From school to Weta Workshop
Scoring a job at Weta Workshop straight out of high school was only the beginning for Johnny Fraser-Allen. Caroline Brown talks to the Wellington artist about fate, fantasy and Evangeline Lilly.
There is a fairytale-like feeling to the story of 28-year-old Johnny Fraser-Allen. A chance encounter with Weta Workshop's Sir Richard Taylor at the airport, and the pivotal decision to miss a flight home so he could talk to him, landed Fraser-Allen his dream job at Weta at the age of 19. Nearly a decade on, he has put working for the creative company on hold to focus on his latest adventure - writing and illustrating children's books, and gearing up for his second exhibition.
Landing his dream job at Weta took a touch of fate for Fraser-Allen. He had flown from Christchurch to Wellington, hoping to show Taylor his final high school design portfolio at a photography exhibition by Lord of The Rings star Viggo Mortensen, but Taylor was a no-show.
Despondently waiting for his flight home, he spotted Taylor at the airport. "I had the choice of missing my flight or talking to him, so I missed my flight."
The meeting was a turning point.
"Richard took a lot of time with me, gave me a lot of advice, then he gave me his card and told me to bring my portfolio up in person."
When Fraser-Allen got home, he scrapped his portfolio and started again, based on the Oscar winner's advice.
When Taylor eventually looked at his portfolio, he said Fraser-Allen's skills weren't good enough for the design room, but he employed him based on his enthusiasm.
Fraser-Allen spent the next 2 years in the models and miniatures department, crafting items for movies such as King Kong, before moving into the design department to work on Prince Caspian, Tintin and The Hobbit.
After four years of working on conceptual design, Fraser-Allen started sculpting and fell in love.
"I realised I preferred pushing clay to pushing pixels."
After sculpting his favourite fantasy characters from the likes of The Labyrinth in his spare time, Fraser-Allen returned to the idea of his own fantasy novel, The Gloaming, which had been in the back of his mind since secondary school.
"I spent a lot of time and money on characters that I could never use, because of copyright and intellectual property. I realised that if I had spent that time and money on gnomes, then I would be halfway to an exhibition of my own."
The concept for The Gloaming started as an "unnatural geographic" type of fantasy encyclopaedia, but it morphed into an adventure and fantasy novel. "The characters took on lives of their own - they surprised me."
Fraser-Allen started sculpting only for the book, giving up work at Weta. "The book just got bigger and bigger."
He held his first exhibition of Gloaming characters late last year. At the time he thought the first of the accompanying trilogy of books - for which he doesn't yet have a publisher - would soon follow. "The story kept changing the more I sculpted; I just kept writing it and rewriting it as the characters I was sculpting took on lives of their own."
News of Fraser-Allen giving up working for Weta to pursue his children's book dream reached the ears of actress Evangeline Lilly, who had also taken time out from work for a similar project. Lilly approached him last year to collaborate on a children's book. The result is a fantastical series called The Squickerwonkers that the pair unveiled at Comic-Con in San Diego last month.
The collaboration hasn't ended there, with Lilly set to play the lead character of The Gloaming, Wosel, in the forthcoming audio book of the trilogy.
Busier than ever, Fraser-Allen is now gearing up for his latest exhibition of characters from the Gloaming trilogy, which opens at Expressions Arts & Entertainment Centre today.
But he's not letting his recent success go to his head. "I never let myself feel good. I'd stop working without the pressure."
Fraser-Allen has at least six or seven more ideas in his head, with several projects on the go already.
"The launch and exhibition are a great burst of being able to enjoy it, but I won't feel like I've made it until the book is on the bookshelves and a kid is asking their mum to buy it for them."
The Gloaming is on at the Expressions Arts & Entertainment Centre, in Upper Hutt, until October 27.