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Spectral: Weapons, props, & specialty costumes

Erik Hay

Director of Creative Strategy

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Spectral, the hotly anticipated sci-fi thriller directed by Nic Mathieu and produced by Legendary Pictures, has landed on Netflix. Touted as “Black Hawk Down meets Ghostbusters” (Gizmodo), the film revolves around an elite Special Ops unit who must fight their way through terrifying unseen enemies; but they’ll have help: high-tech props, weapons and costumes by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.

The world of Spectral called for props with a surgical-like level of engineering; a job that proved tremendously complex for Weta Workshop senior concept designer Christian Pearce, who was tasked with visualising one of the film’s largest and most intricate devices: the “hyperspectral” camera. Says Christian: “The level of technology that we see in Spectral is incredibly refined. It had to look like military tech, but not look like a gun – more like a cutting-edge prototype of experimental hardware.”

The complexity of the project quickly soared to a new level as Christian conceptualised a beat-up, “hacked-together” version of the camera for a key sequence in the film. Designing multiple versions of the prop, Christian explored how it might look and function after being reengineered.

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To have to pull this hyperspectral camera apart and then start looking at how every element works in, and even how it’s held together, right down to the type of screws and mounting points …It needed to be totally convincing from the inside out.

Christian Pearce Senior Concept Designer, Weta Workshop.
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While Christian was busy peeling apart his design, the manufacturing divisions of Weta Workshop faced a challenge of their own: making it a reality. As the concepts evolved through close consultation with production designer Tom Meyer, Weta Workshop’s 3D artists worked up models and sent them to the Workshop floor, where the crew rolled up their sleeves to create some of the largest handheld weapons they had attempted to date, all imbued with a military precision. Plasma rifles were cast in urethane and fitted with practical components such as trigger electronics and interactive lighting – practical effects that complemented the visual effects done by the team at Weta Digital, just minutes away on the Peninsula.

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The decision around materiality – how we could get the look, how we could get all the detail captured in there but still keep them light enough so they weren’t fatiguing the actors on set – was a big consideration too. They also function a little bit, which is pretty cool.

Rob Gillies Workshop Supervisor, Weta Workshop
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That careful consideration for the actors carried over into the combat suits worn by the DARPA unit, the Special Ops team at the heart of the film. 6 hero suits and 14 stunt suits were manufactured with fully articulated armadillo-style neck pieces made from soft urethane, and helmets featuring full opening face plates. The suits were to be used in one of the film’s most explosive scenes, which meant additional versions had to be created that didn’t compromise the vision, breathing, or safety of the actors. The crew’s solution was to fabricate soft neoprene masks with a digital printed surface: completely stunt-safe, while still giving realistic full-face coverage.

Specialty soft costume elements for the DARPA unit were designed with Spectral costume designer Lizz Wolf, and crafted under the leadership of much-loved crew member and HOD of Costume, Claire Prebble – her final project with the Workshop before she sadly passed away in 2015. Her work, and that of her team, can be seen in more than 100 specialty costume components including semi-translucent hooded suit capes, gloves, and under-suit padding in a camouflage print.

Overall, this was a fantastically rewarding project for Weta Workshop and a chance to look at props from a whole new perspective. Says Christian:

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The almost surgical-like level of finish on these props and weapons was something special. Knowing that one of the hero props was going to get taken apart and you were going to see inside it – that’s not something we usually get to do. It was an awesome challenge.

Christian Pearce Senior Concept Designer, Weta Workshop.
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Those wondering if Weta Workshop’s hyperspectral camera, plasma rifles and high-tech combat suits will be enough to defeat the otherworldly forces that threaten them, need wonder no more. Starring James Badge Dale, Emily Mortimer, and Bruce Greenwood, Spectral is screening on Netflix now.

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