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Griffin on Tech: The Weta effect

Peter Griffin, Editor. 12 November 2021, 3:49 pm

Your average Kiwi probably doesn't think of Weta Digital as a software company.

Its name scrolls past in the closing credits of Hollywood blockbusters, which I often hang around in the empty Embassy Theatre on a regular basis to watch, to see if I can spot the names of people I know.

Weta Digital's reputation is as the visual effects company that made the epic battle scenes that created the epic battle scenes in Return of the King and made King Kong's facial expressions look so real.

In the movie industry, its reputation is up there alongside Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects company set up by George Lucas and which helped bring the Star Wars movies to life.

But anyone who knows in any detail what Sir Peter Jackson and his hundreds-strong team have been doing over in Miramar knows that Weta Digital is also one of the country's biggest software developers. Its assets, according to Variety, include 50 million lines of computer code.

Screenshot 2021-11-12 at 9.27.56 AM.png

It's products span dozens of graphics and visual effects software tools including Manuka, Lumberjack, Loki, Squid, Barbershop, HighDef, Koru and CityBuilder. Weta developed a data platform for "interoperable 3D art creation" and a vast library of digital assets.

Weta Digital was a pioneer in building supercomputing capacity in New Zealand to power its visual effects rendering and recently moved most of its visual effects processing to the cloud through a deal with AWS. 

That intellectual property has turned out to be incredibly valuable, with 3D game developer Unity this week revealing it will pay US$1.6 billion in cash and stock for Weta Digital, which is majority-owned by Sir Peter and his wife Dame Fran Walsh. As with the sale of Vend earlier this year and the departure of Xero to the ASX in 2018, it's a bittersweet moment.

We all loved the fact that this Kiwi company remained largely locally owned, the biggest single-site visual effects company in the world, attracting the best talent from around the globe to Wellington to work on the most expensive movies. 

That could now change, though Unity says it is committed to keeping Weta Digital's base and team intact and will focus on continuing to innovate. It would be foolish to do otherwise. Unity will continue to work closely with Weta FX, the new company that's been spun off as a result of the acquisition and will continue to focus on visual effects under Sir Peter's leadership, working with Weta Digital in the process. 

WetaFX precious in its own right

Imagine what that company itself is worth? It finally puts a figure on the value Jackson and his band of creators have created, aside from the box office returns for Hollywood studios and the economic boost the country has enjoyed from playing host to all of this movie-making activity. 

Unity is an incredibly innovative company in itself, and likely to really come into its own as it joins a string of companies in building the future virtual worlds of the Metaverse. It's great that the new owners of Weta Digital plan to make Weta's tools and technology available to creators all over the world as commercial services.

Some of this represents the secret sauce that has made Weta so successful in visual effects, but Unity recognises that those tools and technologies can power a whole new wave of world-building and animation.

Weta's tools "have been kind of landlocked inside of Weta," Bay Raitt, principal of UX design at Unity and a former animator at Weta, told Variety. Now with the power of cloud computing, "you can essentially spin up the Weta workstation and summon the power of thousands of computers from anywhere," he added.

Not even Jackson could have envisaged that happening when he set up Weta Digital in 1993 as he prepared to make Heavenly Creatures. Over 25 years later, Weta is a global force in entertainment and its alumni have gone on to form many other innovative companies.

We can be apprehensive about the future of this national treasure, but more than anything, we should be proud of its incredible legacy, one of the shining highlights of Kiwi innovation.


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