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“It was refreshing to get to work with a director like Kiah” – Wētā Workshop’s Richard Taylor On The Practical FX In Sting

5 min read
Production Still from Sting: Actor Ryan Corr wrestles with a giant spider.

Image: Studio Canal

It's been a busy year for films gracing the big screen, and next in line is the giant spider creature feature Sting. Directed by Australian filmmaker Kiah Roache-Turner, the film sees twelve-year-old Charlotte (Alyla Browne) raise a pet spider in secret, who turns out to be a bloodthirsty arachnid from outer space.

You can read our thoughts on the film, but one thing that makes Sting stand out is the terrifying creature FX brought to life by the incredible craft and skill of those at Wētā Workshop. FILMHOUNDS had a virtual chat with the company's founder, Richard Taylor, to talk about the puppet used in the film, as well as the future of digital and practical effects.   

Kiah said in another interview that when he approached you about making this giant redback spider, you and your team were already working on one. Do I dare ask what that was for? Was it for another project or is this just fun for you all?

(laughs) No, it wasn't actually for a film. It was for a location-based experience, a museum exhibition that we did for our National Museum Te Papa called Bugland. It actually went to the Melbourne Museum for six months, and now it's travelling for ten years around the world. And one of the bugs that we reproduced at scale was a New Zealand katipō, which is very similar to the redback out of Australia, and we had already done a lot of entomological research into what that spider was like. So it's actually very beneficial because it gave us a little bit of a jump on the job if you like.

Was it refreshing to work on this practical puppet?

Well, that's what we do. We're Wētā Workshop, which is a practical effects company as opposed to Wētā FX which do all the wonderful digital effects based movies that people know well. So we build animatronic puppetry a lot and have done over the whole length of our 35-year career. It was refreshing to get to work with a director like Kiah on a low-budget creature feature, because for one, the creature that you're building is very predominantly a large part of the movie. And that's really exciting for us.

And two, he knew exactly what he wanted. He knew exactly the type of spider that created a sense of fear in him. We've worked on other movies with other giant spiders, or various things, and different directors have different arachnophobia. So Kiah knew what his was, and we built a puppet for him that matched that.

Prodution still from Sting: a young girl asleep in bed whislt a black spider hovers above hanging from a string of web.
Studio Canal

Looking back on other productions that feature animatronic puppetry, you do sometimes hear a lot of horror stories about them being damaged or even destroyed. Were there any close calls on this production, or was it all smooth sailing?

Of course, any physical puppet that's going through the rigours of something like this film, right? You never want to limit what you do with the puppet on the day, so that the director doesn't ultimately get what they wish to shoot because you're fearful of what it might do to the puppet. So we will always build it with the hope that we can repair it if it does get broken, and of course it all comes down to the competence of the people that you send with the puppet. 

So undoubtedly it was damaged at times, but repaired overnight to be good to go the next morning because of the competence of our crew that go on set. But we built it in a very, very resilient way. We built it with carbon-filled 3D-printed nylons, flexible silicon joints. We worked with the highest grade dynamics or servo motors that we buy from a South Korean company. Everything we can possibly do to make it as resilient as possible. So the director feels confident that they can try really crazy things. 

I just make mention, though, Kiah storyboarded this film himself. And because of that, what we did is that we took those storyboards, and before we even went to Australia, we replicated the storyboards physically by filming the puppet so that we could show the director what we definitely could achieve, what was on the edge of being able to be achieved, but we should give it a go, and then what was impossible for us to achieve. Such as scuttling shots of spiders around the room on the wall and wide shot. That was done expertly by the digital effects guys. But that process gave Kiah a sort of a notebook of certainty of what he could achieve out of the puppet when it arrived.

Sting is a great example of what happens when you blend practical elements with digital. Do you see that as a viable future within film production? Or do you think innovations in digital pipelines will ultimately erase the need for anything practical? 

It's unquestionable that digital effects have become so superior. There's nothing that the director can't dream up that, with the right budget and time, you can't create the highest level of authenticity for the audience. But there is a whole new wave of directors that want authorship over the image that they catch in-camera. For us, that's fantastic. We've just done a feature film that's from a large Hollywood franchise, yet the new director that's doing the latest film has chosen to do as much of it practically as physically possible, because they are then authoring those shots in the moment, on set, in front of the camera.

And I love that. It isn't a competition, it should be, as you've just described, a symbiotic melding of techniques. But for as long as we possibly can, we are going to continue to focus our craft on things that you physically make, that are in front of the camera, that the audiences can sense in the presence of the actor. And I think that will keep physical and practical effects alive for many, many years to come.

Sting releases in UK cinemas on May 31.