Scott Ault reports from Auckland, NZ
Auckland, New Zealand is nicknamed The City of Sails because its proximity to the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean makes it very popular for boating. But the largest city in New Zealand also harbors some great indoor activities and recently celebrated the opening of two new visitor attractions in December 2021: The All Blacks [rugby] Experience and Weta Workshop Unleashed. Scott Ault of Railton Entertainment Design visited both, and shared his perspective as a creative leader with three decades in the attractions sector.
All Blacks Experience and Weta Workshop Unleashed are both occupants of a building within Auckland’s SkyCity Federal Street entertainment and hospitality precinct that is already home to Sky Tower, the 328-meter-tall observation tower where visitors can walk on the outside or bungee jump from the tower to the ground below. This vibrant area is also home to two hotels, over 20 bars and restaurants, the 700-seat SkyCity theater and the SkyCity Auckland casino.
Weta Workshop General Manager David Wilks stated, “together with SkyCity and our neighbors, the All Blacks Experience, we have created something totally unique and special that celebrates New Zealand’s identity and creativity.” In this writer’s opinion he is entirely correct: the celebrated All Blacks rugby team and internationally acclaimed creative powerhouse that is Weta Workshop both stand as icons of the country.
All Blacks Experience
The sport, the team, the attraction and Aotearoa culture
As a local explained to me when I first came to New Zealand, there are two sports here – recreational boating and rugby. If you follow one of those you have something to talk about with anyone in the country. Rugby is the National Sport, and All Blacks is New Zealand’s internationally renowned rugby team.
The men’s National Rugby Team has been around since 1903 and received their name “The All Blacks” while on tour in England. It was evidently a trend in rugby in the 1890s and early in the 20th century to refer to a team by the color of its jerseys – and today the accepted view is that the name “All Blacks” came about as a consequence of their uniform which was composed of a black jersey, black shorts and black socks.
When it opened on Dec 2, 2020, following seven years of planning and more than a year of construction, All Blacks Experience became the first major tourism attraction in Aotearoa to open since the outbreak of COVID-19. (Aotearoa is the traditional, indigenous name of New Zealand, meaning “land of the long white cloud,” pronounced aw·tee·uh·row·uh.)
Note: While English is the primary language, the Maori language, Te Reo Maori, is an official language of New Zealand since 1987 and is used and taught alongside English in schools and governmental settings. Almost all public signage such as in museums is in both English and Te Reo Maori. Many place names around the country retain their original indigenous names. In many situations Aotearoa is used as a preferred name for the country – in advertising, company names, tourism, etc. and there are some parts of the government that are pushing to have “Aotearoa” become the official name of the country.
The 1,726 square meter attraction is a 45-minute, guided encounter that celebrates New Zealand’s rugby heritage, achievements and culture. The tag line of the experience is “Understand what it takes to make, shape and be an All Black.”
Above images courtesy All Blacks Experience
Designed for fans
I went into the experience knowing very little about rugby. I left knowing only slightly more. But that isn’t what the All Blacks Experience is about. It isn’t there to teach you the game. It makes an assumption that you come in already knowing the game. It is for fans of a team celebrated as the most successful rugby team in history. What it effectively does very well is convey how rugby and the All Blacks teams are integrated and woven into the Kiwi identity.
The experience is made up of eight stops: Welcome, Legacy, Making, Shaping, Being, Tunnel, Haka, Step Up – each showcasing a characteristic or aspect of what it means to be an All Black. The reception area is where you check in and receive your logoed RFID bracelet and are able to register it with your email to receive photos from your tour. Starting in the lobby and Welcome, and carried throughout the first part of the experience, the graphic design on the walls is Maori inspired and weaves into the experience itself as, in Legacy, it becomes a timeline roster of all players that have been an All Black from their international debut in 1903.
In Making, the setting is a local rugby team clubhouse where families and aspiring players gather. This theater is done up as a typical, carpeted and wood-paneled clubhouse with an old-style TV set in the center that plays archival footage of previous games. As the era progresses the walls in front become projection surfaces. The content evokes nostalgia and family connections and “I remember that” moments . This is a great entry point for fans – it stirs up emotions and reminds them of why they are fans.
In Shaping, groups are divided into two teams and stationed at touchscreens to play interactive games facing the kinds of challenges All Blacks face. It’s a test of fast decision making, staying calm under pressure and seeing play outcomes as they are happening. All of the games on the screen are different but, on a topic: agility, reaction time, and strategy. This is completely accessible by all age groups and allows kids to play alongside, or compete, with their parents.
Another emotional touchpoint in the journey is the locker room, Being. Each visitor is invited to take a seat on a locker bench. Traditionally the All Blacks locker room is a quiet area where the players gather themselves before entering the pitch. On hidden screens at eye level, current and past players sit shoulder to shoulder with you and share their stories of what it means to them to be an All Black. The narratives showcase the human aspects of the players and connect them more deeply with their fans.
Visitors next walk through the Tunnel into a stadium. Lining up on the white line on the field they face the All Blacks team where they see and feel the power of the team performing the Haka – a traditional dance and chant of the Maori that is both a welcome of distinguished guests and a challenge or preparation of warriors before battle. More can be found about The All Blacks Haka at https://www.allblacks.com/the-haka/.
The finale of the guided tour is Step Up, in which everyone is invited to see how their rugby skills – passing, lineouts, kicking and the scrum – measure up against favorite players from the men’s and women’s NZ teams or others in their visitor group.
Finally, visitors enter the world’s largest All Blacks gift shop with a large array of apparel, jerseys, balls and other logoed merchandise.
The forces behind the attraction
This first All Blacks-branded visitor attraction was created under the auspices of New Zealand Rugby (www.nzrugby.co.nz), the governing body of rugby union in New Zealand, and Ngāi Tahu Tourism, one of the leading tourism operators in Aotearoa (www.ngaitahutourism.co.nz).
NZR’s purpose is to lead, grow, support, and promote New Zealand’s game, to promote and develop rugby throughout New Zealand; arrange and participate in matches and tours in New Zealand and overseas; represent New Zealand in World Rugby; form and manage New Zealand representative teams; and encourage participation in the sport. Ngāi Tahu Tourism represents 10 businesses, including Shotover Jet, Dark Sky Project, Hukafalls Jet, National Kiwi Hatchery, Franz Josef Glacier Guides and Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools.
Weta Workshop Unleashed
Weta Workshop Unleashed is housed in the same building as The All Blacks Experience, just one floor above, occupying roughly the same footprint but an entirely different attraction. Sir Richard Taylor, co-founder of Weta Workshop said at the opening event, “This experience is intended to be a celebration of the creative process.” Designed, built and operated internally, Unleashed puts all of the creative talents and disciplines of Weta Workshop on display. With a humorous and often irreverent sensibility, guests are able to engage with the content and explore everything from physical models, creatures, props, makeup and miniature effects on a behind-the-scenes tour of a creator space, replicating a fantastical version of Weta Workshop where they unpack the skills required to build the physical elements for three films right up to the point of filming.
Weta Workshop Unleashed is a guided tour, but also a themed experience. As the backstory goes, a creature has escaped inside the workshop, guests have to be snuck in through the service entrance. Small groups are escorted into a storage room lined with boxes and crates labeled with Weta Workshop’s previous projects. Through a hidden door you are taken into the Vault of Dreams where you are introduced to some of the current projects on the workshop floor – three movies in the process of undergoing the Weta magic.
Above images courtesy WETA Workshop
Take me to the Screamery
From the Vault, you enter the reception lobby past the safety officer and security guard, Jeff who has a penchant for bad puns and dad jokes. Jeff, an animatronic figure, is seated behind his desk backed by monitors of CCTV. As the staff in the workshop go on break Jeff allows us in to take a look at what is on their desks and to have us help find the gremlin that has broken loose.
While Jeff was talking, I took the opportunity to look around the lobby at the various awards and art lining the display cases. When I found the “Gold Award for The Most Uncomfortable Proctology Tool” I wanted to find the other Easter Eggs hidden throughout the experience. (there are many – like a movie poster for “Master in Commando, The Front Side of the Man.”)
The Prosthetics and Makeup workshop looks just like you would imagine a special effects shop would be – quirky, a bit messy, lots of half-finished projects, lots of art and LOTS of castings, prosthetics and creatures. In this workshop many of the workstations are really interactive exhibits masquerading as workstations. If there is a lever, pull it and it will move the wings on the giant demon creature being built for one of the films. Scream into the gaping maw of another monster to hear it roar back at you. You can try your hand at the old board game of “Operation” except this one is an alien autopsy – touch the wrong “organ” and the creature thrashes on the table. There are makeup stations around the room where you can digitally give yourself a special effects makeover – from glam to gore.
Attached to the Prosthetics and Makeup lab is the “Screamery” – a short horror maze abattoir that only a special effects and creature house can do.
You emerge from this side diversion into the garden of the Dreamer (complete with trolls, fairies and pixies). The doors to the Dreamer’s Studio are open and the Dreamer is inside but taking a nap. In the Dreamer’s studio, illustrations, sketches, character turnarounds and maquettes are littered around the walls and desks. The “dreamer,” complete with a COVID-19 mask, is a highly realistic figure that is fully accessible to guests. His “dreams” are magically manifesting themselves in the sketchbooks laying around him.
The Workshop Floor is the climax of the tour where bits and pieces from the three films come together into fully realized miniatures, giant robots, creatures and other dimensional scenic elements. Maker Stations and other craft areas explain the fine art of armor, leather tooling, model making and sculpting encourage guests to try their hand at some of the things that they just saw. One simple clever station teaches a visitor how to make an aluminum foil skull using a teaspoon as your sculpting tool.
The final stop on the tour, the SciFi Set, shows how all of the behind-the-scenes craft is used to create illusion on the screen. An ancient alien robot encased in lava for millennia comes to life.
The Weta Cave, a themed shop at the real workshop in Wellington, has been recreated into Weta Cave, Auckland. This gift shop is part museum with well know creatures and elements from Weta Workshop’s portfolio of films scattered amongst the merchandise that any film geek would covet.
Trusting the visitors
Many of the rules of attractions operation I’ve learned over my career were not followed, broken or just thrown out the window. Delicate sculpted figures, that anywhere else in the world would be stanchioned off or behind glass, were on full display where people can touch and feel. Nothing was anchored down – I opened drawers on cabinets and was able to rummage around through the artists’ tools. You can pick things up, move them, put your arms around the figures. One area was dark, and things touch you as you move through it. “How are they allowed/able to do this??” kept running through my mind on a loop during the two hours I spent there. By creating what appears to be a true workshop, they have created an intimacy with the subject that I’ve not experienced elsewhere. There is a respect for the guests that in turn makes the guests respectful. In an art museum, guests generally don’t touch the art. Here, you are encouraged to do so.
I returned to Unleashed after it had been opened to guests for more than a month during peak season, and the exhibit was still as fresh as opening day – no damage to the displays, nothing seemed to be stolen or overly worn. I’ve talked to Richard Taylor about their approach to trusting the visitors to behave themselves and he agrees that it is a risk, “I acknowledge and appreciate your comments regarding the apparent fragility of our exhibition in Auckland. I am super conscious of this, but made the call to build the Unleashed experience with the faith and confidence that our audience will respect the material. He noted that in another of their exhibits, the ‘Windows into Workshop’ tour experience in Wellington, “we have had zero theft and zero vandalism in the six years it has been operating (with about 150,000 guests coming through each year). I don’t know whether we can have the same level of confidence with our experience in Auckland, and especially when it opens to international visitors, but I am holding out that it may prove to be similar. Saying that, with skepticism also being part of my rationale, I have actually produced a lot of acrylic panels, covers and boxes that should we see an unacceptable level of damage, theft or vandalism to the exhibition we can almost overnight sweep in and box up most of the delicate stuff. These are just sitting in storage with fingers crossed that they are not needed.”
Weta Workshop and its founders
Weta Workshop (www.wetaworkshop.com) isn’t just a five-time Academy Award-winning creature and effects shop. They are also very active in designing and building LBE projects including work on Avatar Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Thea Award honored museum exhibit “Gallipoli: The scale of our war” at New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa. Soon Weta Workshop’s work will be seen at the Mobility Pavilion at the Dubai Expo and they are working on a cultural museum in Zhuhai, China.
Best known for their creativity and craftsmanship on blockbuster films such as “Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” “Avatar” and many others, their talent and attention to detail sets them apart from many other firms in the themed entertainment industry. Based in Wellington (or “Wellywood” because of all the film production in the city thanks in part to Weta Workshop and Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings), Weta Workshop was founded in 1987 by Sir Richard Taylor and Tania Rodgers, the husband-and-wife team still actively leading all of the creative for the company today.
Richard was knighted in 2010 in recognition of his service to film. Becoming a “Sir” hasn’t changed him – he is still a big kid who simply loves the creative process. When I first met him, he was giving me a tour of Gallipoli: The scale of our war. Richard was wearing an old “Labyrinth” T-shirt and paint-covered jeans. Everyone at the museum was so happy to see him. He then gave me an in-depth tour of their entire Workshop – full of creatures, prosthetics, weapons and other fantastical items. It was a true peek behind the wizard’s curtain. But the thing that impressed me the most was that Richard knew everybody’s name and how long they had been working at the Workshop. Everyone there was part of a family.
New Zealand and the pandemic
Auckland City at night. Credit: Chris McLennan. Courtesy Tourism New Zealand
New Zealand’s “Go Hard, Go Early” motto that was adopted early on in the response to COVID-19 has allowed the country to be a world leader in controlling and minimizing the outbreak in the community. New Zealand stands at Alert Level 1 which does not restrict public gatherings nor does it require social distancing or masks (though these are still required on all public transport). An effective COVID-19 tracing system, that is app-based, has been in effect since almost the beginning of the pandemic. Highly restrictive travel into the country is still in place. These restrictions require multiple testing before travel and once in the country as well as government controlled Managed Isolation and Quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. More about NZ’s alert levels and MIQ can be found at these sites https://covid19.govt.nz/alert-system/ and https://www.miq.govt.nz
Just in time for the New Zealand summer, these attractions add to the overall texture and flavor of what is unique about this country. While the attractions are mainly focused on a Kiwi audience, once travel restrictions are eased and international visitors start coming back, these two well recognized brands will help extend the overall brand of New Zealand.
About Scott Ault
Scott Ault is Managing Partner of Railton Entertainment Design (RED, https://railton.design/). A creative executive with over 30 years of experience, he has worked with clients and IP partners to develop an extensive roster of international attractions and entertainment. His client list includes such world-class companies as Walt Disney Imagineering, 20th Century Fox, Sony, Dreamworks, Marvel Entertainment, Lionsgate, BBC Worldwide, Aardman Animation, and Nickelodeon. Prior to forming RED with Jeremy Railton, Scott was President and CEO of Rethink Leisure & Entertainment where he oversaw the development of four entire IP-based theme parks. Prior to Rethink, Scott was Chief Operating Officer of BRC Imagination Arts, one of the longest-standing and largest design firms specializing in visitor experiences. During his time at BRC, Scott held the positions of Vice President of Project Development, Managing Director of European Operations, and Vice President of Creative Development. Scott began his career in 1987 at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he was the youngest-ever show producer at the time. He has gone on to assume positions instrumental in the development, opening, and operation of highly successful projects around the world, including over a half dozen theme parks, four world expo pavilions, and a dozen museums and corporate visitor centers. He believes in fostering an enjoyable project creation process, mutually beneficial working relationships, and dealing honestly and ethically on all fronts.