Culture

Robin Ince: Slash, hobbits and walrus vomit at Wētā Workshop

At Wētā Workshop in New Zealand, Robin Ince bumps into some familiar faces, and takes one through the airport X-ray machine

Slash of Guns N Roses on stage

Slash in action. Image: Ray Garbo/Shutterstock

I bumped into Slash in a room full of swords and close to a hobbit’s feet. This is not a dream, though it is very similar to the plotting of many of my night terrors. This is what happened in Wellington, New Zealand. The night of our show about black holes clashed with Slash’s band Guns N’ Roses playing the local stadium. The streets were filled with the middle-aged out for a good time and possibly a slipped disc in the mosh pit. Pupils were dilated long before the support band hit their first note. That afternoon, Brian Cox and I had been invited to Wētā Workshop, the remarkably inventive special effects creators whose career started when Peter Jackson made films where walruses copiously vomited (if you haven’t seen Meet the Feebles then give it a try – it is as if John Waters made The Great Muppet Caper). Later that day I would discover the hidden and very smelly dangers of using old food scraps, an air-conditioning unit and a man in a tusk suit to create the required speed of vomit. This sort of thing never happened when Wētā moved on to Middle-earth.

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This was my Charlie Bucket moment in Willy Wonka’s factory. Each room was occupied by people filled with love and fascination for the cultish and strange, creating all manner of claws, paws, animatronic heads and sabres. Since discovering my ADHD, it has given me the framework to understand myself and other people’s attitude to me. During this tour, I have often been called out for saying strange things – “God, you are weird!”

Now I know more. Now I know that I do not need to be ashamed of my odd trains of thought or my frequent inability to follow the route of normal, perhaps drab, social niceties. Looking at the people beavering around latex and anvils, I saw they were the same too. I think many of them would have been the odd child, but now they worked in an environment where there were so many odds that their world was even. 

Now the jocks and the alpha boys and girls of the schoolyard pay money to go to the movies and see the worlds created by the weirdos, and are fleeced for popcorn in the foyer. 

The room that captivated me above all others was haunted by the faces of the living and the dead. On the walls were the white-as-snow life masks of Christopher Lee, Tor Johnson, David Bowie, Meryl Streep and Boris Karloff, as well as many more. In one row there were three Vincent Prices – each cast showed more wrinkles and a loosening of the skin where prosthetics would hang and jut. I was allowed to take the Peter Cushing off the wall, and I told the story of how his mother would punish him by pretending to be dead, until the day he shoved some jammy bread in her face. She never did it again. Revenge is a dish served best buttered and heavy with raspberry conserve.

The next day, the Wētā Workshop team came to our show and Richard, one of the original creators of walrus vomit, had a box with him. It was a gift for me. I unwrapped it gently and it was just what I always wanted – the face of Peter Cushing. I was elated, and also excitedly thinking about how airport security would react as Cushing passed through numerous X-ray machines. 

Annoyingly, no one said a thing. It’s as if passing through airports with the face of Peter Cushing is expected in the southern hemisphere. I wonder what they would say if I brought my vomiting walrus through security.

Robin Ince is an author and broadcaster. His book, Bibliomaniac: An Obsessive’s Tour of the Bookshops of Britain, is out now. You can buy a copy from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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