By Jennifer Dann

1 What did you want to be growing up?

A sculptor. I grew up in Mangere Bridge, the youngest of five boys, and always loved making stuff. Mum taught ballet and dad built boats in the front yard.

They weren’t sure about my decision to go to art school but they’re really happy with my career choice now.


2 How did you get into the film and TV business?

After studying sculpture at ASA, an art school that taught traditional technical skills like wood carving, mould making and bronze casting, I set up my own workshop in Grafton and lived in a house bus there.

A couple of guys leased part of my workshop to build props. They’d send work my way and one day I got offered a prop-making job for a Canadian TV show called Mysterious Island being shot in Glendene. I found it hard to go back to my own artwork after that because it’s so insular. I really loved the collaborative nature of film and TV.


3 You now own Main Reactor, Auckland’s largest props and prosthetics workshop for TV. How did that happen?

I’d set up the props workshop for Xena and when that finished in 2004, my wife Felicity Letcher and I bought a lot of their equipment to start our own workshop.

We had about seven years of really consistent work from the Chronicles of Narnia to Legend of the Seeker and Spartacus, largely because of producer Rob Tapert’s commitment to bringing work here.

That dried up in 2012 when the government decided to leave our tax incentive at 15 per cent which couldn’t compete internationally. James Cameron saved the industry in 2014 when he announced he was going to make the next three Avatar films here and the government agreed to lift the incentive to meet the market. The next day our phone started ringing. About 95 per cent of our work is overseas film and TV. We’re strongly affected by the US dollar.


4 Why do you specialise in TV work?

TV provides a much better pipeline of work than films which only take about four months. If the client has a good experience on season 1, they can stay for up to five years. I also enjoy the fast turnaround nature of TV. You have about two weeks to turnaround props which thanks to High Definition now have to be the same quality as for film. Being able to do that comes down to experience – managing the process right from the beginning so you know where to jump in to get key things done.


5 Do you train your own staff or are there courses they can do?

We’ve got 15 props makers, prosthetics technicians, mould makers and makeup artists. Some come from makeup colleges or design schools but we end up training most of them in-house. Because of the fast turnaround we have to be quite prescriptive about the way we make stuff.


6 Over 23 years of making props, what have been your greatest failures and wins?

Favourite prop: the Sword of Destiny we made for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon II because we got to work with legendary Kung Fu film director and stunt choreographer, Master Woo-ping. He’s in his 80s now and it was a real honour to work with him.

Worst prop failure: in the early days of Xena we filled a large dragon mould with about 60kg of silicon, one of our most expensive materials, but failed to seal it up properly.

The silicon blew out the seams and ended up all over the ground. It took another week of work to get back to where we were.


7 Was it hard to make the switch from props to prosthetics and make-up effects?

It’s pretty natural progression because you’re still sculpting, moulding, casting and painting, it’s just that you’re using different materials and working with the human body.

Make-up is a lot more detailed and refined because you see it a lot closer. I learnt a lot working alongside others like our senior prosthetics guy Dan Perry who came from Lord of the Rings.


8 You’ve become a bit of a gore guy lately doing the make-up effects for What We Do in the Shadows, the Evil Dead remake and Ash vs Evil Dead. Is that something you’ve always loved?

I’d never been a big gore fan boy but grew to really love it because it’s a lot of fun. We’ve done a lot of gore now and it can get repetitive. It’s usually someone getting their throat slashed or their head cut off. It’s great to be making monsters again for The Shannara Chronicles. Fantasy’s always been my favourite genre since playing Dungeons and Dragons as a kid.


9 How do you come up with a new creature?

There’s generally a description of it in the script. I’ll get some illustrators to come up with a concept which we won’t present to the producers until we’re sure we can deliver it with the timeframe and budget.

They’ll give us feedback and we’ll flesh it out from there. Most creatures end up being humanoid so they can be performed by an actor with the help of puppetry and animatronics if needed.

I work really closely with the visual effects, stunt, wardrobe and general make-up departments because there’s often a lot of cross-over. The best designs combine practical effects like we do with visual effects done on a computer.

So if you’ve got someone with half their face blown off, makeup will do anything that’s built out of the face and then visual effects will do the inside of the face. Great make-up will help sell any inconsistency in visual effects and vice versa.


10 Does the film and TV industry that’s built up in West Auckland have enough momentum?

Absolutely but we could build it up a lot more if we had a purpose-built studio here. The converted space we have ends up being too small for larger format films. It would need to be a collaboration between the council and probably a film studio company like Fox which built one in Australia.


11 You’ve made a few giant animals for plays over the years including a seal, giraffe, eagle and fish. Why do you still do theatre when it’s the poor cousin of film and TV?

My wife and I love theatre – it’s where we started. In those days theatre was a feeder for film and TV but our friends Ben Crowder and Carl Bland have remained a driving force with Theatre Stampede.

We always try to support their work because it’s so audacious and sublimely surreal. Helping bring their visions to life is like being a magician. For Spirit House we’ve made a giant cat mask that fits over the head of a Korean actor, Min Kim. We got him to have his head digitally scanned in Korea so we could 3D print it here and sculpt the cat head onto it. It can talk and has moving eyes. He loves it.


12 Are you keen for your two children aged 14 and 11 to join the family business?

I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a very hard industry – long hours, a huge amount of uncertainty – but it can be very enjoyable and satisfying.


Spirit House, Herald Theatre, 16 Feb to 5 March, part of Auckland Fringe




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