Weta evolves into global giant

Co. survives competition with rest of the world

Evolution takes strange turns on islands. Sheltered from competition from established mainland creatures, species can grow freakishly large.

New Zealand, for example, evolved the giant flightless moa and the world’s largest eagle.

Perhaps the same process accounts for the growth of New Zealand’s vfx giant, Weta Digital.

Less than a decade ago, Weta was a midsize vfx operation of some 120 people, mostly working for a local filmmaker. But that filmmaker was Peter Jackson, and when he went on to become the creative force behind four huge visual effects blockbusters, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “King Kong,” Weta grew into one of the world’s most successful visual effects shops, with more than 400 staffers.

One hint of Weta’s stature is the launch of the AnimfxNZ symposium. It’s the only such event in the Asia-Pacific area with a partnership from the Visual Effects Society.

Now that Jackson seems to be taking a pause from tentpoles, can Weta survive competition with the rest of the world?

So far, it seems to be thriving. Weta was hired for Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and is working on the studio’s dragon epic “Eragon” and Disney’s “Bridge to Terabithia.” It’s also in active pre-production on James Cameron’s “Avatar” and is working on the “Fantastic Four” sequel that will feature the long-awaited film bow of the Silver Surfer.

Weta’s Wellington location isn’t a problem, say its toppers, thanks to videoconferencing. Directors and producers now easily collaborate from distant locales.

The Peter Jackson experience has given the company a leg up in the marketplace, too.

“You had a chance to grow with each film, so everyone got to build on what was done in each film,” says visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri. “It really got everyone to focus and refine the process.”

Also, says Letteri, “we had a unique opportunity because everyone in the facility was doing just one film. And (each) project was so big that people got to do lots of different things, from a single character with Gollum to massed armies.”

Studios, producers and directors have not only seen Weta’s work, they know that the company can deliver a big show on deadline, something that’s not true of every shop. It has a proven staff of artists, and perhaps most important, it has done two of the most notable motion-capture digital characters on film, Gollum and Kong.

Visual effects producer Eileen Moran, who handles the business side of the operation, says that the shop’s specific strengths include creature design and animation, the “CG water and destruction pipeline,” fur and “sub-surface scattering.”

But, Moran adds, “mainly our strength is our crew, which have been with Weta throughout the delivery of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘King Kong.’ They are dedicated to creating great work and always pushing to create new effects.”

Keeping that crew in New Zealand is no small task. As the vfx industry matures, shops are adjusting to an older workforce that is less enthusiastic about relocating regularly and more interested in quality of life. For Weta to keep its advantages, it needs to keep its artists happy living in Wellington.

Some have moved there and found that while there was plenty for them to do at Weta, there were few opportunities for their husbands or wives. Others ended up moving back to busier locales for the sake of their relationships.

But the low cost of living in New Zealand is irresistible for the rest.

“Fantastic Four”/Silver Surfer vfx supervisor Eric Saindon, a Maine native who took a job with Weta in 1999, recently considered moving back to the U.S. to be closer to his family. With a wife and children, the trip back to the U.S. for visits can be arduous.

“But most of the salary offers from the States were in the same ballpark or lower than the Weta salaries. Weta pays competitive salaries and you have the ability to have a house on the water, or a house with an amazing view, where it’s somewhat harder to do that in L.A.”

His wife was a Weta artist at one time but now has her own small business in Wellington. That’s working well, but he concedes “it would be harder if my wife, who went to school for architecture, was trying to be an architect here.”