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Engineer your career path

26 June 2016

The world of engineering is a career path that can reach far beyond the world of automotive careers that instantly spring to mind for those with petrol flowing through their veins. Over the coming months we will be sharing the stories — as told to David Farrier — of a few very clever Kiwis who have used their skills and degree to build a career doing some very interesting work. Thinking of a new career path? Then read on.

Tristan McCallum’s favourite movie as a kid was Alien. “I got to sit up with Dad and watch that when I was about eight. And that was life changing, you know? It was like, ‘Wow, I want to make stuff like that!’”

Fast forward to adulthood, and McCallum was standing next to Alien star Sigourney Weaver on the set of Avatar. “I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ You are as close to the storytelling at some times as the camera and the director.”

McCallum, 34, has had many job titles, from propmaker to mechanist to the very epic “swordsmith”. From helping create Matt Damon’s mechanical exoskeleton in the sci-fi blockbuster Elysium, to making the giant swords seen in The Hobbit — McCallum is bang in the middle of the movie industry. And a New Zealand Diploma in Engineering (Mechanical Engineering) helped get him to the top of his game.

“I didn’t precisely know what engineering was! And I think if you ask a lot of people, ‘What does the word engineering mean?’ — they can’t tell you. Well, it comes from the same root as ingenuity or ingenious.”

Before enrolling in the diploma, McCallum had already been working in film and television for 10 years. But he knew he needed engineering to take his career to the next level. “I loved it, it was very liberating. I was on my own terms when I started studying, and I loved that.”

With a diploma in hand, his career went from strength to strength. “I did a lot of work on the hero swords that were used in The Hobbit. They just got so much screen-time! And with all of the posters, you had the sword right in front of the actor’s face,” McCallum laughs. “When you see that, and it’s 220 feet tall on a billboard down the end of Cuba Street, it’s just like, ‘Wow’.”

Recently, McCallum made the bold move — leaving his home at Weta Workshop to set up his own studio in Ireland, The Workhouse. Jobs have been non-stop, from blockbuster films to huge new TV shows.

And while business is booming, he’s already looking to the future. Recently, those exoskeletons he worked on during Elysium have been playing on his mind. “Next week I am going to a surgery where they are actually implanting device to straighten up a scoliosis.”

It’s a case of the skills he learnt working on a sci-fi film being used in an entirely different field – medicine. In his mind, not only do engineers make the world: They could be responsible for saving it.

“The next 20 to 30 years are going to be pretty tough on the human race. And they need people who are basically prepared to commit themselves to some pretty big problems. At the end of the day it’s engineers who are going to save the world.”

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