'Love needs to be present. A lack of it will diminish everything into mediocrity': Sir Richard Taylor's take on inspiring creativity

Photo: Steve Unwin
Weta Workshop has established itself as one of the world's most creative companies. How did they do it? And what do you need if you want to replicate it? Suzi McAlpine delved into the dark arts of creativity and asked Sir Richard Taylor to share his advice.

I know you are not supposed to have favourites. But Weta Workshop is one of mine. I’ve had the pleasure of working with this whimsical, crazy, brilliant, delightfully flawed company for several years now. And I love them – their eye watering talent, their passion for what is possible, the craziness that is Weta Workshop.

This team turns out brilliant works of art like it’s just another day in the office. Which for them, it is.  You might not know them by name, but you’ll know their work. They are responsible for the fantastical creatures, conceptual design and effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Mad Max: Fury Road and Avatar. They’ve won more Oscars than you can poke a stick at.

Sir Richard Taylor (along with his partner/wise woman extraordinaire Tania Rodger) is founder, creative director and head of this creative treasure trove of a workplace. I talked to Richard about creativity. And here’s what he had to say. 

What is the most interesting conversation you’ve had recently? Who was it with and what was it about?

Madame Peng – the first lady of China. A conversation over lunch in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, whilst attending the signing of an MOU with the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art and Massey University (which included ourselves). The topic being the absolute necessity for creatively-driven people to be the people to lead our world into the future.

Madame Peng is a wonderful champion for the creative futures of young people in China. She very much shares the view that through creative leadership, the Chinese youth culture can be imprinted on the world’s stage through mass media entertainment and traditional arts such as theatre, opera, dance and music.

Madame Peng has introduced us to the PLA Art Academy and through this relationship we have met a most dynamic faculty of creative leaders and doers in the form of the educators that work within the Army’s education facility in Beijing. Massey University and Weta Workshop have hosted a number of their representatives in New Zealand and this has instigated an amazing exchange of creative ideas and educational inspiration for New Zealand and Chinese students alike.

When did you first get an inkling that you had the ‘creative gene’? How old were you? Was there a seminal moment when you went, “hang on a minute, I might be more creative than the general population?” Or was it a gradual realisation that you had talent in terms of creativity? Tell us about your ‘creative awakening’.

Although I had been making things since I was very young, I knew from about the age of 8 or 9 that I wanted to spend my life making things with my hands. I still remember distinctly (40 years later as I write this) my deep sense of disappointment and frustration that I couldn’t create competently enough with my hands what I was carrying around in my head at this early age.

Of course, if one had a head full of fantastical ideas back then, and you wanted to bring them forth into your life (and you knew you couldn’t buy them blister packed from the corner store as you may do today) then you better bloody well learn to build them really well with your hands, or life was going to be lacking in some way. So I started building stuff and simply have never stopped.

What kills creativity more than anything else? And conversely, what needs to be present for creativity to flourish? (Leaders take note…)

A lack of Love. Love needs to be present. A lack of it will diminish everything into mediocrity.

The word love when used in relation to business undoubtedly causes some to roll eyes and some to think “what a dopey thing to say”. BUT, the creative process and the business surrounding it, if devoid of love, is a very hollow endeavour.

You could imagine that a fair proportion of the world’s business leaders think from their heads – analyse, instruct, direct and critique through rigorous authority. Of course, if we are to engender passionate work colleagues focused on excellence within their creative endeavour, we need to lead with our heart.

To quote Megan Gaiser: "Creativity is the antidote to unconscious bias and simply put love is consciousness”. If you think about it, if you as a business leader don’t love what you do – or love the things that you create, or love the people who create with you, or love the process with which you create – how in turn can you expect your audience, clients, purchasers or end users to love it also?

In a world where the buyer has an extraordinary level of choice, where the end user has a massive range of options, or an audience has the choice to consume a plethora of different entertainment content, I would suggest it is the ability to connect through the love of one’s product that makes the difference.

(Rather than through the clever machinations of some ingeniously thought out marketing intent, by a group of disengaged individuals trying to flog a lesser product to the disenchanted).

If modern day business going into the future doesn’t possess love as its core value, I am not sure how our incredibly discerning and selective audiences of today’s modern world will stay connected to what we are hoping to offer.

Weta Workshop’s entire success seems to be predicated on its ability to produce extraordinary, creatively brilliant masterpieces – often under tight timeframes and with ridiculous constraints, constantly. Whew. That’s a lot of pressure to be creative! How do you create an environment that is conducive to achieving that? What practices and ‘operating rhythms’ really help your team to tune into their creative instincts?

We try to run the workshop as a collaborative endeavour where people have a voice – rather than a business driven by a singular doctrine or single-minded leadership. This offers an environment where people feel they can be part of our successes and are keen to offset our short-fallings. We try to collaborate in a way where personal egos stay out of the equation and operate the workshop floor with a “no muppet” rule!

We thrive on creative solutions found in the heat of the moment.

In our business one of the only certainties is the uncertainty of the freelance market. This puts a great deal of pressure on someone’s personal life and their uncertainty in over-committing to large investments (i.e. a house). What we have tried to do at Weta Workshop is lessen the uncertainty for our team to the greatest level we can.

People suggest to me from time-to-time that our success can surely be measured in the number of Oscars we have won or premieres we have attended etc. I think our success can be best measured by two main cultural characteristics: by the number of babies born to the team here and the number of mortgages owned by our colleagues.

This will inevitably generate a chuckle of “yeah right” amongst some, but if you think about it, to run an art studio in Wellington, New Zealand, in the world’s business climate of uncertainty and ups and downs, and to run it in a way that your work mates have a sense of certainty enough to make the two largest decisions (potentially) that most will make in their lives (i.e. to buy a house or start a family), I take great pride that we have been able to give this level of financial and family stability in an otherwise fairly crazy industry, and offer a group of creatives a career possessing some certainty.

One concept of cultivating creative thinking, one that my father (who did his Ph.D. on creativity in science) used to espouse was “reject black and white thinking, seek out the ‘no one right answer.'” What is a phrase or philosophy around creativity that resonates with you; that talks to creativity or the creative process?

To quote the wonderful Ian Taylor from Taylormade in Dunedin – “Just pour the concrete and bugger the boxing.” i.e. Don’t over analyse, don’t over speculate – just throw yourself into it, tackle it head on, with unabashed enthusiasm and tenacity!

We throw our hearts into the projects that we do, but ultimately these projects will come and go. Whereas our team will always be – and therefore we need to be together in health, mind and body, ready to tackle the next project that comes our way.

Who has been a massive influence, creatively speaking, in your life? What have you learnt from them?

Fred Tang. My business partner in China who I met 18 years ago. Fred has been an integral part of my creative journey over the past two decades. His wisdom and unique perspective on the cultural diversities of China, Japan and the US (the three places where he resides) have been very informative to me.

He has given me a greater depth of insight around the business environment of China than I could have ever imagined getting through any other means. Fred and I have travelled extensively in China together. Fred is always forthcoming with an unbiased perspective and incredibly helpful advice on how to navigate the various challenges that are thrown up while dealing with people in this unique business and cultural environment. Fred is a deeply philosophical individual, but his philosophies are always delivered with a wry sense of humour and a singular and pointed perspective that always offers a better appreciation of one’s environment and situation.

Collective wisdom teaches us that although usually painful or uncomfortable, we learn far more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. What is a big mistake or failure you have made and what did you learn from it?

I have undoubtedly made mistakes, slipped up from time-to-time, allowed my unabashed enthusiasm for what we do to lead me into areas that lack common-sense, but I can’t write that any of these were big mistakes. All of them ultimately informed another aspiration and another avenue of enquiry and excitement. I am very much of the view you never dwell on or analyse your mistakes because in doing so you are giving them far too much credit in your life and far too much air time – but rather just move on, clear your head, put your rose coloured specs back on and go at it again.

If you could interview a creative person (past or present), who would that person be? And what would you ask them?

I have a great love of figurative sculpture. Whenever I travel I make every endeavour to visit galleries, museums and war memorials that have classical sculpture of the human form on display. My favourite period of sculpture is during Victoria’s reign (British New Sculpture) where the first sculptors of Britain were being inspired by the romanticism of Italy.

Sculptors such as Alfred Gilbert, Alfred Drury, Gilbert Bayes, Sir William Hamo Thornycroft and Charles Sargeant Jagger. I have always wanted to be transported back in time to just hang out in the studios of Gilbert Bayes, who was a journeyman sculptor from Manchester who went on to create an extraordinary body of work (the Selfridges Clock, the Lions heads along the walls of the Thames etc.) and added hugely to this art movement.

It would be great to just sit, hang out, watch his process and in turn learn from his extraordinary craftsmanship, and find joy in the artistry that he put into all his work. I don’t think much would need to be asked or said – just observing him work would be enough and this would be a great way to spend a wonderful afternoon.

What did you once believe in strongly but don’t anymore?

I always used to believe that common sense would prevail when large sums of money and the efforts of huge numbers of technically expert people were in question. Sadly though, sense is not quite as common as you would wish it to be.

Finally, and this is one I’m borrowing from Tim Ferris, what do people never ask you that you wish they would? (and give us the answer too btw).

Would you like some time to yourself? I find the busier the person you are the busier others expect you to be. I am very happy to give of my time as fully as possible and in turn people will always ask of my time (e.g. public speaking, educational opportunities, charitable work). All good stuff but ... it would put a smile on my face the day someone comes up to me and says “oh, I see you are very busy, I’ll leave you to it and sort this out another way.”

Suzi McAlpine is a leadership development specialist. This interview originally appeared on her blog, The Leader's Digest.