29 Feb 2024

I Was There When: Lord of the Rings swept the Oscars

From Nights, 9:15 pm on 29 February 2024
Tania and Richard stand side by side holding Oscars. They are both in fancy dress, Tania wearing a silvery blue ball gown and Richard wearing a black suit with satiny lapels.

Tania Rodger and Richard Taylor with their Oscars in 2004. Photo: Wētā Workshop / Supplied

It is 20 years today since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King swept all 11 categories it was nominated for at the Oscars, including costume design and makeup - for which Wellington's Wētā Workshop was responsible.

The memory of arriving at her Los Angeles hotel for the awards was still as clear as ever, Wētā co-founder and workshop manager Tania Rodger told Nights.

“For me to attend the Oscars in 2004 alongside Richard [Taylor] was just a forever moment for both of us. From Wellington to Los Angeles, stepping into this beautiful hotel room, and there on the table there's this exquisite chocolate sculpture of the Oscar logo and we didn't even dare eat it - it was just too beautiful to even touch it.”

The event itself was pure Hollywood glamour, she said.

'Tania and Richard stand on a street corner smiling at the camera. Behind them is a busy Los Angeles street with cars zooming past. In the background, a large building bears a red sign reading "THE OSCARS".

Rodger and Taylor arriving in Los Angeles: "You did feel a bit nervous walking amongst all those celebrities." Photo: Wētā Workshop / Supplied

“You did feel a bit nervous walking amongst all those celebrities and those famous actors. Just making sure you didn't trip over anything.

“Once the awards ceremony actually started you just honestly felt like you were just sitting there in the middle of everything that's completely Hollywood - the glamour, the glitz and the sparkle.”

There was also the famous gift bag provided to the nominees.

“One of the gifts in mine was completely bejewelled jandals and sunglasses. So, so much sparkle.”

The whole experience was “quite surreal”, Rodger said. 

“As each one of those 11 nominees got announced as actual winners, you could just tell that whole excitement level just kept elevating, it was just so amazing. And I'm sure that same excitement was happening back in New Zealand.”

A large group of people, at least 100, standing on an outdoor film set. The ground is sandy, and the group is staggered up a cliff face, with flags sticking out of the fake cliff.

The Wētā Workshop crew while filming The Lord of the Rings. Photo: Wētā Workshop / Supplied

Wētā Workshop art director Daniel Falconer, who was then a designer, was watching proceedings in Wellington.

“We were we all gathered to watch it and I forget the exact venue, but we watched it either at a restaurant or pub and [there was] cheering every time somebody that we knew got up to accept an award, and they just kept coming which was extraordinary.”

Oscar success, and the massive success of the film itself, was transformative, Rodger said.

“It really did allow us to grow and strengthen aspects of our business, particularly those creative aspects.

“And to give us that opportunity to be a bit more sustainable, and to explore more exciting opportunities.”

When Falconer joined Wētā in 1996 there were just a dozen people working there. Working on a project of LOTR’s size meant they had to learn quickly.

A still from Return of the King. The front lines of an army poised for battle, wearing shiny armour, carrying shields, and waving colourful banners.

A scene from The Lord of the Rings. Photo: Wētā Workshop / Supplied

“The fact that so many of us here hadn't worked on anything, like these kind of films before, meant that we didn't have an established way of doing things.

“And so, we kind of made it up as we went along, it's a bit of a cliche, the number 8 fencing wire approach, but you just had to jump in and try and figure out how you're going to do it.

“Maybe [you] don't know, when you start the process, but you had to trust that you will by the end of it.”

Innovation was essential if they were to deliver on time, Rodger said, as raw materials from abroad took too long to arrive.

She said much of the weaponry was made from urethane. The idea came from an Upper Hutt factory making car headrests.

“It was a really intensely strong product. It had great flexibility, really strong.

 Wētā Workshop crew made "thousands" of urethane arrows for The Lord of the Rings. Photo:

“And we ended up making literally thousands of shields and swords and daggers and suits of armour out of this incredible product.

"And it's so durable, it's going to be around forever.”

Some of the arrows from filming remained in Central Otago, Falconer said.

“Some historian or archaeologist in the future is going to dig out in [the] plains of Otago and find all these arrows, arrows lost during shooting.

“And they'll think there was some great battle here. But the weird thing being that all the arrowheads are made of urethane.”

Wellington in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a great place to be, Rodger said.

“I literally felt like often I was just living and breathing Middle Earth as I came to work every day. And that's quite a lovely memory to always reflect back on.”