How Wētā Workshop is blazing a trail with creature feature FX in horror movie The Tank

A new horror movie filmed on Auckland's remote west coast could represent a world first for practical special effects.

Set in 1970s America, The Tank centres on an abandoned coastal property, an old water tank and a murderous creature seemingly awakened from its slumber by a family moving in. It stars New Zealand actors Matt Whelan of Go Girls and Narcos alongside Luciane Buchanan of Netflix smash hit The Night Agent.

New Zealand writer and director Scott Walker knew he wanted a live-action creature rather than a CGI-heavy beast. So he turned to long-time friend Sir Richard Taylor of Wētā Workshop to create the new terror from below.

However, when Walker approached the award-winning Taylor with the idea, he was bemused to see they were bizarrely already on the same wavelength.

"I wrote the script and then rang Richard and said, 'I've had this horrible nightmare and I've written the script. Would you please read it?' And he read it and said, 'Oh, I've had these nightmares myself'. We kind of briefly aligned over a shared experience of having to go into water tanks and overactive imagination," Walker told Newshub.

Musing on if it was a collective fever dream they'd shared separately or destiny that The Tank would end up on screen, Taylor smiles knowingly.

"Yeah, that's what it was. From childhood, from the age of six or eight, I knew that some time in my future some bloke would turn up, waffling on about that flick on about his dreams and I would be able to go, 'Just stop right there, Scott. Can I tell you the story?' That's actually what we did. So we had the 'Battle of the Tank' story, which was really great," Taylor cheekily replies, a beaming smile plastered across his face.

At the time of our interview, Taylor hadn't seen the completed movie, revealing he was due to see it the week prior to release at a public screening in Wellington. However, in creating the creature for the film, he told Newshub he saw parallels between The Tank and the first Alien movie.

Luciane Buchanan
Luciane Buchanan of the Night Agent stars. Photo credit: Supplied

"When I read the script, I thought the timing was just really terrific. I complimented Scott about how he had been so contained and doing that in the manner that Ridley Scott had done with the original Alien movie. I think you can be forthcoming with breaking the suspense and revealing your creature.I have no doubt that Scott refrains from doing that will make for a better, more powerful movie."

Walker said that pacing was intentional.

"I always originally thought of this film in some ways as almost like a haunted house film for the first half and then a creature feature film for the second half. [That was] so that you're building tension and suspense around the eeriness of the place and what it might be."

Part of the challenge in The Tank lay in the creature itself. The filmmakers' desire to only use practical FX and have the monster in an enclosed environment presented its own unique challenges.

Horror film The Tank uses creepy locations from west Auckland.
Horror film The Tank uses creepy locations from west Auckland. Photo credit: Supplied

However, Taylor said these were challenges they relished and one may have led to a world first within the FX industry, thanks to their use of 3D printing machinery.

"We made the decision to be brave enough to try and do this for a full suit [creature]. It might be the first time that's ever been achieved for a film where you're doing a full suit character using 3D printing technology."

Contortionist Regina Hegemann was hired to play the film's creature, with Walker vehement there should be as much reality in the film as possible. At just a little over five feet in height, Hegemann was deemed perfect for filming in the enclosed spaces and tasked with Walker's vision being brought to life.

"Luckily for us, Scott wanted a very small creature, so the actor that we chose (Regina Hegemann) was only five foot tall, which meant that the quantity of 3D printing material was somewhat reduced. That was the first challenge," Taylor said.. 

"Finding the right actor is the most critical component. Finding something that's got a zen-like ability to cope with the intensity of the realities of a suit. You're almost totally blind. You almost can't hear, there's the effect that you're underwater, all of your body functions are restricted even if you want to go to the toilet. It is a significant undertaking that we have. 

"We are used to dealing with these things with actors, but irrelevant of how used to it we are, if the actor is not in the right mindset, you're never going to make it."

On top of that, the decision to shun CGI led to some creative thinking from Taylor and his Wētā Workshop team.

"Then the decision to use silicon [came]. Normally we would make a suit out of foam latex, the traditional material that almost all suits use. It's highly flexible, it's light, it's quick to put on and off. You can repair it. It takes water really well, it looks really great, but it doesn't turn translucent and it doesn't go underwater. Or if it does go underwater, it's only going to go underwater once. That leads to a number of potential days to dry it out, running the risk of shrinkage, before putting it back on again. So we made the decision to make the suit from silicone," Taylor explained.

"When it comes to the limitations of the practical suit, when you start with 'what's the creature going to be like' - instantly there is the reality of it's a human inside, a suit that needs to act like a creature or an animal. If it's on all fours. It can't do a lot of things like run around. It has to move in a way, and you have to create the perception or lean into the fact that it's a stealth predator. The things that became those are the limitations we were trying to lean into and work with."

However, production stalled early as Auckland went into a COVID-19 lockdown in 2021. Walker said that initial curse turned into a blessing - even if he was in Auckland and his FX crew was in Wellington.

Matt Whelan of Go Girls stars in The Tank.
Matt Whelan of Go Girls stars in The Tank. Photo credit: Supplied

"We started pre-production on the Monday then on Tuesday everyone was sent home for what would become four or five months," he said.

"We got shut down, which actually turned into quite a bit of a benefit. The suit was finished and we couldn't do anything to change it at that point, even though we would come to have five months off, which would have been wonderful if we'd known that's what we're going to get.

"But what was able to happen is two or three months into that lockdown, Wellington was able to have some sort of a freedom. So from Regina's perspective, she had time to get used to being in the suit and got into a big swimming pool.

"She's practising fighting people her size in the water tank underwater, being pulled in different directions by stunt people. She would come up, but she couldn't leap out of the water because the roof was so low in the tank. It would take maybe 15, 20 seconds for the water to drain out of the heat of the suit. And she couldn't take it off.

"It was attached to the body. She would come up and she'd just been fighting for a minute on the water, come up and have to stand there calmly while the water drained before she could take a breath. So she had time to practise for that."

Walker's already considering another outing from The Tank's creature - with a post credits sequence and time-hopping throughout the film hinting at future installments. 

Pressed by Newshub for what could be next, he remained elusive, but proffered this for moviegoers hoping for more: "Actually, in the pet store, there are a couple of sneaky little hints at a prequel. It's in one of the tanks.

"That's all I'll say," he grinned.

The Tank is in cinemas now.