The Wētā Workshop Auckland experience opened in the central city in late 2020, with borders closed and other factors we’ve only just had the chance to make the trip across and check it out for ourselves. We are big fans of the fantasy genre in movies and books so we are inclined to enjoy something like this but after a visit to Hobbiton where we walked through the film set, we were excited to understand more about how visual effects are used in the industry.
Wētā FX know a few things about bringing the imagination to life with stunning visual effects, they’ve won multiple Academy, Emmy, and Bafta awards for doing precisely that. Best known for their work on the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogy they have created the characters, armour, weapons, and special effects for many films including King Kong, Avatar, Planet of the Apes, and The Avengers.
They also created the Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa which tells the story of individual ANZACs in a way that is larger than life. It’s raw and emotional and will stay with you forever. It’s on until ANZAC day 2025, wheelchair accessible and free entry. Add it to your list of things to do in Wellington.
What is Wētā Workshop Unleashed?
Unleased is a part movie set and part creative studio. Before you go it is important to know that it isn’t a production environment, it exists to share the techniques and tools that are employed behind the scenes to create those incredible effects in your favourite movies and bring alive the seemingly fantastical creatures from the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres.
Our tour guide was Cain (the Janitor) and he was great, the Dad jokes and Kiwi humour flowed for 90 minutes alongside the speel for each section as we went through. Once the main explanation and story was done you are free to explore that room, you can touch and feel all the materials and interact with a lot of the displays. The guide then works their way around the room spending one on one time with each guest and answering questions on individual displays or pointing out something you might have missed.
Wētā Workshop tour structure
It is best to book the Wētā Workshop tours in advance but if it’s not too busy you can get tickets for the next available tour from the 5th-floor reception. It’s a great option for a wet day when you aren’t really sure what to do in the city but want to get out of the weather for a few hours.
We were part of a group of 9 that was quite diverse in age and interest and everyone was engaged throughout the whole tour.
It’s a story-based experience that follows the narrative that the workshop is deserted due to an escaped monster on the loose tearing up the place but your hapless guide will take you in the back so you can have a look around.
This isn’t a behind-the-scenes tour of a production workshop, that would create a lot of workflow, confidentiality and safety issues. Instead, you enter a creative workshop set and learn how the imagination is brought to life through props, costumes, robotics, animatronics and … maths. Turns out that precise scale and angles are super important in breathing life into fantasy and science fiction.
There are 4 sections to the tour, setting the scene, horror, fantasy and sci-fi. I love animatronics like this guy, where an imagined character comes to life in front of your eyes with realistic expressions and movement, and no actor in sight. On a movie set, these are controlled remotely by a puppeteer and electronics, often multiple people are required for the performance of each character to control movement and facial expression. You quickly start to see where the budget goes for these movies.
Wētā started out in the horror genre and that is what we explore first. Latex character suits and masks, fully robotic characters with an array of levers that control each individual movement giving the final effect of something alive and moving reflexively.
In the fantasy realm was where we were struck by the level of detail in everything, whether it was a tiny miniature scene that would become a distant mountain camp or a many times larger-than-life character, no detail was skipped.
Wētā Workshop Visitor Information
The Auckland Wētā Workshop is located opposite the Sky Tower at 88 Federal street, follow the multicoloured paint splotches into the foyer and make your way up to level 5. You can’t miss it, there are giant trolls and golems outside the retail shop!
Tours begin frequently throughout the day and take around 90 minutes, it is a fully indoor attraction so it can be a good option regardless of the weather.
Can I take photos at Wētā Workshop Auckland?
You can take as many photos as you like throughout the tour but filming video, even on your phone, is not allowed. In the fantasy realm, you can take your rightful place on the throne with an axe or sword for an automated group photo or to take your own snapshots.
At the start of the experience your group is asked to pose for your ‘visitors pass’, this photo is overlaid on themed backgrounds using green screen technology and is available to purchase at the end of the tour. If you don’t need the print version you can download this digital version for free after your tour.
Is Wētā Workshop Unleashed in Auckland worth it?
Yes! For us anyway. If you have a love of these movie genres, an appreciation of artistry and creative expression and a head that has a tendency to question “how did they do that?” then you will most likely really enjoy it.
With children, it is going to depend on the individual child but in general, those under 12 may not have the visual stimulation and characters they recognise to keep them fully engaged throughout the tour although having said that the guides play really well off of the children and the storyline. The two younger guests on our tour thoroughly enjoyed it, they also knew the answers to the snap quiz questions way better than the grown-ups.
If your interest is specifically around the Middle Earth movies and characters, then you need to be aware that you will see lots of parallels but for copyright reasons, you won’t see much from the actual movies. The tour explores the character types, special effects, weapons and costumes of the genres rather than the movies themselves.