Co-owner of Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop, five-time Academy Award winner Richard Taylor found an opportunity too good to miss with ABC TV’s Cleverman.
While their success and focus has largely been in children’s TV, with series such as Thunderbirds are Go and The Wotwots, it’s Cleverman, an official co-production with Australia’s Goalpost Pictures, that is seeing their darkest and most adult undertaking yet.
“Pukeko is just a delight to be invited to be a part of this extraordinary team,” he says.
“We dived in boots and all. It was just a joy to get our teeth into it.”
In conjunction with its foreign counterpart authorities, Screen Australia has approved 161 official co-productions – of which Cleverman is one.
It was a natural fit for Goalpost Pictures too, as Pukeko Pictures’ connection to the iconic Weta Workshop was also integral to designing the layered world of Cleverman.
Taylor and his wife Tania Rodgers (who together co-founded Pukeko Pictures with Martin Baynton) began Weta Workshop more than 20 years ago. While perhaps most famous for the design and creation of The Lord of the Rings costumes, weapons, creatures, they are also known for blockbuster movies including Avatar and District 9, and their work can be seen in Australian films Mad Max: Fury Road, Daybreakers and Rogue.
With Cleverman, Taylor and the Weta Workshop team worked closely with creator Ryan Griffen and specialist production designer Jacob Nash (from Bangarra Dance Theatre) to develop the design of the creatures – the deadly Namorrodor and the Hairypeople.
A significant amount of concept art was created for both, but while the Namorrodor was handed over to the digital effects house Park Road Post, the superhuman Hairypeople were brought to life by a team who travelled to Australia for the shoot.
Each day they would spend hours painstakingly gluing knotted pieces of hair onto the actor’s skin, to the point where some were near unrecognisable.
And this was not the hardest part.
“The extraordinary people who created that hand-knotted hair had to do the most eye-aching, focused work for months on end to generate those hundreds of pieces of hair,” he says.
But the most challenging aspect lay in the design itself. The team were hyper-aware of the cultural sensitivities of creating creatures that hail from 60,000 years of Indigenous storytelling.
“But we went forward with the confidence that we had the custodianship of Ryan Griffen, Wayne Blair (director) and others who had the ability to carry us through this,” he says.
“Without that steerage we wouldn’t have been so bold without seeking out our own access.”
Part of this comes from Taylor’s own knowledge, both of Australian Indigenous culture as well as New Zealand’s Maori heritage.
“Our indigenous culture is at the forefront of everything about life in New Zealand, in our schooling and our place names – there’s a celebration in our indigenous culture,” he says.
“So from a Weta Workshop perspective, I thought that the sensitivities, the respect and the pride that we have in our own indigenous culture in New Zealand was something that would bring a special element from our team to this.”
With a second season already in the works, Taylor can only hope they can be as involved in season two, which promises even more action if the latest episodes are anything to go by.
“Obviously if we’re fortunate enough to stay involved going into future seasons we’d love to see a greater exploration of creature work, so we hope that we’ll get to design other wonderful mythological creatures,” he says.
Catch up on all six episodes – and the creatures – of Cleverman on ABC iview.