BLOCKBUSTER movie concept artist Warren Mahy is rebuilding a 1952 Mark 1 Zephyr in the garage of his Tauranga home. Not as a prop for an upcoming movie, but simply because he loves machines, and is looking for new arenas in which to spread his creative wings.
The former Whakatane man who left town as a young adult and made a name for himself in the New Zealand film industry is now back in the Bay of Plenty, and trying his hardest to stay put.
With his previous work of many years for renowned director and producer Peter Jackson, Warren has left his mark on many of the big movies that came under the spell of legendary Weta Workshop, and Weta Digital, in Wellington.
Working on several movies over his two long stints in Wellington, much of his focus was on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit, and Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. All work that he has loved, and continues to do so, but leaving his wife and children every time a new movie project comes up, he says, is something he’s hoping to change.
It was 1997, Warren says, after eight years as a printing machinist with Mann Printing in Whakatane, that his career in the movie industry kicked off.
Having moved to Tauranga, he says an old school friend made contact. His friend was in Wellington, working at Weta Workshop, and Warren says he was phoning with a question – “do you still draw?”.
“It was Weta’s early days,” Warren says. “They only had 14 people working there and they were looking for concept designers.”
Warren headed to Wellington, and to Weta Workshop, where for a week he just “drew, and played with clay”.
And at the end of it, he says, Weta special effects guru, Richard Taylor, said “you’ve got a job. Be here on Monday”.
“It was ironic,” Warren says. A sale agreement on a house that he and partner Jacq Burrell were buying in Tauranga was finalised the same day. Deciding to keep it anyway, the couple moved south to the city that would prove to be their home for the next seven years.
Employed as an artist and concept designer, Warren quickly became part of the small dedicated creative team working on Weta’s projects.
King Kong and Narnia were still in progress, but the big focus by that point was on The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Warren says his role involved developing concept drawings and models of the creatures, armour, weapons and vehicles that would be used in the films, as well as concepts for faces (masks), prosthetic feet, ears, noses and teeth.
“Richard had us working on so many different things,” he says. “We were all learning as we went”.
Jacq, who is a high school science teacher, also became part of the Weta family, employed as a personal assistant for Richard Taylor.
They were heady and exciting years in the film industry, but by 2003, Warren says he and Jacq were keen to move back to the Bay of Plenty, to have a family, and to live and work out of Tauranga.
With all major film works in New Zealand based in Wellington or Auckland, he says it’s difficult for people who work in the film industry to live in the regions.
But he and a fellow Weta colleague had a plan. With the blessing of Weta executives who were keen to see the two give it a go, Warren and his colleague established a Tauranga-based company providing “previsualisation – film planning and story-boarding” services to the film industry.
He says story-boarding involves developing a concept for each scene in a movie; what characters will appear, in what context, how the scene will be filmed.
“The characters are often digital. In Lord of the Rings for instance, Frodo was like a chess piece. I could just move him around to where I thought he would need to be.” (Story boards of each planned scene in a movie provide a basis from which production is planned).
“But it was difficult,” Warren says. Despite initial industry enthusiasm for the idea, “when it came down to it, the reality was that most production companies wanted us onsite.
“There were no easy solutions,” he says, adding that there are several highly skilled film industry people in the Bay of Plenty “that all have to leave the area for work projects”.
In 2009, the couple, along with their two children, India and Luka, returned to Wellington for a second stint, this time staying for four-and-a-half years, and this time working for Weta Digital on the mega hit movie series, The Hobbit, as well as The Adventures of Tintin and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Returning again to Tauranga in recent years, Warren is now busy exploring new ways of using his skills, without needing to uproot his family, and without having to leave them either. He is teaching senior high school and tertiary students the artistic skills and collaborative processes involved in film making.
More recently, he was in his home town of Whakatane running a school holiday workshop at the library.
He continues to provide storyboard services to smaller productions; short films, documentaries and commercials. And between it all, he’s toying with the idea of developing his passion for restoring custom and classic cars, hot-rods and motorbikes, into another art-based business.
“It’s all part of the same creative process,” he says. “I love it”.