Avatar elevates former boat builder onto world stage

The release of the latest Avatar movie has catapulted Matt Houghton’s skillset globally.

Matt was a boat builder in a previous life, his career highlight building SL33’s multihull catamarans for the America’s Cup from his Wellington base. Now working as production manager/prop maker at Wellington creative firm Human Dynamo, Matt’s put his boat building skills to work for Avatar: The Way of the Water.

Building for Avatar

He and a team of 15 have built “science fiction-type” consoles for the human base on Pandora that features in the James Cameron-directed film.

“We worked to specs under very tight timeframes, we did 12 different consoles, one or more a month, and the detail was quite extreme, everything had to look perfect,” says Matt.

“We were making things out of MDF, then painting them up so they looked like a car-quality paint job, colours had to be very exact and the finishes high quality.”

Attention to detail

Matt’s team was among more than 300 people contracted in art and construction departments behind the scenes.

“There was a real high attention to detail on things you wouldn’t even imagine would be a detail,” says Matt.

“Things like switches on consoles, little lights with little labels that light up behind them, electronics and lights in behind panels so that they glow, little pipes that come out of one place and go into somewhere else…

"On the actual set you might not even see that kind of detail, because the shot might be of someone walking past and it’ll just be a blur.

“But these things had to be perfectly painted and perfectly appointed because of the quality of camera work.”

Then there was the MDF-constructed and painted console featuring large screens that sat inside a bulldozer cab driven like a drone.

“There were lots of consoles, lots of wild, weird stuff which was super fun to work on,” says Matt.

From workshop to the big screen

Now the work is done, Matt has enjoyed being able to sit back and see his work on the big screen alongside audiences worldwide.

“After all the hours you pour into something, it’s really cool seeing the end result and getting some recognition for it.”

Hyman Dynamo, which has three decades of fabrication and model making experience from museum installation to film work, prides itself on making unusual things.

Unusual is a word Matt thrives on – as a prop maker and former boat builder, he’s used to making odd-shaped things.

“It’s a good fit, the industries cross over nicely, they both involve working with weird angles.”

I wasn’t really looking for a movie job, I kind of fell into it, but the movie industry seems to like boat builders because they’re good at making weird stuff and odd-shaped things.

Matt Houghton

Other projects

Avatar aside, Matt’s other projects have included a time machine for a Whittaker’s Chocolate campaign, and a stalagmite display for a national park in Perth, and he’s currently building props for Taika Waititi’s latest project, Time Bandits.

Initially, Matt was brought in to Human Dynamo as a contractor to make composite panels for “sci-fi vehicles featured in the film Ghost in the Shell.

At that stage he’d moved on from boat building, a career that began after he followed a mate working on a vintage boat on Wellington's waterfront when he, at the time, was a barista at a local café.

From classic boats, he relocated to Auckland to focus on big timber and fibreglass launches before eventually working on the SL33 catamarans and Open 60s, single-handed ocean racing boats made of carbon fibre.

That morphed into making multirotor drones out of carbon fibre composites before his interaction with Human Dynamo.

For Matt, it’s like being a big kid.

“Growing up on a dairy farm in Dannevirke I loved to make things, and now I get to play at work – if you see what we make there are a lot of fantastic and imaginative things, just look at the chocolate time machine!”