I worked around the corner from the Weta Cave for about a year before COVID sent us all home. It was my destination when I needed to clear my head or think through a problem. I'd make my way through the throng of smiling visitors, browse the art and art supplies, the books, the swords, the jewellery, a quick nerdy chat with Mark about Alan Lee or Brian Froud. These visits cleared my head and inspired me back to the land of 1s and 0s.
If you've visited the Cave, chances are you passed Gandalf on guard in front of The Roxy. The rhythm of his flowing robes matching the ever-present Wellington wind, his expression speaking concern for the well being of some beloved Hobbit. He's a perfect welcome to Miramar for visiting film fans.
The Roxy's peaceful guardian is the work of Weta Workshop's extraordinary Steven Saunders.
Fans of science fiction and fantasy films will likely be familiar with Steven's work. Starting in the industry in the early 2000s, he's contributed much iconic work for both TV and film. He's worked in makeup departments for TV series big (Generation Kill, ER) and small, prosthetics, prop and creature design for film (10,000 BC, Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Hobbit), and was miniatures art director for Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 (those amazing future-L.A. buildings).
Steven visited Workshop in 2008 for a job interview and started work there in 2010. Among his work around that time were two beautiful sculpts of Gandalf. The first brilliantly captures the exhausted/sad/relieved energy of Ian McKellan's performance after Thorin's death at the end of The Battle of Five Armies. The other was the heroic pose, later sculpted in 1:1 format which now welcomes moviegoers at The Roxy.
Today, when not working on film projects, Steven focuses on projects for Weta Workshop's collectible lines. His recent work on The Dark Crystal collection saw him collaborating with Dan Falconer to bring characters from the incredible Netflix series to the Weta storefront. The results of the collaboration are pure happy-inducing exquisiteness.
But, Tolkien freak that I am, it's Steven's middle earth creations that speak directly to my nerd heart. Last year's fireworks cart was Workshop's largest Master's Collection piece to date, and I stare at it through the display case glass every time I visit the Cave. This year's Thranduil, The Woodland King pulled my eyes right out of my head when I saw the SDCC At Home reveal by Richard Taylor and Dan Falconer, and I can't wait to see it in person.
As a frequent Silmarillion re-reader, my favourite thing about the approach of Weta's artists to Tolkien is the sense of long history they bring to their work. Thranduil appears in Tolkien's The Hobbit for only a tiny fraction of his lifespan, but his story back to his birth in the First Age is touched on in the expanded works of Christopher Tolkien. It's a story of a long life filled with betrayal and misery. We know Thranduil would've been witness to the heartbreaking Second Kinslaying which marked the Ruin of Doriath. He would've lived through the apocalyptic Fall of Gondolin, and through the Second Age, falling for the trickery of Sauron as Annatar, the loss of his wife Elerrian, and the Pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Dagorlad. It was at Dagorlad that he witnessed the violent death of his father Oropher, and where two thirds of the elvish forces perished, still lying in ghostly repose 3,000 years later when Frodo, Sam, and Gollum cross the battlefield and it's "candles of corpses" on their journey to Mordor. In the aftermath of the War of the Last Alliance, he had to be dismayed by the final failure of Isildur to seal Sauron's fate. Thranduil strikes me as an expression of the cynicism that Tolkien refused to indulge after seeing the worst of humanity during World War I -- the anti-Tolkien in that respect.
The story of the brooding, defiant bitterness in Thrandiul is beautifully told in this piece. He has lived through the ruin wrought by Morgoth. He has formed racial prejudices against the Dwarves who murdered Thingol, Men who bear the gift of mortality (especially the Númenóreans whose arrogance broke the world), and his own elvish race whose thrall to Morgoth caused so much ruin. He no longer trusts any but his closest advisors, and even they live under the shade of his scrutiny. Those disapproving elvish eyes which Steven and his team have beautifully captured, tell a story of suspicion and mistrust. Thranduil's great throne, rendered in mute greys and browns, stand in contrast to the elf lord's silver and copper finery. He demands to be reckoned with. He disregards the decay surrounding him: The ruined masonry, the dead leaves littering the base. Where the elves of Lorien incorporate their architecture around the living trees, Thranduil bends the trees to his will, cutting into them and twisting them to his pleasure. He insults Yavanna, casting aside the beauty she wrought, instead deforming branches into horns and carving straight-angle stairs into the flesh of her trees as if they were the unliving stone of Aulë.
The breathtaking technique on display at Weta is matched by the superfan attention to detail and story. Love of story is on full display in this work.
Thranduil will likely be available for pre-order later this year. Sign up now to be notified when pre-orders open.
Congratulations, Steven and team, on this incredible work. As a Tolkien-obsessed nerd, I want to thank all of you for honouring the professor's work with your long effort. Nicely done.
Images used with permission from Weta Workshop.