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Weta Workshop builds an army for Disney live-action epic, Mulan

Building an army for Dinsey's Mulan: Inside Weta Workshop

Five-time Academy Award®-winning concept design and manufacturing facility Weta Workshop has revealed the vast array of weapons and armour it manufactured for Disney’s new live-action epic Mulan.

Based in Wellington, New Zealand, the workshop crafted more than four thousand weapons and three hundred suits of armour - making Mulan the largest armour and weapons manufacturing job undertaken by the company since The Hobbit trilogies.

Film director and fellow New Zealander Niki Caro has reimagined the story of Mulan, a legendary female warrior in China, who disguises herself as a man and takes her elderly father's place in the army.

Weta Workshop Co-founder and Creative Director Richard Taylor says the team were delighted to work on such a beautiful film.

Mulan really was epic in its vision, scale and complexity. The original animated film was so unique in its beauty and animation style that we knew this live-action adaptation of the story - coupled with it being a Disney project - was going to require an extraordinary level of craft. We approached it as if we were delivering a large quantity of items on set, akin to stunning artefacts from a historical time.

Richard Taylor Co-founder & Creative Director, Weta Workshop

Richard continues, "This project was creatively inspiring, richly textured and minutely detailed - and for our team at the Workshop these are the components that make a hugely rewarding project.” 

Almost all of Weta Workshop’s 17 manufacturing departments worked on the project collaboratively. The costume department, led by Alistair McDougall, first conducted research into ancient Chinese methods of making armour. Then, the team replicated these methods – both by hand and by developing more time-efficient techniques, using modern technologies.

Working on a Disney film with a talented director like Niki Caro and using a beautiful traditional Chinese aesthetic with a lead female character was an incredible and unique opportunity. Mulan really tested our teams’ abilities to research and replicate traditional methods of making armour. We wanted the costumes to look authentic and beautiful on screen, whilst also being durable and comfortable for the actors and stunt teams on set.

Danielle Prestidge Supervising Production Manager, Weta Workshop

The manufacture division at Weta Workshop was able to mass-produce many of the weapons at speed, whilst maintaining their durability, high surface quality and authentic look, with the development of a moulding and casting technique new to Weta Workshop. Head of Manufacture Rob Gillies says the crew came up with a new injection-moulding technique, which meant an entire sword or spear could be made out of a one-shot mould, rather than multiple parts.

The injection moulding technique really sped up the manufacturing process. This was a research and development project we were mid-way through before the film and it needed to ramp up significantly. We made dozens of prototypes and took each one outside to test their strength, literally thrashing them against a wall or simulating action scenes! Once we’d finished making the armour, our crew then went on set to make sure every costume, sword, spear, suit, arrow, dagger or helmet looked and worked as it should for the directed scenes.”

Rob Gillies – Head of Manufacture, Weta Workshop

In the film, Mulan dons her father’s armour to look like a man whilst enlisting in the army.  This armour was entirely handmade by Weta Workshop’s specialist leather worker Darin Gordine, who worked closely with the film’s lead Costume Designer, Bina Daigeler. Darin created four versions of the suit of armour to allow for the vigorous action sequences on set. Each suit had over 1,300 individual leather plates laced together, then decorated with many intricate metal fixtures.

Making Mulan's armour: Inside Weta Workshop

This project was equal parts rewarding and challenging. I specialise in making hand-tooled leather armour, but this traditional Chinese lamellar style of suit was entirely new to me. It was a real challenge to make it look beautiful, robust and realistic - but also to ensure it would allow the lead actress Liu Yifei to move vigorously during action scenes. It was an incredible moment when I saw her put the armour on for the first time and light up in her character.

Darin Gordine Senior Costumer & Leather Specialist, Weta Workshop

Weta Workshop built 47 different types of weapons for Mulan, including swords, spears, daggers, sheaths, quivers, bows and arrows. In total it produced 2000 Chinese weapons, 1500 tribesman weapons and 2000 individual arrows.

The company’s master swordsmith Peter Lyon created the steel swords used by Mulan in several key scenes.

Making Mulan's sword: Inside Weta Workshop

There is a particular scene where Mulan looks at her reflection in the sword and sees the characters etched into the blade, which say ‘Loyal, Brave and True’. For that shot, we made a special sword that was double scale. We had to hand-sand the blade to an incredibly fine finish, in order to get the perfect reflection. It’s fantastic to see the close-up shots on screen - there’s nothing that beats the real material

Peter Lyon Master Swordsmith, Weta Workshop

Disney’s Mulan reimagines an animated classic with incredible stunt work, beautiful scenery and authentic looking armour and weapons. Mulan is available to all Disney+ subscribers for no extra charge from December 4.

Crewmember Ana Wang poses in Mulan's father's armour, alongside the maker Darin Gordine.