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Weta Digital: Peter Jackson’s VFX Company is About ‘Immersive Filmmaking’

Weta Digital is observing its 20th anniversary this year, but the celebration is low-key, because the team is too busy to rest on its laurels.

Top priorities include “The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies,” the culmination of 17 years and six films in the J.R.R. Tolkien canon; “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” slated to bow in 2016; and the upcoming “Avatar” films. Then on to other projects, both large and small.

Peter Jackson has five companies in Wellington, but Weta Digital is the best known, thanks to its visual-effects breakthrough creations such as Gollum, Caesar, Smaug and the Na’vis.

Joe Letteri, the company’s director and senior visual effects supervisor, says, “If we can shoot it live-action, great. If not, we’ll do it digitally.” (Letteri is in the above photo, flanked by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.)

The company’s executive producer David Conley adds that Weta Digital is unlike traditional visual-effects houses. “We try to give filmmakers a comfortable space to make their own movie. We don’t want them to feel trapped by the process. We don’t tell you how to shoot the movie; we help you get to where you want to go.”

The tools are constantly evolving. Techniques for creating Gollum got much more sophisticated between the 2001 “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring” and the first “Hobbit” film. As a sign of the growth, the company created 24 digital characters for the first “Hobbit,” and about 60 for the second. The third film, still in progress, will be a quantum leap above that.

Though the tools are different, Letteri says that the team — including VFX supervisors Dan Lemmon, Eric Saindon and Guy Williams — uses the same process as 20 years ago: “We meet every day. We run this like a film set, with dailies, constantly revising stuff. Everything is reassembled in new ways, using new techniques, but it’s traditional: It’s story-driven, and it’s about characters.”

Weta Digital was founded by Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk to create 14 effects for the 1994 “Heavenly Creatures.” Two years later, they created a then-astonishing 400 effects for “The Frighteners.”

In the past two decades, the company credits include the six Tolkien movies, “King Kong,” “Avatar,” and this year’s “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the final “Hobbit.” The company, 75% owned by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, employs about 800-1,000 individuals, depending on the number of projects. It’s located in the Wellington suburb of Miramar, in seven reconverted buildings, including a former home for wayward girls, a one-time dairy and record-pressing studio. All of these buildings are connected to each other, and linked to Jackson’s other four companies via a private fiber loop.

One example of Weta’s work in character development is dragon Smaug’s wings in the first “Hobbit,” which became like hands for the second. Weta Digital and Jackson liked the idea of giving Smaug the ability to hold onto the platforms and pillars in Erebor.

One breakthrough was the invention of Massive software for the 2001 “LOTR.” Massive enabled crowd movement in which each person or creature has a “brain.” So 200 horses can gallop together, but each will have distinct movements, and that gave credibility to the epic battle scenes.

The motion-capture creation of Gollum was another turning point.

Human and creature faces were challenging since there are so many interconnected facial muscles, not to mention skin colors and textures.

The key came in designing King Kong for the 2005 film. Computer artists designed a gorilla’s skeleton, then added a muscle system, then fat and tissue, skin, skin color, then fur. The next target was to do the same with humans, which happened with the 2009 “Avatar.”

The Weta team are quick to dispel actors’ fear that they will be digitally replaced. Letteri says of Andy Serkis’ performances, “We took what he did and heightened it.”

To create the Na’vi version of Sam Worthington, the Weta team asked themselves, “Can we match the performance and get Sam’s eyes, expression, appearance and emotions?” The answer was yes, and there will be more breakthroughs on the next three “Avatar” films. And, on the creature side, Benedict Cumberbatch worked with them to create the physical and vocal characterization of Smaug.

Conley adds that Weta wants to enhance, not replace, the actual performances and below-the-line work (ranging from design to visual effects).

“We like to work with designers and have them build the costume, for example, so we can understand their intent and things like how the fabric moves. We never change their vision; we just give a digital interpretation of their vision.”
Though the digital world can be confusing to many, Weta Digital folks say it’s all about collaborating with filmmakers and giving them new tools.

Letteri dubs it “immersive filmmaking.”

 

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