Our family

The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand style

I'm in Wellington today, a charming city which combines the look of San Francisco suburbs (with daily earthquakes, the city copies San Fran housing to great success), with the laid-back New Zealand style. I got to go up to Mount Victoria, where the houses having tiny "baby cable cars", with 400 single-person sized cable cars used to get up to the house. Looking through the list of things to do, I thought a Lord of the Rings tour would give a nice taste of the city.

The Lord of the Rings was a very influential book for me. The Hobbit the was the first book I read, at 5, and made me crave more books to read: "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort." I read and reread the Lord of the Rings at least a dozen times as a teenager, and I still love Tolkien's method of world building by creating, but only lightly referencing, a deep history. If nothing else, it immunised me against religion when I first heard about Christianity ("You believe what? Like, gods and things from Lord of the Rings? You think that was real?"). I quite liked the movies too, in that they did away with the worst aspects of Tolkien's world (the tedious detail of the long-expected party, the complete absence of all women) and kept true enough to the grandeur of the books. 

I had a guide to the filming sites of the Lord of the Rings, who knew perhaps too much about the filming (which room number her favourite stars stayed at in the local hotel, what time they went shopping, etc). We saw the location for the Buckland ferry scene ("hiding from the Black Rider"), the gardens of Isengard and the valley of Rivendell. The odd thing was that so much of the filming was done in very narrow shots with magestic scenary from the South Island stiched in behind, so it kind of seems odd that they worried about the location at all. We also visited the excellent Weta studies. Weta Studio is named after the weta, the giant "spider" of New Zealand (actually a type of cricket), which can be translated into English as "the God of all Ugly Things". Weta Studio certainly lives up to the name, with all manner of uglies made inside, from the orcs of Middleearth to prosthetics for slasher films. It is amazing the level of detail that goes into it, with real human hair weaved hair by hair into most of the prosthetics (except the Dwarven beards, which used yak fur to get that coarse curly look). The scene where orcs pulled down the trees of Isengard actually involved fake trees, with 700,000 silk leaves woven in. The attention to detail is incredible.

The filming of the Lord of the Rings has transformed Wellington. There was an embryonic film industry here before the LotR, with TV series such as Hercules and Xena, but Peter Jackson changed it into a world player. The LotR cost $600 million to produce (it made more than $8 billion, so the production company can't be upset), most of which was ploughed into the local economy. Vast numbers of local staff were employed over a decade to work on different aspects (stunts were initially done by the local karate club, until someone broke a collarbone), and Peter Jackson constantly reinvested money from the film and his profits into creating a film ecosystem that is one of the few places in the world where films can be made the entire way along the production process in a single site. Small production facillities such as Weta blossomed into major industry players, and Peter Jackson even bought his own polystyrene factory to ensure a good supply to the film industry. The old industrial site is now transformed, with an abandoned paint factory becoming a studio and digital effects companies springing up. Since the LotR, over 150 films have been made in Wellington, and there has been a 700% increase in tourism to Wellington, shaping the entire economy.

The location of the scene where the hobbits cowered from the Black Rider, while spiders crawled over them. They were originally going to include a rare weta, except it got killed by one of the centipedes, so they buried it and moved on.


A summer in Oxford

So fast our summer sabbatical in Oxford is over. Weeks flew by filled with interesting meetings, lazy hours in our little garden, long walks along the canals, the occasional beer in an English pub, and visits by the best friends you could imagine. We celebrated some major milestones, 10 years married and Hayden's 6th birthday. We got to re-indulge in pleasures of our youth, with Oxford surprising us with its familiarity to Australian eyes, while encountering new pleasures of today. Even a trip to the hospital was an occasion to smile with a visit from a volunteer clown. A magical couple of months to be treasured.





Dunkirk and Brussels

I saw Dunkirk today. For a WWII movie, it was surprisingly low-violence, nothing like Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene of which so movingly illustrated the pointless slaughter of war. Yet in another way, the first few seconds of Dunkirk was more disturbing. We are used to WWII movies set on the bombed out ruins of shattered cities, but the Battle of Dunkirk was right at the start of the war. There is something just profoundly disturbing about seeing soliders flee machine guns in a charming European city, no different from the Belgian sea-side towns of today.

My first thought was revulsion, I hope to never see the military occupying my beloved home cities. My second thought, following rapidly, was anger - I do see military vehicles and machine-gun wielding soliders on a daily basis. For the last 18 months, Brussels has been living under military occupation. This cowardly and repressive action does nothing for our safety; it is designed to bolster fear and feed upon that fear for short-term political gain. 18 months in, this seems like the new reality, with the government too gutless to admit it was wrong to respond to a criminal situation with tanks instead of police and social workers. I love Belgium, but I hate, and will always hate, living in an occupied city, where my 6 year old son doesn't blink twice at casually seeing machine guns.


Claymation with Aardman 

As part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts, I took Hayden to a claymation workshop run by one of the clay modellers who works at Aardman. He made the models for Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep and many other Aardman productions, and today he taught us!


The international language

Travelling around central Asia, Hayden always had a keen eye out for a playground. Given the nod, he would run in, start climbing around, jump into games with the children. Whether it was playing leap-frog in a fancy mall in Kazakhstan or chasing each other around inside a yurt in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, all children speak an international language. The international language being, of course, Dinosaur. It typically only took a few minutes together before they were all roaring like dinosaurs and taking turns at eating or being eaten. There is probably an object lesson in there, like all kids share a common humanity, or perhaps all kids sharing a common desire to be a massive flesh-eating killing machine. Definitely one of those two.



Alamedin gorge

We hiked up through the gorgeous Alamedin gorge in Kyrgyzstan. The mountains were simply breathtaking and the weather was perfect for a hike. Hayden happily skipped up along the mountain path, following our gentle guide who stopped to move any flowers that had fallen along the path (she loved flowers, and was sad to think of other people standing on them). Near the top it was a struggle, and the view we had been hanging out for (a waterfall) was fairly dissapointing compared to the nice views down below. Fortunately our guide just laughed and told us about a field of wildflowers and marmots just a little further on, which was simply enchanting. Our day was rounded out by skipping tea in a yurt while Hayden made new friends with the local kids. Really one of my most perfect moments.


Korgaldzhyn nature reserve


World Fair 2017



Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. An ultra-modern city of skyscrapers built in the central Asian desert - it brought back memories of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan. But Astana felt more real, full of people, so in a lot of ways it was more like Dubai. It was a city putting on a show, for the World Fair, but it felt like a city that was always putting on a show, and certainly always welcoming to guests. If Astana is a city of the future, that future will be friendly and fun.

Astana means "capital" in Kazakh, which is widely considered to be a placeholder for "Nursultan", named after President Nazarbayev (the first and likely lifetime holder of the Presidency). The President is humbly delaying the namechange until after he dies, but parliament supports the change. President Nazarbayev is widely popular in Astana, providing good support to students and pensioners, and balancing the nationalists and the regionalists adroitly. It makes you wonder why he bothers rigging elections - he would pretty clearly win in a fully democratic vote. I was told this anecdote in Kazakhstan: 

President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan is so good at "winning" elections that during the American election, Trump asked Nazarbayev for help. Nazarbayev checked with Putin, and then gladly sent his top election men to Trump.

After the US election, the team returned to Kazakhstan and the President asked: "How did Trump do?"

"Oh", his election men said, "Trump did great, he came in second"

"What!", Nazarbayev said, "You let the Democrats win?!"

"Oh no, they came third."

"Then who won?"

"You did, Mr President"



Ian Gooding and Moana

One of the highlights of the crusie for us was a lecture series by Ian Gooding, the production designer on Moana/Vaiana*.

He gave a series of five lectures on the making of the movie which made me love an already amazing movie more. There were many technical aspects that are cutting edge - Moana's hair was modelling at the level of single strands, all interacting with each other and the level of moisture to create the natural bounces and movements. But the really impressive part was the attention to getting things right. A six second clip of Moana dancing involved a research team investigating the cloth types, patterns and colours that were available 2000 years ago in the south Pacific, plus cultural teams working on the dance style, the cultural context, the music - everything. A real dedication to getting every last detail right, not just to make the product look good, but to make the product a homage to the people they were depicting. One example that stuck with me was the night sky you see in Moana - it could have just been random dots, and few people would have noticed. But instead they asked an observatory to run a simulation of the night sky 2000 years ago above Samoa - I doubt anyone would ever notice the difference between modern Samoan stars and 2000 years ago Samoan stars, but they wanted to get it right.

I really respect that level of attention to detail, that much passion for your job. Even if we don't pick up all of the details, the love and respect the movie was built with really shines through in the final production. Congratulations to Ian and his team!


* In Europe the movie name was changed to Vaiana due to "trademark restrictions" (probably actually about potential confusion with a famous porn star).