9 Jul 2018

Sam Gao's Middle Earth, Wandering Earth and WETA

From Voices, 8:00 am on 9 July 2018

Sam Gao remembers the first time he saw Lord of the Rings. He was a teenager. He tells me it was a crappy boot-legged DVD, played on an equally crappy TV - but he was mesmerised.

Like a scene from Lord of the Rings itself, Sam then had a chance meeting with Weta Workshop’s Sir Richard Taylor, in Guangzhou, which has resulted in a fellowship of the greatest prosperity.

From Beijing with no English, to working as Weta Workshop’s Art Director and China Business Development Manager, Sam is now helping bring Wellywood to China.

The latest fruits of Sir Richard and Sam’s collaboration is The Wandering Earth, China’s first major science fiction film, premiering later this year.

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The vast Weta Workshop facilities in Miramar, Wellywood are cloistered behind daunting metal doors. This is where I’m meeting Sam Gao and Sir Richard Taylor.

Sam is one of Sir Richard’s favourite subjects. Six years ago, the founder and head of New Zealand’s special effects company Weta Workshop met Sam, graduate of the prestigious Beijing Film Academy.

In spite of the language barriers their connection was instant. Richard invited Sam to travel with him to see a bronze-casting pour.

“On his trip he showed me his portfolio,” says Richard. “It was then we realised that at some point in the future we were going to work together.”

“Six months later,” recalls Richard, “I phoned him and said I might have a job for you.”

So began the incredible journey of Sam Gao to Middle Earth.

“[Richard] offered opportunity for me,” Sam tells me. “He was very generous, but I have to prove myself.”

Sam Gao in New Zealand

Sam arrived in New Zealand in 2014. He learned to communicate on the job through sign language and Google translate. Within two months he had become the first Chinese member of an elite team of sculptors working on the commemorative Gallipoli – the scale of Our War Exhibition, on display at the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa.

Sam created the large-scale model of former Nelson College teacher, Sergeant Cecil Malthus, the final figure in the exhibition, which has also become the exhibition’s enduring flagship image outside Te Papa.

“Sam joined us as a sculptor working on things 6 to 8 inches tall. [Then] Gallipoli came along and it became several metres tall,” says Richard. “But it became very evident to me early on that Sam could play a really integral part with our interactions with China.”

A bridge with China

From model maker to Art Director and China Business Development Manager, Sam has become a vital bridge between both countries. His work has gone global, and is so popular some fans have even tattooed his artwork on their bodies.

In the last four years Sam has sculpted prosthetics for blockbuster films like The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon.

He has also art directed for the massively popular online fantasy/action game Path of Exile, which exhibits at the annual Tencent Games Carnival in China.

Sam was lead planner and art director for a 2016 Weta Workshop and Studio 421 collaborative exhibition in Wuzhen, Dr Grordbort’s Exceptional Exhibition, which has showcased Weta Workshop’s work to millions of Chinese fans.

The Wandering Earth

Inside knowledge of the Chinese film industry helped Sam to score Weta Workshop a special collaboration in The Wandering Earth, China’s first major science fiction film. It is written by one of China’s Hugo Award winning novelists, Liu Cixin, who has written over 30 novels, all acclaimed and all looking to be adapted to film.

Sam knew the film’s Director and Producer, so he introduced them to Richard and Weta Workshop. He also acted as liaison, trouble-shooting for both parties.

Weta Workshop made the film’s highly specialised spacesuits, exoskeletons and weaponry.

“They want Weta to do it. They trust Weta quality,” says Sam, who hopes The Wandering Earth will be China’s Bladerunner.

Weta Workshop vs China: the sharp edge of the sword

China is vast, with the manpower and resources to create cities almost overnight. It has a new and burgeoning film industry.

So what can Weta Workshop offer that China can’t? Sam is very sure of Weta’s advantages.

“China has many studios like Weta, but the difference is that New Zealand is a very small country compared with China,” explains Sam. “Which means Weta has to build all the different departments under the one roof. We have 11 different departments, for example woodwork, engineers, sculpture, prosthetics etcetera.”

Sam says having all these skills in close proximity is a real strength, unlike in China where each department is its own separate company.

“[At Weta] you get very good product. Weta have a lot of experience. We make stuff cheaper than China because of the quality – [it’s] not easily broken, so [it’s] cheaper in the long run.”

Futuristic plans

“We have a 20 year career coming up in China,” says Richard. “All of this needs a level of cultural facilitation. More importantly, [it also needs the] energetic business interaction that Sam has brought to this company.”

Sam is looking forward to more challenges. “I want to have more international co-operation in the future. I’d like to bring more Chinese project to New Zealand.”

“China has a big film market, but not best yet. I want China to be best.”

Farewell from Lynda Chanwai-Earle

That was my last Voices programme folks, as I farewell RNZ to chase my dreams. But don’t panic – the Voices programme will continue.

It’s been a privilege to bring you stories from New Zealand’s ethnic communities over these last seven years.

And in the famous words of one sci-fi hero: “I’ll be back …!”