American Weta whiz honoured

AMY JACKMAN
Last updated 10:05 14/06/2012
Joe Letterie
FAIRFAX
Digital genius: Joseph Letteri is now an honorary Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

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Dinosaurs, Jedi Knights, orcs, gorillas, aliens and robots have all been given the digital breath of life by Joseph Letteri, senior visual effects artist and director of Weta Digital.

Letteri was made an honorary Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to film in the Queen's Birthday Honours last week.

Honorary awards are granted to foreigners who have made a significant contribution to New Zealand.

His work with Weta Digital has earned him four Academy awards, four BAFTAs and four Visual Effects Society awards.

Letteri said he planned to stay in New Zealand only for the Lord of the Rings films.

"It was only supposed to be the rings films and that was it," he said.

"But after we had done all that, I spoke with Peter [Jackson] and said, 'Surely you have other things in mind, there's going to be more', and he said, 'Yes, you should stay', and I haven't looked back."

It was a love of the magic of films and science that Letteri credited with directing him into a career in the film industry.

"It's a combination of liking films and liking the sense of magic and illusion. Plus I have a background in science and a lot of how you perceive things is based on how you understand them," he said.

"It's just a really good mix of being able to look at all those things and trying to figure out how to make things not only look real, but come alive on screen."

Letteri has worked on films since the early 90s. His CV features a list of popular films, including Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Avatar, King Kong, The Avengers and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

He is currently working on The Hobbit films.

He said the technology has changed over the years, but not how the job worked.

"It is very much like it is now," he said.

"Whenever you start a film you are faced with, 'My God, how am I going to do this now?' And it was the same feeling back then as it is now."

If he had the opportunity to do a film again he said Jurassic Park would be one he would do differently.

"I would do Jurassic Park, definitely. Even at the time I remember thinking, 'My God, there's a lot that we don't know', but we just tried to do it the best that we could," he said.

"Now I understand those things a lot better. But we do get to do these things again and again so maybe it's not dinosaurs, but we get to do the creatures in the jungle in Avatar."

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Letteri said his favourite part of his job was watching the finished product on screen.

"It's when it all comes together and you see a finished shot on the screen and it looks like it was photographed and was real. You see characters as if they are on the stage with the other actors. That kind of thing is always unique.

"Like when we started doing Gollum for the first time. Seeing him come alive and speaking and holding up with the other characters was really cool.

"I had the same feeling back when we did Jurassic Park, because the first time we saw the dinosaurs on the screen, it looked like we were out there with the camera. That was kind of fun."

He said receiving the news of his award was a pleasant surprise.

"It was really unexpected because I really haven't been here that long," he said. "It is a nice honour and it is great seeing my name on the list with everyone else. Especially as Peter [Jackson] got such a tremendous honour this year as well."

Letteri said he loved living in Wellington.

"I love the country and I would prefer Wellington to settle in anyway just because, believe it or not, I like the weather. I am from San Francisco and to me it is very similar. I like the changeability in the weather, which is more interesting to me."

Filmography

The Hobbit (2012)

The Avengers (2012)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)

Avatar (2009)

The Lovely Bones (2009)

King Kong (2005)

I, Robot (2004)

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

Star Wars (1997 special edition)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Awards:

2010

Oscar - Best Visual Effects for Avatar.

Bafta Film Award - Best Special Visual Effects for Avatar.

2006

Oscar - Best Visual Effects for King Kong.

Bafta Film Award - Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects for King Kong.

2004

Oscar - Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Bafta Film Award - Best Achievement in Special Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

2003

Oscar - Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Bafta Film Award - Best Achievement in Special Visual Effe

- The Wellingtonian

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