Hercules “cuts to the heart of the myth”

Weta Workshop’s Paul Tobin talks deconstructing Hercules and how life at Weta has changed

Dwayne Johnson brings Hercules to life
Dwayne Johnson brings Hercules to life

Brett Ratner’s Hercules, starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as the big guy himself, might look like another straightforward take on the myth, but the film deconstructs the legend to create something much more interesting: an ensemble action film.

Weta Workshop’s Paul Tobin worked on the concept art for the film and talked to SciFiNow about going past the myth to the reality, why it was easier to design Hercules’ band of warriors than the Dwarfs in The Hobbit, and what it’s like working at Weta now that everyone wants their expertise.

Was it fun to get to work on a movie that subverts the Hercules myth?

Yeah, actually, I was quite familiar with the original mythology. In a past life I did my degree in Ancient Greek and Roman history so I was quite familiar with the original story and I certainly, and in terms of Weta Workshop, obviously doing Xena and Hercules back in the day as well. So there’s definitely a bit of an association with Hercules.

But I think that the thing that I really responded to particularly from the script was that it was a really clever script in that they were trying to have their cake and eat it too. Where they’re trying to cut to heart of the myth, which is the reality of the myth, because most mythology is often grounded in some level of reality. But at the same time giving themselves the opportunity to embrace some of the fantasy elements as well and it was actually a really clever concept. So you kind of have the best of both worlds that did give us, from a design point of view, some quite unique opportunities as well.

The fantasy monsters that we see are shown in stories or dream sequences; did that give you license to go bigger with them?

Yeah, the kind of stuff that you’d expect to see in fantasy movies. I think that particularly with the creatures the design challenge was ‘How do we give the audience what they’re expecting at a fantasy level, like Cerberus the three headed dog, and then actually show a level of reality behind it, that actually is the genesis of the myth?’ And so things like the Centaurs, that idea of from a distance, front on, you lose the head of the horse and the body of the human riding it and so it appears that it is one creature, but of course when they turn, the camera moves side on, it’s revealed that it is two creatures. So just little things like that and in terms of the creature design aspect of it, some of the creatures did involve quite a lot of work getting to that point.

I think Cerberus from memory was one of the harder ones, that took a longer time to crack. Because I think they were trying to find the level of fantasy for that particular creature because like, for the Nemean Lion, it was more or less kind of a lion on steroids. We looked at Frank Frazetta a lot, that real kind of stylised, statuesque creature, so it felt like an idealised form of a natural world creature whereas I think with the Cerberus brief, particularly in the context of when that part of the movie plays out, I think they wanted to go with something that was a lot more hellish and a lot more fanciful and that take a lot more to get.

Did Brett Ratner give you a free rein or was he quite specific about what he wanted?

I must admit as briefs go this one was a little bit tighter. Because they were playing to quite a singular conceit, which was this idea of fantasy and reality, that reveal, so we couldn’t just sort of drift of into la-la land and just do whatever we felt like, because you had to build that into whatever you were designing. But I’ve worked with some directors where they’ll literally, because they can, will literally draw what they want, so Brett was very generous in that respect. As long as we stuck to that brief and you could justify what you were doing he was very happy to see how that stuff panned out.

Hercules 2One of the best things about the film is that it’s an ensemble movie. Was Hercules’ group a fun bunch of warriors to design?

Yeah, totally. It was an easier brief than The Hobbit where you’ve got a bunch of short, bearded dwarfs, that’s the description for all of them pretty much. That was a real challenge to try to make those guys quite different from each other. This was a lot more fun because you’ve got a wider range of characters and genders too. But having said that, one of the things that I was very keen to push was trying to explore some of the cultural backgrounds that we could apply at a design level to some of these characters. That was taking cues off some of the origin stories that the characters had and sometimes it was just looking at particularly my knowledge of that ancient world and looking at some of the cultures that hadn’t actually cinematically been explored that much before.

Because when you say Ancient Greek you tend to default very quickly to Sparta. And Athens, but the reality is that there’s a whole bunch of countries around that area that had quite a strong visual look, like you’ve got the Minoans and the Scythians and ancient cultures like that. So one of the things that we enjoyed doing was actually doing quite a bit of research into some of those ancient cultures and then seeing what we could pull out to actually inform some of the character design of it.

Did you look at the comic at all before starting work on the film?

We definitely had some copies of the comic. I remember reading the first one, The Thracian Wars; we definitely had a read through. Especially when we first came to it because they had a different script at that stage, there was just the comics and they wanted some visualisation around what this could be as a film property. With the second time round they had a really good script and to be honest that was more the driving force this time round because the film was going to be reflected more strongly from the script. The script was a really good guide to what we were trying to achieve. But I really enjoyed the comics and certainly you’re kind of subliminally influenced by how some of those characters have been depicted in the comics. But we were given a pretty free rein to come up with something a little bit new at the same time.

Hercules 3When you think of Ancient Greece and epic action, the obvious reference is Ray Harryhausen. Were you fan of those movies growing up?

Well yeah, you’re right. Richard [Taylor, co-founder] was a good friend of Ray and had been for years. We all grew up on…in fact the first movie memory I have was Jason and the Argonauts. And I was terrified, it was the skeleton sequence. My dad took me to it and it terrified me to the point where I don’t think he took me to another movie for a couple of years. So that was my first movie memory was Ray Harryhausen. And the other one that I was really influenced by growing up was Clash Of The Titans. And you can’t help but be influenced by those movies on some level; it’s why a lot of us end up getting into the film industry to start with.

But we make a real point of not really worrying too much about looking at what other films have been done before or what’s being developed at the moment, we just don’t even worry about it to be honest, we just go straight to the source material. And just work from the source material as much as possible because that way you’re not trying to second guess yourself, you’ve got a much greater chance of coming up with something original and fresh and new rather than just treading over what’s been done before. You are aware of all that body of work that’s come before but it’s not like we quickly race down and watch every Hercules film that’s come in the last 15 years to make sure we weren’t influenced by it. We just went immediately to the script and did a lot of historical research around the mythology and pulling as much visual reference as possible so that we really were going back to the source and then we just cut loose from there.

Weta is working on an incredible range of movies at the moment, from Hercules to The Hobbit to Mad Max: Fury Road. It must be exciting to have that kind of variety.

We’re incredibly spoilt. We do tend to take it for granted! Like any job after a while, sometimes you do have those little moments where you kind of pinch yourself and remind yourself where you are. And we are, at the moment there is that real diversity now. I think Weta first started off, it was very much a swords and sandals kind of company, obviously Xena and Hercules and then there was Lord Of The Rings, and then the other thing that Weta was quite known for was horror. The splatter movies and stuff like that.

The change that started to happen really kicked off when we first started working on Halo. Which obviously didn’t go, we pretty much finished designing the film but the plug got pulled. But then meeting Neill [Blomkamp] and him wanting to come and do District 9 and then at the same time as us doing a really good body of work on Halo, and getting some experience on a science fiction movie, getting the opportunity to work on Avatar at the same time pretty much. That was a watershed moment when I think we started working in different worlds, different genres that we hadn’t been in before and so all of a sudden the floodgates were open. And now you just have this incredible diversity of projects that you can work on. I think it’s fair that quite a few of the designers tend to have strong suits, like I tend to be more of a fantasy guy, I like working on sci-fi but there’s a couple of guys that are really, really good at sci-fi. But you do shift across these kinds of projects constantly.

So designers have their specialities?

Yeah, it’s not like I have a little badge that says what my speciality is but there is kind of an informal acknowledgement that you have your strengths like for instance, we’ve got some very strong creature designers. It’s kind of evolved a little bit, back in the day when I first started everyone kind of did everything. And I think as the industry’s involved we are seeing a little bit more of a specialisation. I think there’s a danger in that, personally, I think that it’s good to be broad. Often how it works is that we’ll get a brief and then a whole bunch of us might have a crack at it and then we’ll see who gets the hits and then it will just sort of settle itself out from there, generally.

Can you tell us anything about what you’ve seen on Mad Max: Fury Road?

From what I saw it was looking amazing and I have to say there was a lot of excitement with the release of the trailer. So yeah, there was a lot of excitement; obviously I can’t talk about it. Obviously there was a lot of people working on that, we were just one group of people working on Fury Road but I can’t help but say that I was really excited by that trailer, it was a really good trailer.

Hercules 4Finally, is there one element of Hercules that you’re particularly proud of?

At a personal level, I was really happy with working on Atalanta, a lot of the stuff we designed for her, it looked like the broad strokes kind of carried through. I really enjoyed doing a lot of the weapons, particularly Hercules’ club; I think that was a lot of fun as well. We basically did the concept design for the characters, the weapons, the armour, the costumes and the creatures. But because we didn’t do the manufacture part of it, what tends to happen normally when we do the manufacture part of it is that we take those initial designs and then we do very elaborate breakdowns and detailing and then they get built by us. In this particular case that didn’t happen so what we did is we did this kind of range of designs, first pass designs, the broad strokes of what the character would look like, and then the art department and costuming department and all those guys took those designs and then they worked on them and added their spin to it. And then they obviously constructed them.

So we kicked things off and those guys took things over. The creatures were probably a lot closer to exactly what we designed because we were actually a bit more involved with the implementation of those designs so that’s why it’s like if you were to look at the artwork we produced at the very beginning and look at the final film, you can often see a really strong relationship, but a lot of the time there has been some changes because that’s where the art department and production designers have decided to bring their own spin to things as well.

Hercules is available on Blu-ray, DVD and download today. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.