Workshop to space station...... come in space station

When Weta Workshop General Manager, Dave Wilks answered a phone call on a Saturday morning back in September, the last person he expected would be on the other end was an astronaut, let alone one aboard the International Space Station. Fortunately for Dave and the Weta Workshop crew, that's exactly who it was.

American Astronaut Kjell Lindgren was calling Dave to set up a downlink, NASA speak for video call, with the Weta Workshop Crew.

"My phone flashed up an international code, so I knew it was coming a fair distance. Isn’t that just the understatement of the year?” says Dave. "I pick up and, just like that, I’m on the line with the International Space Station. Clear as day. I shouted out for my son to come and jump on the line. He gave me this totally bemused look, and guess it makes sense… it’s not every day you get a call from the space station!"

-Dave Wilks, General Manager, Weta Workshop

Fast-forward two months to November 13. An enthusiastic crew from the Workshop have congregated around a Polycom in the boardroom. “This was our second go at it,” says Erik Hay, Senior Communications Manager for Weta Workshop. “We’d originally planned for three days prior but got bumped for a spacewalk. All told, that’s a pretty good excuse.”

At the table is a real cross-section of the Workshop, from concept designers and art directors through to the IT team. And in the centre of it all, Dave Wilks and CEO and Co-founder Richard Taylor, who had brought his father, Norm, along for the ride.

Houston Ground Control is a well-oiled machine, and at precisely 9.00am NZT, a call placed in Wellington New Zealand shoots across the Pacific, hits Texas, rockets 400 kilometres straight up, bounces off a satellite and finds its target: The International Space Station. Astronaut Dr Kjell Lindgren is ready and waiting for the call, microphone in hand and then not in hand, as he leaves it to float and waves to the Weta Workshop crew.

Dr Lindgren, born 23 January, 1973 and selected as a member of the NASA Astronaut Group 20 in June 2009, is greeted with rapturous applause by a group comprised of the Workshop's most enthusiastic space fans. For each of them this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's a chance for a group of artists and technicians so often tasked with bringing imaginary science fiction and fantasy worlds to life to ask all of their burning questions…

“Do you naturally orientate with your feet pointed towards the Earth, or are you just doing that out of politeness to the viewer?” jokes Concept Designer Christian Pearce. What follows is a fascinating insight into the intricacies of space craft design. A few minutes later, Animation Supervisor and Designer Stephen Lambert asks if Earth has taken on its own personality after being viewed from Kjell’s unique perspective. Ben Hawker, Director and Art Director asked if Kjell’s dreams were different in space, while Communications Manager Erik Hay was interested to find out which unrealistic film depictions of space travel bug astronauts the most.

The crew and those watching the live stream around the Workshop and down the road at Park Road Post Production were also treated to an extraordinary look back down at Earth through a scientific window that’s usually filled with equipment. “Fortunately for us, during my entire mission we haven’t had anything in there,” says Kjell, “so it’s been available to us to take pictures through. I’m gonna grab the camera and show you what the view is like from here.”

With so much to see and so much to ask, everybody forgot to keep an eye on clock and, all of a sudden, the downlink cut out. "It was a shame," says Erik. "The station moved out of alignment, and that was all she wrote. I feel bad that Kjell didn’t get the chance to ask us anything. Still, I'm sure he's used to it, a space station is a pretty big talking point!”

Kjell has now completed his space station mission and returned to Earth. Now that his feet are safely back on the ground, the crew at Weta Workshop are looking to keep the conversation going and will be giving Kjell the standard Earthling to Earthling call in the not too distant future.

Dave Wilks has nothing but thanks for the opportunity.

“To Kjell, the team on board the International Space Station and the team in Houston, Weta Workshop would like to extend a giant thank-you. It was incredibly valuable for the crew here at the Workshop to get a real appreciation of what life in space is like.”

-Dave Wilks, General Manager, Weta Workshop

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