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Meet the maker: Ken McGaugh and Dennis Yoo from Weta Digital

21 Dec 2018

Mortal Engines Intro Image

One of this summer’s must-see movies, Mortal Engines, was entirely filmed and produced in Wellington. The epic, post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure, based on a series of novels by Philip Reeve, shows the world after being destroyed by a devastating 60-minute war. Cities have become mobile, to roam what’s left of the earth in competition for scarce resources.

Directed by Wellingtonian, Christian Rivers, one of the stand out stars of the movie is the computer-generated worlds created by the talented VFX team at Weta Digital, two of whom were Ken McGaugh and Dennis Yoo.

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Ken and Dennis are both imports into Wellington, coming to the capital to work on Lord of the Rings. Dennis, originally from Canada, never expected to stay beyond that first contract. “When you first join on a six-month contract you never think you’re going to stay but then 15-plus years later you’re still there,” he laughs. “But we love it. We’ve created a family in Wellington and our two kids are Kiwis as well as Canadians.”

At first, Dennis found the friendliness of Wellingtonians unusual. “When I first came to Wellington, I was walking down the street and this guy was walking his dog and just looking at me.” I was creeped out. In Toronto no one looks at each other in the eye, it’s seen as aggressive. “As he got close to me he just says a friendly hello and continues walking.” Now Dennis says when he goes back to Toronto he says he’s the weirdo giving people eye contact and smiling.

Dennis Yoo Mortal Engines
Dennis Yoo

For Ken, originally from the US, he and his wife chose Wellington as their New Zealand home - after a long stint working in London - for being an easy place to raise a family. “Everything is close and there’s a great community. Weta is also a very family friendly company.”

Wellington’s compact geography came in handy during the making of Mortal Engines. “The scale of it was so huge,” says Dennis. “But yet everything was all done in a small area.”

“The best thing about working on Mortal Engines, is it’s all homegrown,” Ken adds. “It was all done in Wellington. I’m used to having to work overseas on a project, or at best be more than an hour’s drive away from where I’m living. But, here, I was five minutes away from the set and seven minutes away from the office. The post-production was right in between. You didn’t have to even leave the Miramar Peninsula.” explains Ken.

Ken McGaugh Mortal Engines
Ken McGaugh

Ken says around 900 people at Weta Digital worked on Mortal Engines. Creating an entire new world is apparently a big undertaking.

“It was a really collaborative project. Christian visited us almost daily and would give feedback directly to the artists, which they loved. The last director we worked with in this way was Peter Jackson on King Kong.”

That close working relationship came in handy when designing one of the stand-out characters in the film, Shrike, a rather frightening post-human robotic ‘Stalker’.

“Shrike was one of my favourite things to work on in this film,” says Dennis. “It’s always challenging taking a character that exists only on a page, and then reimagine them for the screen. For Shrike it was particularly challenging in terms of what he was supposed to be. He was like a zombie thing but that eventually you need to emotionally connect with. Christian obviously had something in his mind about how Shrike was and the more he saw us working on him the more he pinpointed it.”

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When asked what kind of city Wellington would be if it was a traction city, Ken automatically jumps in. “The Beehive would definitely be on top. People wouldn’t complain about the wind as that would come in useful as an energy source. The bucket fountain would have to be there, and the needle would also be there but lying flat on its side. And it would be hilly with lots of different tiers and the cable car running up the side.”

“Actually, we have to make Wellington into a traction city,” laughs Dennis. “Let’s do it.”

Mortal Engines is in cinemas now.

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