Weta Digital: From Gollum to Kong

Mark Ramshaw discusses the transition Weta Digital is taking from The Lord of the Rings series to new projects like King Kong.

Having finished the highly lauded The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Weta now faces a bright future.

Having finished the highly lauded The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Weta now faces a bright future.

These are interesting times for Weta Digital. From humble beginnings in 1994 the facility has grown in size and ambition more rapidly and spectacularly than any other in memory, and with The Lord of the Rings proven itself a leader in the field of visual effects. The likes of ILM and Digital Domain may have comparable technology and abilities, but they dont have Peter Jacksons trilogy. No other movies have displayed CG work thats at once quite so dazzling yet integral to the telling of a story. For the moment at least, Weta has the edge.

But with the final movie in the bag, now comes a period of uncertainty. As the studio decompresses, recovering from a marathon seven-year stint on the films, it finds itself exposed once again to the whims and ways of the film industry at large.

Jacksons impending King Kong project provides some security, guaranteeing work and jobs through the end of 2005. But the staff at Weta knows they must also now compete in the global market for other work. The studio has been able to scale down and then ramp up between each of the Rings movies, but what about the long term? Its arguable that while an LA-based facility can rely on freelance talent to expand and contract as the work dictates, one based in New Zealand requires rather more stability.

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Most people wrongly assume that Weta exists solely to work on Peter Jackson projects. This Jaguar spot successfully launched Wetas commerical division. As a result, Weta is now bidding to work on other spots. Courtesy of Jaguar.

At the production peak of The Return of the King, the studio was home to some 400 staff. With that show complete, except for the DVD extras, the studio has quickly scaled back once more.

Weve kept our core crew of just over 200, the same size as we were between each film, says Eileen Moran, Weta Digitals visual effects producer. As the workload demands another expansion, she foresees many familiar faces making the journey to New Zealand once more. We have a wide net of artists and crew that have worked on the trilogy. As each of the three films ramped up for the last six months of production, we always hired as many of the same crew to come back. It worked out really well and we plan to continue to draw from our resources.

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King Kong has the potential to be another milestone movie. Visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri says the project will be at least as demanding as The Return of the King perhaps more so. With a fully digital ape, an island thats home to at least 30 dinosaurs and a 1933 period setting that will also require complex digital set work, its easy to believe. But Kong is slated for release at the end of 2005. The studio is only at the previs stage, and doesnt plan on entering full production until the final year. In the meantime, the studio needs to pay its way and keep that core team active.

To this end, Moran has been pitching for new work since early last year, and in fact two projects were taken on board in 2003. We completed a Jaguar commercial, and also a visual effects storm sequence for Perfect Strangers, a wonderful New Zealand film, while in full production on The Return of the King, Moran says.

The studio also successfully bid for a substantial number of shots for Foxs I, Robot. The show will see Weta working again with Digital Domain, the latter studio having contributed the Ford Bruinen sequence for The Fellowship of the Ring.

Well have approximately 80 artists working on I, Robot. Its a great one to be involved with, not least because its set in the future and features robots, so it gives us the opportunity to do something very different to The Lord of the Rings.

Inevitably there are key differences working for an external client and working for a director closely tied to the studio, but Moran believes the studio will have no problem adjusting: Wetas work on the trilogy was run in the same manner as working for an external client. Working with New Line as our client for these films, we adhered to the same types of schedules and deliveries as we would for outside projects.

While Weta Workshop has taken on a number of broadcast projects, some were surprised to see the digital division do so. Moran believes its a natural move for a studio well versed in the art of delivering premium grade results both quickly and at a competitive price.

Our goal has always been to have a commercial division at Weta Digital along with our feature effects work. The Jaguar commercial was a great opportunity for us to see how commercials would fit with the facility. It went extremely well, and were now bidding on a number of spots.

Whats interesting to note is the new sense of optimism. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times late last year, Moran lamented that people assumed Weta Digital existed purely to work on Peter Jacksons projects, noting that Wellingtons distance from Hollywood added another stumbling block. The trilogy is a great calling card, she now asserts. And since The Return of the King, weve had so many calls regarding work.

Weta was able to take on this storm scene for Perfect Strangers, a New Zealand film, while completing the Jaguar spot and Return of the King. © 2003 Perfect Strangers Ltd.

Weta was able to take on this storm scene for Perfect Strangers, a New Zealand film, while completing the Jaguar spot and Return of the King. © 2003 Perfect Strangers Ltd.

As for any problems regarding locations, Moran says theyre having no problems bidding on many project against studios in L.A., as well as London and Australia. Shes also quick to point out that the time difference with L.A. is minimal a mere three hours. With FTP sites, teleconferencing and overnight deliveries, the day to day communication with clients works well.

Rumors that Weta Digital intends to emulate the ILM model seem well founded, and not just because of the presence of ex-Lucas men such as Letteri and new addition Paul Griffin, who has joined as a previs animator on King Kong. Rather than taking on work to provide a stopgap until full production begins on Kong, the aim is to nurture and grow the company, in order to operate concurrently with projects for external clients as well as Jackson.

Adds Moran: The goal is to have two or three projects within the facility at all times. When Kong goes into full production mid-2005, Weta intends to work on other projects alongside.

To facilitate this further expansion will, of course, be necessary. That the studio was able to seamlessly scale up and down during the last three years suggests the New Zealand location doesnt deter talent from signing up.

We really have had incredible feedback, explains Moran. People see the company as a great place to work. Theyre excited about what we have created for the trilogy and our plan to continue to do good, challenging work. With the great projects coming into the facility, we expect to continue to draw great talent.

Neither is she concerned with recruiters from other studios moving in for the kill during this transitional, pre-Kong period. There have been many stories about studios coming out and recruiting while working on The Return of the King, but in actual fact, the crew has remained at Weta. Throughout the films, we have had our core group of 220 talented artists and crew, and theyre still here.

With The Return of the King now complete its as though Weta Digital has come of age. Finally able to take stock and appreciate the incredible achievements of the last few years, any doubts about sustaining momentum have passed. Now, with those 11 Oscar nominations, a first taste of post-Rings bidding success and the mighty Kong on the horizon, Weta Digitals star looks to be firmly in the ascendant.

Mark Ramshaw is a freelance writer. He has worked as a computer game programmer, a producer and a magazine editor, but now avoids grown-up office work by writing about the visual effects, video game and music industries. He is also contributing editor for 3D World.

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