24 Apr 2018

Sir Richard Taylor and the wētā

From Ours: Treasures from Te Papa, 9:32 am on 24 April 2018

It's the "ultimate monster" which has been on the scene even before the dinosaurs. Sir Richard Taylor was so enamoured by the critter that he named his company after it.

Meet one of New Zealand's most iconic insects - the wētā  - just don't get too close - this little monster bites.

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Taylor, the head of Weta Workshop, is on a quest to encourage New Zealanders not to be so afraid of his company's icon.

"For 25 plus years, when people have asked me about wētā, I've said 'Oh, they're completely innocuous, they won't hurt you' because I love people not to think to squish them, so you want to try and make them fairly safe sounding, right?...

"But...what, two years ago, with Ruud [Kleinpaste], live on film, one bit me on the end of the finger. And it really hurt."

Te Papa's wētā collection contains hundreds of specimens - including a West Coast bush wētā that was identified and named by the naturalist Sir Walter L. Buller in 1896.

Hemideina broughi (Buller,1896)

Hemideina broughi (Buller,1896) Photo: Te Papa

Entomologist Phil Sirvid is the custodian of these insects at Te Papa, which he describes as a privilege.

"I don't think there's any debate, if we asked New Zealanders to name the most iconic New Zealand insect, this would be up there," he says.

While the insect is found in other parts of the world, Sirvid reckons the New Zealand wētā is particularly special.

"Nowhere else have they diversified to the extent they have in New Zealand," he says.

"A lot of them have taken the roles that we might assign to some of the mammals that we don't have here. Wētā  have been described as invertebrate mice, literally scurrying around on the forest floor - this is before we got mice, of course. Some of them are seed dispersers and all sorts of other things."

According to the Department of Conservation, there are more than 70 species of wētā in New Zealand. They can be broken down into five groups: The tree wētā , ground wētā , cave wētā , giant wētā  and tusked wētā. 

About 17 species of wētā are endangered.

Taylor, who was knighted for his services to film in 2010, is clearly a big fan of this nocturnal invertebrate.

"We named the company wētā  because this is the ultimate little creature in New Zealand, maybe the ultimate monster although a very beautiful one. And wētāpunga of course means god of ugly things so we thought what a wonderful thing to name our company after," he says.

Te Papa entomologist Phil Sirvid and Sir Richard Taylor with some of the specimens in the museum's collection.

Te Papa entomologist Phil Sirvid and Sir Richard Taylor with some of the specimens in the museum's collection. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Weta Workshop has been involved in the design and special effects of a range of high-profile films including recent productions like Blade Runner 2049, Thor: Ragnarok, The BFG and The Chronicles of Narnia. And of course there are also the long-standing classics - The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.

Taylor says the wētā is "infinitely inspirational" and influenced the design in the sci-fi film District 9 and King Kong.

"The most literal use of them was...when we worked on Peter Jackson's King Kong and the fight that the guys have at the bottom of the big crevasse, that's literally giant wētā on a human scale but the prawns, the aliens, [in District 9] that are these poor subjugated creatures that have come down to earth, were likewise inspired by these wonderful creatures."

Taylor says insects, including the wētā, continue to be a constant source of inspiration for the team's designers.

"A lot of our designers enjoy drawing from the colour schemes of bugs if not the anatomy of bugs because you can't invent colours of the subtlety or craziness of the bug world and it brings infinite inspiration." 

And he's hopeful that more New Zealanders are beginning to appreciate this resilient insect.

"I get the feeling that the general populace are taking more respect of these bugs, that the temptation to squish may be lessening a little bit."

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