Weta Workshop Grad Camp Inspires Masters Students

After five days of drawing and design, the inaugural ‘Grad Camp’ at Weta Workshop is complete. This intense learning workshop at Weta Workshop’s award-winning facility in Wellington, New Zealand, is a key feature of Massey University’s Master of Design programme. Focusing on entertainment design for film, television, and gaming, the programme invites postgraduate students and experienced designers from anywhere in the world to become extraordinary visual storytellers. The venture, a first for both institutions, joins an industry-leading Design Studio with internationally recognized academic design expertise.

Concept art by Weta Workshop designer, Jeremy Hanna. During Grad Camp, Masters students learn the building blocks of Weta Workshop’s approach to concept design for the entertainment industry

Design at Weta Workshop

The Grad Camp gave students the opportunity to step into Weta Workshop’s shoes and bring a creative brief to life. Under the guidance of Weta Workshop art director and course co-supervisor, Paul Tobin, and Massey University senior lecturer and co-supervisor, Tanya Marriott, students collaborated on a world-building project.

The Brief

Students were asked to take a common fairy tale and transform it into a science fiction epic fit for cinema. The reinvented narrative had to focus on a package that must be delivered “dead on time”. It was up to the students to decide what was in the package and the deadly consequences that follow its delivery.

Course co-supervisor Paul Tobin, senior art director at Weta Workshop, leads a feedback session with the Grad Camp students

Day 1 & 2: Visual Storytelling

The Grad Camp began with a lesson on story and ideation, led by Weta Workshop writer Simon Smith. Simon showed the students how to break down a screenplay into a three-act structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Those beats were then broken down further into key story art moments. The exercise demonstrated how design can support the development of characters and narrative. Says Paul:

“Concept design at Weta Workshop is done in the service of storytelling. Whether it be a character, prop, environment or key scene, the design is grounded in practical reality and always related back to the story.”

Brainstorming, the students put pencil to paper and established a new story structure. They took core themes, character motivations, and environments from the original fairy tale, and explored opportunities to adapt them into alternative character, creature, and key scene designs.

Programme co-supervisor Tanya Marriott, Massey University senior lecturer & co-supervisor, gives advice and feedback to student Ivan Vegar

Day 3 & 4: Concept Design

Practical design work was punctuated by Master Classes with Weta Workshop lead designers Jeremy Hanna and Adam Middleton (Altered Carbon, Blade Runner 2049, Ghost in the Shell). Jeremy gave students a crash course on his approach to environment and key scene illustrations; while Adam concentrated on character and costume design, using an example from his work on Avatar (2009). Student Ivan Vegar found the demonstrations incredibly helpful:

“They would communicate to us that the design choices they made… were always related back to the story. It wasn’t just designed and painted that way because it looked cool, it actually had a purpose.”

Following in the designers’ footsteps, students continued to explore design variations for key scenes and lead characters. Taking the best elements from each other’s designs, they combined them to create an incredible hybrid.

Character design development by Masters of Design student Christiaan Gerritsen

Day 5: The Pitch

The week concluded with students presenting their design work to a panel of Weta Workshop crew – giving them a taste of what it’s like pitching a project to clients. Feedback and critique allowed students to truly consider their design choices and develop the technical language to communicate their ideas.

The outcome of the Grad Camp – besides an epic fairy tale adaptation and a room plastered with concept art? Student Laura King realized the key to achieving compelling character design:

“The story and world is hugely valuable for me as a tool to start developing depth to my characters and their personalities.”

Meanwhile, fellow student Christiaan Gerritsen experienced the realities of efficient design processes:

“When to stop designing, when to make a decision and move on. Seeing how that played out in terms of our project was really good for me, I can directly apply that to my work.”

Students will soon return to Weta Workshop for a two-week internship to tackle a design challenge set by a real client. In the meantime, they will apply what they have learnt to their Master’s project. The degree concludes in August with a written research submission, presented alongside a significant body of concept design work.

2019 Applications Now Open

Interested in designing for the entertainment industry? The next intake of the Weta Workshop School starts in September 2019. The year-long degree takes place on-site at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington, New Zealand. For a full list of entry criteria, including portfolio requirements and application information for international students, click here.

Applications close on May 31.


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