For the past two months my wife and I have been vagabonding through New Zealand.
Vagabonding is probably the best word for it – the majority of the time we’ve been living out of our backpack and a tiny red hatchback (The Getzya!).
The first weekend here, we rented a car (buses are too expensive and a car would give us more flexibility). Since then, we’ve managed to see more of New Zealand than most New Zealanders (we’re very curious and we don’t waste time).
We started in Auckland in the north (of the north island) and made it all the way to Queenstown in the south (of the south island), stopping along the way to see rocky, windswept coastlines, majestic waterfalls (lots of waterfalls), surreal-looking giant trees, and a never-ending supply of sheep grazing on rolling, green hills.
In a very nerdy way, it reminded me of the Nintendo game Zelda come to life (although there were no boss battles or treasure chests in the caves here).
Our time here has come to an end, but it’s been an incredible ride with just enough misadventures to keep it interesting the whole time.
But the point of this essay isn’t to gush about New Zealand (although, if you have a chance, definitely go visit), nor is it to brag (can you really brag if you’ve been living out of a car?).
The point of this essay is to tell you a story of a couple people whose work has impacted millions (including many reading this, I’d suspect), yet few of us even directly recognize their contribution…
Our last stop in the north island of New Zealand took us to the windy city of Wellington (they call Chicago the windy city in the States – it doesn’t come close to Wellington, where some days the wind could actually knock you over).
While there, we did what we always do in a new city: go for explorative runs, conduct hands-on research of the craft-beer scene and wander wherever we feel compelled to go.
One of those daily wanders led us Weta Digital.
Weta is the company responsible for the visual effects for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. From makeup, to costumes, to set design, to digital FX – Weta created it all.
Based on the record-setting box-office numbers and gluttony of awards they won, they obviously killed it. They brought Tolken’s Middle Earth to life, convincing the die-hards that a well-produced film could do the books justice, and convincing the masses that some fantasy stories are worth hearing (even if it means sitting down for over 3 hours to do so).
But what’s even more remarkable is that they did all this under seemingly impossible circumstances: Weta hadn’t officially been around for 10 years before Peter Jackson picked them for the project, and they didn’t do just one film, they had to do all 3 at once.
There’s no good reason they should have succeeded, but they did.
Of course, if this is where the story ends, where you close the browser and say got it, you miss the point entirely.
Weta’s story didn’t start with multiple studies, hundreds of employees and this extremely complex, multi-faceted, million-dollar blockbuster project.
It started as an unreasonable idea in the back room of Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger’s cramped flat in 1987.
It started as the kind of idea your peers would tell you to forget about (for your own good, of course), so you can spend more time making time-and-a-half and watching football.
It started as the type of idea that usually goes nowhere, so why waste your time?
It started as an idea that’s for kids and dreamers, not adults.
Lucky for us, Richard and Tonia didn’t care. Instead, they kept doing the odd thing, the childish thing, the unreasonable thing…
With each small project, they pushed the boundaries of their own creativity. They put their blood, sweat and tears into every creation, beyond any reasonable expectation of repayment. And with each new film, they improved, honed and sharpened their skill-set.
They also formed relationships that lasted.
They got their first major film gig in 1989. Their job: to create bizarre-looking muppets for an even more bizarre black comedy. The guy directing was a local to Wellington as well: Peter Jackson.
4 years later, they joined with Peter to expand their film effects company (RT Effects at the time) and formed what is now Weta Digital.
7 years after that, they got their big break: the opportunity to work on The Lord of the Rings.
Since then, they’ve worked on dozens of blockbusters, from Iron Man 3, to District 9 to the new Hobbit movies, and expanded into a total of 5 studios running the gamut of film production (from pre through post production).
There are at least a dozen good lessons to take from this story, but I’ll leave you with just one:
Life is for the unreasonable.
This goes for everyone and everything.
Your existence on this planet, in and of itself, is unreasonable. The chances of you being here, right now, just as you are – they’re so slim as to be non-existent. There is no random chance here.
Yet so many squander this gift by waiting, letting others go first, and favoring the safe and secure bet.
Richard and Tonia didn’t wait. They didn’t let someone else create the studio they dreamt up. And they certainly didn’t favor safety or security.
They were completely unreasonable.
And those who love their work and feel their impact are better off for it.
Of course, you’ve probably never heard of Richard and Tonia, unless you’re a huge LOTR fan. Most of us enjoyed the movies and might recognize a few of the actors and maybe the director - that’s about it.
So what’s in it for them if the masses of people don’t even recognize their contribution?
And what's in it for the rest of us if no one notices what we do?
I’m not sure what Richard or Tonia would say about this (I’ve yet to interview them for In the Trenches), but I know what one of Tolkien's characters would say:
"There may come a time for valor without renown." - Aragorn
Started, finished and shipped at The Sprocket Roaster in Newcastle, Australia. Fuel: double espresso. Soundtrack: Bon Iver
Total writing time: 5 hours
p.s. want an unreasonable way to sell your products or services? Check out my book: The Complete Guide to Pay What You Want Pricing. It might just change the way you approach your business, art and writing forever.
Amazing story. I love WETA, and I love the LOTR. One of the best series, great work by the whole team. I loved the book and they really captured it also. I love this idea you talk about- of being unreasonable. I completely agree. I will strive to be more unreasonable than I am now. (I've been told I was crazy and unreasonable many times.) Recently I told my husband- Martin, I don't ever want to grow up. I want to be naive, childish, excited, open-minded and unreasonably optimistic forever. I don't want to be an older, mature, logical reasonable person- ever!
Haha, I love it Jesicka. Great stuff. I look forward to seeing your unreasonable ideas come to life in the near future 🙂
aaaand that dark muppet movie was called.... drum roll please.... Meet the Feebles! ...you see? I out nerded you Tom! Wow, that is one messed up muppet movie, let me tell you. 🙂 LOVED this post. Not only did it touch on Jackson (one of my favorite directors) but I absolutely needed to hear this line today: " They put their blood, sweat and tears into every creation, beyond any reasonable expectation of repayment. And with each new film, they improved, honed and sharpened their skill-set." Thanks VERY much for this one.
Jason - sincerely appreciate the kind words. Thanks so much, and glad it hit the spot 🙂
Ah Tom, you know me so well! This is a great way to look at it and I'd probably never thought as myself as 'unreasonable' until now. It's funny because I had a nasty dream last night about arguing with someone about how I live my life and the risks I take. I recently quit my job to follow my dream, which means I have hardly any money in my bank account! I moved in with my sister into a small room with my 1 year old pup. It's been tough and 'unreasonable' at times but I feel I need to do this, otherwise when will I do it? Probably never! I've never been risk adverse so here I am. Thank you for making me feel good about it all. Keep up the good work. Love it!
Great stuff Paula. I'm glad to hear about your courageous choice to take the path less traveled. Keep being unreasonably you 🙂
Awesome. I love stories like this, they are so inspiring! And, like we all should, they gloss over the hard parts. You know what is really cool? We can all do this, over and over again, remaking ourselves into something better, making a better world in the process. I don't think it matters if anyone notices, we notice.
So glad it resonated Deb - thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
It doesn't matter if others notice - we notice. Couldn't agree more!
Awesome post and an awesome story!
Hey Tom, I really enjoyed this post, 5 hours well spent I say 🙂 I'm a Wellingtonian so glad to hear that you stayed and explored here a while and discovered our little treasure trove that is Weta studios. They have an amazing story don't they and while not many have heard of them I'm sure they quite like it that way. Us kiwis don't revel in the limelight much, we like to live normal lives, but the satisfaction they must feel from living their dream everyday and be able to tap into that other lifestyle when they want while still being largely unrecognised to me sounds IDEAL! Look forward to your interview with them!
Debra, thanks so much! Loved Wellington - my favorite city in NZ. Love what Weta does and you're right - seems like they love the art for the arts sake (which is how it should be, no?).
I loved this post for so many reasons including the adventurous travel portion to LOTR (love!) and your philosophical epiphany via WETA's long path to discovery and their subsequent hard-earned success. There are so many courageous choices throughout WETA's climb to the top (and it sounds like they're going to keep going!) and it takes real guts to let your passion and unfaltering vision propel you to what sounds like, perfection. Looking forward to hearing more about what started out in a tiny backroom to the revolutionary way they've brought these magical stories to life!
Elleyess - thanks so much! Remarkable story isn't it? And I'm so glad you liked the story of my adventures...may add more as we travel around the world (looking for inspiration in Australia as I write this).
Be unreasonable: expect the unexpected - on travel adventures and in life. So many people find it hard to believe I've travelled to 60 countries but haven't yet made it to my closest neighbour NZ - I definitely want to and your travels have bumped NZ up the list once more, thank you 🙂
Thanks again for a fabolous post! - I have a lot of subscriptions coming into my gmail, and now I then I do a batch read (well, skim is a better word I guess) my mail - I often stop and read through yours! - and Seth Godin's - and some more.
But you are one of my favourites when it comes to inspiration!