Since March this year, the Institute has been running Bursting Bubbles events on the last Thursday of each month. These ‘how to’ sessions each have a different speaker and topic, which have been curated to expand our thinking and ideas post-COVID lockdowns. See more information on future Bursting Bubbles sessions.

On Thursday 26 October, the Institute had the pleasure of hosting Rik Athorne from Wellington-based arts and entertainment company Wētā Workshop. Rik leads Wētā Workshop Ltd’s Location Based Entertainment (LBE) division, overseeing the creative direction, vision development and project design for creative and immersive experiences. 

Inspired by an animatronic ET pointing at him in Canada Wonderland at the age of three, Rik has pursued a creative career ever since. He studied fine art and film then worked in the TV industry in London before moving to New Zealand and joining Wētā Workshop. Rik has been involved in an impressive array of projects, both in New Zealand and overseas.

Having worked on over 120 films, for which they have received a large number of prestigious awards, Wētā Workshop has now branched out into many new areas. Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War exhibition at Te Papa – New Zealand’s most visited exhibition – is a notable example of their diversification from film. These location-based experiences also have an international reach. In Dubai, Wētā designed an immersive exhibition on the story of human mobility for Expo 2020 which included a 50-metre sculpture displaying a history of human movement in the form of a timeline. In Hainan, China, Wētā took on the creative production and design of the largest duty-free shopping complex in the world. Rik said how daunting and exciting this project was as it was something completely new for them. Wanting to prove that the fantasy and creativity found in films and video games can be brought into physical spaces, Wētā has shown how this can be done to the fullest extent.

Aim for groundbreaking and be aware of your creative influence

Having shown some of the outputs of Wētā’s creative endeavours, Rik then expanded on the design process and thinking behind the finished products. Having measurable goals is essential in any work setting, but when it comes to creativity, progress and success are harder to quantify. However, Rik emphasised the importance of ambitious goals for his team and introduced us to a number of models used to define them.

He began by introducing us to Heineken’s Creative Ladder, which starts at 1 – destructive – and finishes at 10 – legendary. Rik encourages staff to aim for groundbreaking (7). This is the benchmark he personally tries to keep in mind when engaging with teams and projects, and he encouraged us to do the same. Be bold, he emphasised.

Rik explained another similar model that measures degrees of creative influence. With Level 1 contained to just exploring your own creativity, Levels 2 to 5 extend from influencing a creative team to influencing an entire industry. Rik talks about how this is not about your role or job title, but is a guide to think about where your creative influence is and can be.

Find the intimate in the epic 

Rik and his team at Wētā are master storytellers and a crucial element of their success is their ability to find the intimate in the epic. For example, their exhibition at Te Papa tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign through diary entries and letters, expressing feelings and fears that visitors understand and can relate to; this ensures that the exhibition leaves a deep and lasting impression. Rik explained that finding and defining these intimate elements is at the core of the stories Wētā tells through their work, as it is for most successful creators. He came back to the character of ET as another example of the intimate in a bigger story. Once you have this core, you can build outwards, create the bigger picture, and then weave back in again to tie the storyline together.

In line with the ‘intimate in the epic’ idea, Rik also emphasised the importance of finding a balance between familiarity and uniqueness when it comes to creative ideas. This is essential in managing risk. Familiarity draws people in and offers something to connect or relate to, whilst novelty creates excitement and inspires new perspectives. Often creativity is only associated with the latter, but Rik expressed the importance of having a balance of both.

Embrace the tension

Creativity requires diverse perspectives and openness. But when there is diversity of ideas, there is often conflict. Rik described how important this conflict is in the execution of creative projects, urging us to ‘exist within the tension’. Through the metaphor of Yin and Yang, Rik described the two, sometimes conflicting, sides of his industry – the creative and the commercial; the producers and the artists. He emphasised how the most important part of this Yin and Yang model is the line in the middle, where the tension lies and where the resolution is found; where creative vision can transition into tangible reality.

There is a maker and creator in everybody

Rik’s final message was that everyone is creative. Wētā Workshop’s ultimate ambition is to inspire people to rediscover their inner child and free their imagination. Wētā Workshop Unleashed, which opened to the public in December 2020, is a clear embodiment of this goal. It consists of a 90-minute, hands-on guided tour in Auckland that offers visitors a behind-the-scenes experience of Wētā’s film-making and design process. Based around three film projects of different genres, visitors are shown the different creative aspects that happen ‘behind the curtain’: how to build a creature, the make-up process, building a film set, and more. With everyone from across Wētā Workshop having had some involvement in making this experience, Rik describes the project as a love letter to his field of work. It is also a manifestation of Wētā’s aspirations to take on an educational role for the next generation. In the near future, they hope to introduce school programmes and workshops. Perhaps this represents a new level to Rik’s creative influence model, extending beyond the industry itself and into setting foundations for future recruits.


Rik’s thought-provoking talk was followed by an audience Q&A session.

Q: How do you remain creatively inspired if you need to take a project for the money?

  • Rik explained the importance of authenticity when it comes to creativity.
  • Is the creative endeavour worthy and can we help someone? These are the base questions he starts with when taking on new projects.

Q: For creative projects, is there an ideal team size and is there a right question to ask to ensure the best outcome?

  • Rik emphasised two main approaches – when the brief is clear, and when the brief is more open for interpretation, with a blank canvas being the most extreme form of this.
  • When the brief is very clear, the process is more straightforward as it can follow a standard which his team is confident they can execute well.
  • For looser briefs, having a bigger team is helpful and it’s important to give everyone the chance to offer ideas. Returning to the notion of being bold, Rik commented that he asks each person in his team to create an idea that is bigger and bolder than what their clients need – start big then refine the story to find its core essence; then build outwards from there.
  • Talking to their clients is key to the refining process, tapping into the Yin and Yang relationship between creator and service provider. He asks his clients what feeling they want the project to have; establishing what they don’t want is essential for the initial brainstorming.
  • Rik also emphasised the importance of having a baseline confidence in the resolution and setting markers in your process – what does 10% complete look like, 50%, 80%. These markers should be laid out from the start.
  • He summarised: Create a vision, be bold, commit to a process, believe in the process and you’ll get there.

Q: What’s your criteria for groundbreaking and is that your measure for success?

  • Success looks different for each client – ‘one person’s cool is another person’s weird’.
  • Groundbreaking is introduced straight away in all his projects as it sets the horizon to reach for.
  • To measure ‘groundbreaking’, ask: is it unique, has it been seen before, is it a cliché?

Q: Where do you draw the line when it comes to bringing AI into the creative process?

  • Wētā Workshop are in the process of building an AI policy but Wētā’s core belief is that design should be done by human hand and mind.
  • AI is being brought in for the technical process but is kept out of the artistic process.
  • Wētā will continue to respond to new technology as it develops but will keep the human imagination at the heart of their work.

Q: How to sustain inner passion and confidence

  • Inspiration often takes a while to show.
  • Be patient and confident in the process.

We are looking forward to the next Bursting Bubbles event: How to communicate in a complex world with Janine Gould, which is from 5-6pm on Thursday 30 November. Register to join us in person at our Wellington office or over zoom.