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'Toxic': Disturbing stories from behind the scenes at Weta Digital

After a months-long 1 NEWS investigation, Oscar award-winning visual effects studio Weta Digital has announced a Queen’s Counsel will be conducting an independent inquiry into claims of bullying, harassment and misconduct at the company. To date 48 current and former Weta Digital workers have come forward to reporter Kristin Hall with concerns about the company’s culture. She recounts some of their stories.

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The investigation was ordered by the owners of the visual effects studio. Source: 1 NEWS

Warning: This story details sexual harassment and indecent assault, bullying, and mental health distress.

“Working at Weta was my dream” - that’s how their stories started.

They represent some of the finest creative and technical minds this country has to offer, and plenty have come from other countries too, bringing their partners, kids and the hope of making a name for themselves at a prestigious Oscar-winning film studio.

Some of them have left, some of them are still there, and have been for many years. They are bound by one thing, working at Weta Digital was not the dream they had envisioned.

“If you don’t like it, don’t see it”

Person 1, like many who have shared their stories, came to New Zealand for a job at Weta Digital. He was not that surprised to discover regular use of porn in the workplace. Such behaviour, he says, is not uncommon in male-dominated tech circles. He was surprised though, to see it being viewed so openly, especially in front of female colleagues. He was also surprised that it was hosted on the company intranet.

“There were definitely women who explicitly went in and said they were uncomfortable,” he says.

He recalls the response to complaints from female colleagues as “dismissive”. 

“If you don’t like it, just don’t see it. You don’t have to get this.”

He’s nervous about speaking out, but he’s the first of many.

Person 2 gave a little more insight. He says when he first joined the company, there was a type of hazing tradition, which he describes as a “gate-keeping exercise”. As a new recruit he says he was shown “the most horrific porn”, and he felt his reaction determined whether he was in the ‘in-crowd’ or ‘out-crowd.’ 

A tradition called Porn Friday, a day where porn was shared on a general, company-wide mailing list, was later replaced by ‘Caveman’, a men-only mailing list that was exclusively for X-rated images.

He says the mailing lists weren’t just problematic from a content perspective but caused storage issues as well. He says at one point, the IT systems were upgraded to cope with the size and volume of images being shared.

“The sheer amount of images in these mailing lists required a certain amount of resources. There certainly were accommodations made to ensure the availability of that list.”

Reports about Porn Friday date back as early as 2002 (ending in the 2000s), and Caveman, the male-only mailing list, was finally shut down in 2015 – a total of 13 years. Sources say there was backlash from some corners when the lists were taken down, as intranet-hosted porn had become something of a company tradition. 

In a statement to 1 NEWS on September 8, Weta Digital acknowledged there have been "historical behaviour issues" at the company, including sharing of inappropriate content and commentary.

"As soon as it was brought to management's attention, immediate steps were taken to stop this activity."

An external person got in touch to dispute that. 

He was not a Weta Digital worker, but an independent IT security expert, hired to look into the company’s systems. He says he raised concerns about the porn in the early 2010s with the Weta Digital IT worker he met with.

“His response was they didn’t care,” he says. 

“Unless it helps them make products faster, it’s irrelevant, and then he started talking about their porn portfolio. That was his response. Management knows all about it, as long as the work gets done.”’

He says he followed this up with a senior staff member.

“I raised this via email and phone - no response.”

 Others who complained about the lists, including men, say they received a similarly nonchalant, or even aggressive response.

Person 13 said he found it “disturbing” to work 70-hour weeks in rooms with people who were regularly watching porn at work. 

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It comes after a 1 NEWS investigation into the well-known movie effects company. Source: 1 NEWS

“I talked about this to my lead, he told me to ‘go fuck yourself’. He got promoted to supervisor.”

Multiple sources have claimed senior staff weren’t only aware of the mailing lists, but were signed up to them, and in some cases, responsible for managing them. One current senior manager is said to have been an administrator of Caveman. He’s also said to have created a webpage tracking who at the company had slept with whom.

Even if the mailing lists were formally shut down in 2015, Person 13 says images remained on certain hard drives for political purposes long after that.

“People kept copies of the most awful postings on Caveman to blackmail each other and improve their career paths. ‘I don’t worry about my contract - I got [colleague’s name]’s Caveman postings’ - I heard that often,” he says.

Person 16 claims the content was still on the company servers until at least last year.

“I changed computers multiple times, and the content would sync onto my new machine.”

Person 18 suggests that old habits die hard. 

“Employees often use female nude photos or memes, cartoon characters performing sex acts and animated female body parts as part of everyday form of communication”.

“Get used to it”

Porn use at Weta Digital is not the most serious allegation that’s been made against the company, but it’s said to be one of the first things some young women are told about when they start.

For Person 3, it set the scene for her time at the studio.

“As soon as you start, people will tell you stories about how they used to send emails with porn every Friday, or there was folders with porn stored somewhere in the company. You hear that and think, this is the kind of place where I work, I have to adapt to that.”

She had worked incredibly hard to win a position at the company and wasn’t planning on letting go of her dream over that level of impropriety, but things got worse.

In her first week, she was introduced to a much more senior colleague, who she says became increasingly flirty with her. She felt she couldn’t report his behaviour, because “he was so loved”, at the company, and had recently got a promotion. 

She cries as she speaks.

“He would send me videos of things from his past and make comments how I was hot or cute or that he would like me and protect me, and help me get further in my career," she said.

“I endured a lot of stuff and kept quiet about a lot of stuff because I didn’t want my dream to be over.”

And what if she had reported the comments? Person 18 says her department had problems with “a lot of inappropriate unwanted touching in the office” by a particular senior lead.

She says all she could do was try and “get off his radar”.

“He would look me up and down with a sleazy grin on his face - my response, be as invisible as possible in hopes to avoid getting onto the same team as him.”

She goes on to allege new and junior crew who were on the man’s radar had to deal with “massages, tickling, and bra-snapping”.

 “HR is aware of this behaviour, but this person still remains,” she says. 

 Person 43 says she experienced harassment from the same person.

 “[He was] constantly following me around or asking me to come to the little empty room alone with him. He would corner me. It was like if a guy was at the club and he's trying to get a kiss from a girl. Then he would ask me about my previous boyfriends and ask me about my sex history.”

She says her complaints to her Head of Department and supervisors about the man, as well as complaints about bullying, were ignored.

“[My HOD] was like, ‘I'll take care of it’. Nothing happened. It seemed like they just swept it under the rug. 

“I would complain and then they would make it seem like I was the problem. After a while I was just like ‘well what's the point? This is just the way it is’.

“They had their favourites - they protect their little posse and everyone else is just collateral.”

Person 33 says she was indecently assaulted at one of Weta Digital’s infamous yearly parties. When she reported the incident to HR, she says she was blamed.

“I was told that I should ‘get used to it’, that as a woman, men will feel ‘entitled’ to my body.”

She says the HR representative also told her there was “no way to prove it's someone from Weta [Digital]”. 

“I don't know who did it, really,” she says. “I just froze in place and just escaped when it stopped.”

That’s a familiar tale to Person 14, who says she was a support person for a colleague who experienced a similar incident.

“There's men in that company that have committed acts against women in the workplace and are still working there today, and you think in any other workplace they'd be fired, of course they'd be fired.”

Person 28 was very uncomfortable about inappropriate behaviour from co-workers towards herself and her colleagues. Fear initially prevented her from making a complaint about her alleged sexual harassment by a co-worker at a private event, only to raise it with her supervisors later and be ignored.

“Like most young people starting out, I just wanted to keep my head down and succeed,”, she says.

“I did go to the Head of Department and supervisors and they just laughed it off or ignored it.

“I didn’t feel my supervisors took my concerns seriously at any point. It was clear no one understood or cared about how devaluing behaviour like that could be for a female co-worker.”

That experience, combined with long hours and a struggle to get ahead in the company, left her feeling helpless and alone.

“Most days I would be exhausted and would sit at my desk in tears. It really breaks my heart to think about what a horrible start I had in an industry and company I loved so much.”

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Do you have more information about this story? Contact our reporter Kristin Hall at kristin.hall@tvnz.co.nz

Source: TVNZ