Wētā Workshop Artists Daniel Falconer and Jorgelina Yeme talk about what it’s like to create collectibles based on things that they love. | Source: Wētā Workshop/the Pop Insider

Wētā Workshop has been in the collectibles business for 20 years now. As the company has grown, it has expanded into a conglomerate of outputs – design and physical manufacturing for film, location-based-experiences (and within this, tourism attractions), interactive design (video games, virtual reality, etc.), and collectibles.

Wētā Workshop’s link from film to collectibles is key to the company. Their squad consists of artists who have unique skill sets and an eye for detail on how physical effects in film work, which translates to the company’s method of creating collectibles (their niche is “designed by artists of film”). More specifically, they look for artists with an innate ability to understand characters, scenes, and world-building, then apply this to the best poses, expressions, and sculpting methods to figures and statues.

The Pop Insider sat down with two of their artists — Jorgelina Yeme and Daniel Falconer — to talk about their backgrounds in film, the collectible figures they’ve helped create for Wētā Workshop, and what’s to come!

The Pop Insider: Tell me a little bit about your background as an artist.

Jorgelina Yeme: I started on my creative path back in 2002, two years after I had finished high school. I have been crafting my whole life, but after high school I was a little bit lost. That was when everything started. My mum was worried seeing me at a loose end, so she bought me some clay to play with in the hopes that it would inspire me to do something.

After that, I did sculpture and painting courses, and fell in love with art again. I got a job with a craft magazine and was also teaching adults alongside; although I never loved it, it helped me pay the bills!

In 2011, I started working at Wētā Workshop in the finishing department for the film trilogy The Hobbit. Time passes quickly, and I’ve been working here for 10 years now, across the props, paint, and 3D departments. It’s given me the chance to work with the best people in the industry and learn from the most talented and humble artists.

A few years ago I joined the Collectibles department, sculpting right next to my husband Mauro Santini (always my dream), and now I get paid to make affordable art — how cool is that?! Mauro and I work on our own collectibles on the weekends because we love our art and are proud pop culture nerds to the core.  

Daniel Falconer: Drawing was always a way to exercise my imagination as a kid, and I was encouraged by my art teacher mother to be imaginative. I was always making up worlds, characters, and stories, and drawing them. I was inspired by seeing Star Wars movies and The Dark Crystal in theaters, but it was the behind-the-scenes documentaries that aired on television that opened my young mind to the possibilities of actually making fictional worlds as a career. The hook was set at around age 7 or 8.

I went to art school and did a graphic design degree with a major in illustration, but twisted every project that I produced toward conceptual design for film and television because I knew that was the direction that I wanted to go in. I had always assumed that I would one day have to head overseas to seek work of this type, but to my delight and good fortune, there was actually a company full of like-minded people doing exactly what I loved right here in New Zealand.

I met Richard Taylor, co-founder and creative director of Wētā Workshop, while I was doing some part-time holiday work on the Hercules and Xena TV shows. We hit it off immediately. At his invitation, I spent a week doing work experience at Wētā, which turned into a job offer. Richard was looking to put together a team of young designers for future projects, and my timing and particular focus was just right.

“For me there is no difference between the film work that we do and our collectibles. We use many of the same techniques, and often the very same artists are involved. But most critically, we think about the product in the same way, and apply the same attention to detail, with focus on story and character.” – Daniel Falconer | Lord of the Rings Bilbo Baggins in Bag End, art directed by Daniel Falconer, sculpted by Daniel Cockersell, Leonard Ellis, and Dave Tremont | Source: Wētā Workshop

PI: Wētā Workshop focuses on the link between movies and collectibles by working with artists who have a background in film artistry or an eye for the details on the physical effects of film work. Why do you like working with Wētā Workshop? How has your own personal background made you a perfect fit? 

JY: I love working here because of the variety of artists and the knowledge that every one of them shares throughout their time at Wētā Workshop. The idea that we get to bring part of a movie into a person’s hand through a collectible makes my day.

I’ve been a huge film fan my whole life, and I love making collectibles that bring my favorite character into the real world, I think this is why my contribution is so important. When you love what you do people can see it and feel it, and that it’s the real deal.

DF: I began working at Wētā Workshop as a designer in 1996. Our team was responsible for coming up with ideas for creatures, characters, costumes, props, and weapons. That meant sitting in a room with my colleagues playing the “wouldn’t it be cool if?” game, and indulging our imaginations as we explored and debated the finer points of each of the fictional cultures we were helping to define.

Fictional cultures are believable if they make internal sense, so we had to think about how every prop or weapon we were designing would be made; what the materials and techniques that culture had access to; how their environment affected them; their beliefs, art, etc. If a given costume or a piece of armor had detail on it, what was the meaning behind it to the character wearing it? What did it reference in their history? How did it reflect their personality or their station? Details are critical because they lay a strong foundation upon which an imagined society can be built and appear real for audiences. I love how seriously that approach was (and still is) taken at Wētā Workshop. It gave us pride in our work because we knew it would have integrity.

That same attention to detail permeates every part of Wētā Workshop. After the Middle-earth films were done, the company diversified and sought a license to produce collectible statues and other high-end goodies based on our work for the films. Given my familiarity with Middle-earth, I became part of that effort, eventually segueing out of the design studio to join the collectibles department as an art director of our high-end polystone statues.

For me, there is no difference between the film work that we do and our collectibles. We use many of the same techniques, and often the very same artists are involved. But most critically, we think about the product in the same way, and apply the same attention to detail, with a focus on story and character. It also helps that I am a collector myself, and that’s the sort of thing I fixate on as both a fan and a professional.

 “When you love what you do people can see it and feel it, and that it’s the real deal.” – Jorgelina Yeme

Both Daniel Falconer and Jorgelina Yeme will be attending Wētā Workshop’s Comic-Con@Home Unleashed to reveal new sculpts (live-streamed on Facebook) to the collectibles community. Unfortunately, the specifics of their reveals are still embargoed — Comic-Con@Home Unleashed will run from July 23-25 NZT, hosted at Weta Workshop’s newest location-based experience in Auckland, New Zealand.

Don’t worry though: Since all of the collectible reveals will be live-streamed on Facebook, you don’t have to miss out. Alongside the reveals, there will be hour-long sessions of artists showcasing their skills (“Meet the Maker”) and free scars/scrapes/blood-making physical effects workshops.

PI: I know you can’t tell me a lot about your embargoed reveals for Wētā Workshop’s Comic-Con@Home Unleashed, but what can fans look forward to? 

JY: OMG! I wish I could tell you! I am super excited just knowing what people are going to see. Just when you think we can’t get better … here we are 😊  So, be ready and save some money!

DF: Every year we try to find ways to satisfy our loyal collectors by giving them things that they want, while at the same time also surprising them. I hope this year will be no different, with reveals that will have them excited to be adding long wished for pieces to their collections — as well as hopefully giving them a reason to say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they did that!’

PI: At the Pop Insider, our tagline is “fuel your fandom.” What fuels your fandom?

JY: I am a huge Disney nerd, but it’s not just Disney that fuels me; I love Harry Potter, Stranger Things, ’80s pop culture movies … and I could keep going, but I had better stop for your sanity.

Also, sometimes the properties that we work on are totally my jam, and I can’t stop watching whatever I can find about them. I guess you could say that general pop culture and fantasy worlds are what feed my creativity.

Daniel: That’s such a great tagline. I love it!

I’m fueled by my passion for these fictional worlds that captivate the imagination. When I read the books or watch The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or The Dark Crystal, I want to dive sideways out of the story and go exploring. I want to spend time in those places and extend my experiences of wonder and excitement for as long as possible.

Making, owning, and displaying collectibles, be they action figures or thousand-dollar statues, are expressions of our fandom. They connect us with those characters and worlds, and further fire the imagination. It never gets old for me, and every new thing we make is my next favorite! I feel so very fortunate to get to do something that I love so much every day. It justifies the many hours I waste thinking about this stuff!

Daniel Falconer’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’ concept sketches vs. Wētā Workshop’s 1:6-scale statue, designed and art directed by Daniel Falconer and sculpted by Troy Nickel. | Source: Wētā Workshop

Daniel Falconer is the Middle-earth & Dark Crystal Art Director for collectibles at Wētā Workshop, and also a concept artist for the company’s premium polystone sculpts. He has been with Wētā Workshop since the ideation and creation of The Lord of The Rings physical effects, and worked closely on concept designs for the trilogy. Daniel is an absolute gold mine when it comes to the lore of all things Middle-earth.

PI: Talk to me about your involvement with the LOTR collectibles at Wētā Workshop? We heard you’re a gold mine of Middle-earth lore. How does your fandom help you with your art? 

DF: Because of my involvement in designing and making the films, and due to my familiarity with JRR Tolkien’s writing, I have assumed the resident Middle-earth geek role within the company — which suits me just fine. It is my role to know the answers to every obscure question, or at least where to begin tracking down those answers when the questions are asked.

I help to come up with the plan for what we will create each year in collectible form, and I assist in composing each piece. I research and sift reference, and work to provide the artists sculpting our collectibles with everything that they need, so that means following each statue (for example), from idea through to completion.

“When I read the books or watch The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars or The Dark Crystal, I want to dive sideways out of the story and go exploring. I want to spend time in those places and extend my experiences of wonder and excitement for as long as possible.” – Daniel Falconer

PI: Is LOTR your “favorite” or “core” fandom? What other fandoms do you love? 

DF: I absolutely adore Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and especially his deeper texts, like The Silmarillion, in which the author essentially builds the thousands of years of history and culture that underpins the story of Frodo and his companions. Without it, The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t seem as rich.

But Middle-earth is certainly not my only fandom. It’s just where I have been lucky to spend so many years of my professional life. When not working in Middle-earth, I like to play in a galaxy far, far away. I’m a huge Star Wars dork. I’m probably as familiar with that world as I am with Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves, and that’s where I spend my money: collecting Star Wars action figures and building dioramas in which to display them.

As mentioned, The Dark Crystal was a massive influence on me as a kid and still is. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, there was lots of amazing content coming from Jim Henson, and I lapped it all up. I always wanted to be him!

Star Trek would be my other core fandom. Once again, it’s a rich, deep world full of color and wonder, great characters, and provocative stories. I love how the best Treks challenge and push us to be better people, while at the same time entertaining and delighting us with spectacle. And like the Wars, Rings, and Dark Crystal, there’s so much of it to enjoy. What an awesome time it is to be a fan!

“I love working here because of the variety of artists and the knowledge that every one of them shares throughout their time at Wētā Workshop. The idea that we get to bring part of a movie into a person’s hand through a collectible makes my day.” – Jorgelina Yeme | Source: Wētā Workshop

Jorgelina Yeme is one half Wētā Workshop’s Mini Epics 3D sculpting team, along with her husband Mauro Satini. She has an incredible eye for detail on stylizing characters across a range of IPs (without them losing a sense of portrait and personality). She’s also a skilled painter and occasionally leads her Mini Epics from sculpting all the way through to painting. Prior to working on the collectibles range, she worked on physical effects for The Hobbit Trilogy and other films.

PI: Tell me a little bit about the Mini Epics line.

JY: This is a line that my husband Mauro Santini started in 2016; He was lucky enough to be given the task of creating a range of funny, sassy, cute, and bold collectibles from scratch called Mini Epics. I joined him three years ago, and together, we are the Mini Epics fam. We spend many, many hours deciding on the pose and what moment to choose from the movie — or, in some cases not just a moment in time, but something else (a feeling or personality) — that we want to bring to life through the Mini Epic.

We are not making simple toys, we’re creating affordable art with a touch of humor. 😉

PI: What is the process like when you lead the Mini Epics from sculpting all the way through to painting?

JY: Mauro and I start by having a round table about what we are doing, sometimes we re-watch the movie, TV show, or cartoon to help us. After that, we decide what the character is going to be doing (sometimes this will change after a few weeks in the making!), and then the 3D modeling process starts.

We make the concept art at the same time when we’re sculpting the product itself. For this reason, a Mini Epic is so unique because we have the freedom between us to change anything we need to along the way. Often the final product is completely different than it was at the beginning.

After the 3D model is finished, it goes to the workshop where gets printed, cleaned, molded, and painted before being delivered to our manufacturing partner. Mauro and I follow the full process through the workshop — especially painting. We want the final physical model to get as close as possible to our original idea. And this is how a Mini Epic is born.

Gremlins Gizmo Mini Epic, sculpted by Jorgelina Yeme; Gremlins Stripe Mini Epic, sculpted by Mauro Santini and painted by Jorgelina Yeme | Source: Wētā Workshop

PI: What is the most important part of the process when you’re thinking about keeping the personality of on-screen characters and translating them into collectibles?

JY: Depends on the character, every property is different, and we never approach them in the same way. So, it really does change from Mini Epic to Mini Epic. But we always think about what WE would love to collect, that is the starting point.

PI: What is your “favorite” or “core” fandom? 

JY: I am a Disney geek — not a princess, though! I am a witch lover, and some of my friends might agree that I’m a real one, too. 😉  I grew up with Disney movies, my grandmother and my mother are the reasons I love them so much.

I watch Disney movies every day, I speak Disney language every day, and I think in Disney every day. It is not healthy, believe me, haha! But I am a fan, so, what can I say? It’s what us fans do, right?

For more information on Weta Workshop and Comic-Con@Home Unleashed, visit wetanz.com