"It's inspired by an original painting by John Howe. I've always thought Gandalf the Grey was a more interesting character than Gandalf the White. Gandalf the Grey in The Fellowship of the Ring is that old man, whereas Gandalf the White is almost larger than life and really heroic."
"I started sculpting this piece without Gandalf's hat on. When you put the hat on his head, he instantly becomes Gandalf. The challenge for me is to make him into Gandalf even without the hat. I discussed this with Richard Taylor and we decided to make the hat removable. I still prefer that statue without the hat."
Weta has also created a life size sculpture of Gandalf the Grey, originally displayed at San Diego Comic-Con and currently residing in the Weta Cave here in Wellington.
"The life size Gandalf was actually created from the small one. We 3D-printed a very rough enlargement in clay and then a team of sculptors proceeded to add the detail."
"At first it felt really weird. It was the first time ever that I'd had the opportunity to re-visit a sculpture on a different scale. I felt like a tiny little person on a massive sculpt and it was almost eerie - being able to stick my whole arm into a fold in the cloak to add detail where I'd previously used a set of very fine tools to get into every fold. On a 1/6 scale sculpt you have to leave some of the hidden detail to the imagination.
Steven is currently involved in several sculptures yet to be released.
"This year and next will be very busy for us - there are so may beautiful pieces we want to make and we are constantly revising and refining the details of what will be released."
"There are quite a few pieces we're working on that I feel I really must own, even if it means getting a bigger apartment. Barad-dûr - Fortress of Sauron is one such piece. I must have it."
We leave Steven for this time, but vow to get back and talk to him again as the collectibles pieces in Weta's range from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey are revealed.
Steven Saunders has been with Weta for two years. After finishing film school in his native South Africa around the time of The Lord of the Rings, he confesses to bombarding Weta with portfolios and never giving up - finally travelling to New Zealand for an opportunity to work for Richard Taylor and with the team.
He is a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings - he calls it the Star Wars of his generation (which makes one or two of us feel really old). But he didn't stop at dreaming about working at Weta - he made it a reality from sheer determination and hard work.
"The key to success in most trades is to do it a lot. To be really good at something, you need to do it for 10,000 hours. So you do all that hard work and then you can call yourself a professional", Steven explains.
"After having spent so much time working on my own, running a small studio in South Africa, one thing I really enjoy about working at Weta is being around lots of other sculptors and artists. I can just turn around and watch them work on projects I've got little to do with. When I was working by myself, most of the weight of each project was on me and it was harder to take a step back and appreciate it."
Steven started as work was revving up for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey when Peter Jackson had just taken on the role of director. A crazy busy time at Weta. One of Steven's first assignments was a The Lord of the Rings collectible, the sitting Gandalf in our range of miniature figures.
"In South Africa, I'd worked on over 30 movie projects, sculpting, fabricating, prop making and model making. It was a welcome challenge to get to do a collectible." Steven says.
"I enjoy the way each collectible is created collaboratively and has to fit a range of requirements from different people. Everything I do as a sculptor has an impact on the final product. The creativity and artistic merit is always the guiding light here at Weta but if the final piece is getting too big or too complex, it's up to the team to find new ways of achieving the objectives. I really enjoy that process. Striking the balance."
"Ultimately - I think like a collector. Many years ago I was quite a prolific collector of sculptures and toys, but after a while I came to the realisation that if there's something I really want - I should make it myself. And now I'm in a situation where I can create the pieces I'd really like to own myself."
"I think you're in trouble as an artist if you start making things you think other people would like to own rather than what you know you'd really like yourself."
Steven has had a hand in (and at least an eye on) just about every Middle-earth collectible created since he started here.
"Most collectibles projects are collaborative - there are elements of concept design, physical sculpting, digital sculpting, model making, mould making, painting and a range of other techniques to get to the final piece."
Steven's most recent piece (that has been made public, that is...) is Gandalf the Grey 1/6 scale statue from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
"I tend to try and avoid poses that are too heroic and not in tune with the character. With the pose for Gandalf the Grey, I wanted to say that this is not just a wizard - this is an old man, supporting himself on his staff after a long walk. The wind catches his robe and it billows out as he's gazing into the distance."