronze sculpture, brag cabinet running the length of the room is filled with models from movies like The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Narnia… The range of work is impressive as is the quality of their craftmanship. These are works of art.
Industry recognition of that is also there: the Oscars, the Baftas, the Crunchies – never did find out what the latter was about. They represent both the challenges and triumphs of some 20 years during which the business grew from partnership of two (Taylor plus work/life partner Tania Rodger) in tiny workshop to an enterprise consisting of 168 staff spread across four different businesses plus facility in China that specialises in chainmail manufacture.
The way he tells it, this growth is incidental to creative challenge. It’s never been growth for growth’s sake – just that the projects kept getting bigger.
“It’s the challenges of the likes certain Mr Jackson [film-maker Peter Jackson] will throw at us. When you’re confronted by visionary like him, you’re forced to think so laterally, to push the boundaries of everything you do. That includes finding more people, more equipment, needing to expand and find more innovative ways to facilitate the work to be as cost effective as possible.
“It’s amazingly liberating at creative level and the business grows around that which is neat.”
His own aspirations at creative level have prompted diversification into other areas of business – from special effects to fully servicing creative industry needs (physical and digital), moving into areas like collectibles and children’s TV.
“My mind is bouncing with ideas all the time. The biggest challenge I find in our business is figuring out what not to do because there are so many opportunities. It’s hard to know which horse to back when there’s lot of them and they’re all pretty exciting.”
Opportunities weren’t so evident when Taylor left an education system that, for him, had been something of struggle.
Originally from the UK, his family had settled in the small community of Te Hihi just across the water from Auckland’s International Airport where his Dad worked as an engineer. While his mother, science advisory teacher, awakened his curiosity about the natural world, his father provided strongly practical DIY streak. The interest in art came later – almost by accident.
“There was no real celebration of art when I was growing up but there was definitely celebration of making things. My Dad built things in his shed – the boat, the car, most of our furniture – and had this amazing pile of cool stuff. I guess all that rubbed off.
“When I was about 13, Mum, Dad and I built our own house. You just take it for granted that we could make everything ourselves.”
While Taylor has always enjoyed doing things with his hands, academia was hard work.
“I never wanted to just pass but had to work very very hard to try and do well. Nothing’s come easily and I think that’s the heart of it. I’m not gifted artist either – we have people here who are extremely gifted – so to become sculptor I’ve had to work hard at it. Thankfully I enjoy working hard and enjoy working hard at learning.”
Most evenings he’ll be reading technical data on how to do things. Right now the focus is on the intricacies of wrought iron work because if he wants to instruct and inspire on the shopfloor, he needs to know and understand the materials.
What he did enjoy during his school years was getting involved in the annual stage play – helping with costuming and stage sets as well as acting. That’s what prompted him to explore career in the theatre and plucking up his courage, he got an interview halfway through Form 7 with someone at Auckland’s now defunct Mercury Theatre. He turned up on time – but his would-be interviewer failed to show.
“If I’d been more mature and less emotive about that I’d have assumed they’d simply made mistake but it really knocked me.”
So instead, he flew to Wellington intending to get into an industrial design course but got into queue for chat about visual communications design and signed up for that instead. His portfolio wasn’t good enough for him to be chosen for the initial intake but someone dropped out, he was invited down and found himself in just the right niche.
“For the first time I was sitting in class of

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