A heavenly trajectory: 20 years of Weta

Special effects whiz Richard Taylor and director Peter Jackson check out props for Heavenly Creatures. The 1994 film marked the team's first foray into digital effects and the start of what would become Weta Digital.
WETA WORKSHOP/Celebrating 20 years of Creativity
Special effects whiz Richard Taylor and director Peter Jackson check out props for Heavenly Creatures. The 1994 film marked the team's first foray into digital effects and the start of what would become Weta Digital.

When Matt Aitken returned home to Wellington for his first film job, he found himself in an old two- storey house sandwiched between a museum and a cricket ground.

Crammed into the upstairs dining room was a film scanner, a single high-end computer, and a film recorder for turning digitally altered frames back into film.

"There was a whole digital effects facility in one room," Aitken recalls.

It was the early 90s, and young Wellington director Peter Jackson was just finishing work on Heavenly Creatures, which would propel him from talented splatter merchant to serious director.

All of the digital special effects in that film - about 14 frames - were painstakingly put together in that room in Tasman St by one man, George Port, using that very expensive computer.

Aitken arrived to help Port out with digital special effects, becoming the second employee of what would eventually become Weta Digital.

Twenty years later, Aitken, now Weta Digital's visual effects supervisor, sits in the plush "reading room" in Park Road Post Production's complex in Miramar, marvelling at what two men and a single computer have transformed into.

"To think that we've become one of the top three or four companies in the field and broken ground in the history of film was beyond my wildest imaginations, although it was probably in the back of Peter's mind."

Weta Digital now employs about 1250 people and has worked on some of the biggest films over the past two decades, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar.

It is part of a collective of Weta companies, including Weta Workshop and Park Road Post Production, that have branched out to work with many of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Last year, "Wellywood" earned $700 million from film production alone, with four out of every five Kiwi film dollars generated in the capital. In full production - as is now the case on the final Hobbit film - they are among the biggest employers in Wellington.

Marking the 20th anniversary, the companies have released twin books charting the rise of Weta Workshop and Digital. What becomes obvious in the books is just how improbable and precarious the rise of Weta, and the whole Jackson film industry, was in a little wind-bitten city a world away from Hollywood.

A young Peter Jackson on the set of his second film, Meet the Feebles, which ran out of money during filming.

Weta Ltd, the original company, was formed in 1993 solely to buy a computer.

By that stage, Jackson and his early collaborators, including wife Fran Walsh, modelling whiz Richard Taylor, his wife Tania Rodger, and film editor Jamie Selkirk, had already worked together on several films on a shoestring budget, often teetering on the edge of disaster.

In the books, Taylor recalls that, during the filming of adult puppet comedy Meet the Feebles, Jackson ran out of money to pay the crew and was reduced to filming with one hand and controlling a puppet with another.

Jackson's next film, splatter horror Braindead, was initially shelved when funding was pulled after six weeks and took years to resurrect.

But by the time he started filming Heavenly Creatures - the story of the 1950s Parker-Hulme murder case in Christchurch - Jackson and his partners had enough funds to lease a high-end graphics computer, the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and start playing with digital effects.

Taylor told The Dominion Post that, after filming, the group sat down and decided that, rather than giving the tantalising technology back, they would buy it.

"We felt together we could do something very special but for us - we were maybe 27 - it was a substantial sum of money. It was pretty scary."

The group bought the computer through a shelf company called Firefly and renamed Weta. Stories on the name's origin differ, but Taylor says it was mostly because it sounded "cool".

One of Weta Digital's longest-serving employees, Matt Aitken, not only made many of the digital effects for the 1996 film The Frighteners, he also featured in the film as a ghostly cowboy.

The first big film for the newly formed Weta was The Frighteners, which would end up using more digital effects to create its ghostly cast than any film before it.

By this time, Weta had moved into Camperdown Studios in Miramar, a rundown factory that smelled like talcum powder and Vaseline. Port had left the company, moving to Auckland, but Aitken was working with about half a dozen others on digital special effects.

The Frighteners required Weta, particularly its digital arm, to expand rapidly to meet demand. At the beginning of the filming, the company had only one computer at reception that could access the internet, which was checked twice a day for emails.

By the end, there were 40 computers hooked up to a network and more than 50 staff figuring out how to make ghosts emerge from the walls. Aitken says many of the techniques used in the film had to be worked out from scratch because they had never been tried before. For the first, but not the last, time Weta resorted to building its own software.

"Right from the start, the way we approached the work was not to try to No 8 fencing wire it. We used the best technology available . . . but the industry was so new we were working it out as we went."

Scouting around for the next project to push their newfound technological muscle, Jackson secured the rights and support to remake the 1933 film King Kong, a dream he had held since a child. But, just as the project started to get under way, backers at Universal Studios pulled the pin, with a new management deciding that, with Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young in the pipeline, the cinema- going public had their fill of monstrous gorillas.

According to the books, Weta was nearly destroyed by the decision, leaving a big crew with no work. The company survived by doing some digital effects on the 1997 extra-terrestrial film Contact before, in 1998, Jackson secured backing to film The Lord of the Rings.

The project was many times the size of anything Weta had ever attempted, forcing it to expand rapidly. The digital company alone grew from 40 people to more than 360 by the end of trilogy - and the concept of Wellywood was born.

By 2000, the company had officially split into two - Weta Digital, which deals exclusively in digital effects and production, and Taylor's Weta Workshop - which in the past decade have increasingly moved in different directions.

Matt Aitken has gone from making creepy screen ghosts to engineering entire digital worlds.

Miramar, in Wellington's eastern suburbs, doesn't look like the glitzy centre of a national film industry.

Suburban, green, and unusually level for the capital, it is home to an industry clustered around a few industrial streets, a mix of anonymous warehouses and what look like old school buildings.

Even the slick sprawling brown and cream Park Road Post Production complex - described by a publicist as the "public facing" part of the Weta film collective - sits next to a home and garden depot. Aitken says he personally is not a fan of the Wellywood label.

"I don't invest a lot in that term myself, because we are just doing our own thing. We're not like Hollywood-lite - we're something else."

While Weta Workshop continues to design and churn out beautifully crafted objects for films and increasingly collectable models, exhibitions, and even books, its digital counterpart now specialises in filming where physical props are increasingly irrelevant.

Starting with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the company has been a pioneer of motion capture technology, turning real actors into believably nuanced digital characters.

"Being able to create a digital character who is one of the lead performers in a film, it has sort of become our calling card," Aitken says. "We think that's what attracted James Cameron."

With Avatar, still the highest grossing film yet, Cameron could actually watch actors on a blue screen in real time through a virtual camera that cast them in an entirely digital environment.

It also allowed directors to transform the look of the film drastically very late in the process. If Cameron had decided after filming that he wanted to turn his blue alien, the Na'vi, green instead, it would have been relatively easy, Aitken says.

Weta Digital has developed software that can automatically generate vast virtual forests with thousands of unique trees, entire cities, and epic, unpredictable battles.

"We want to be the place that directors go to when they want to make something groundbreaking, huge and fresh. That's our business model, if you like."

Peter Jackson's 1992 film Braindead took years to get off the ground.

And while Jackson retains a large stake in the the company, Weta Digital's clientele has expanded. If you have seen more than one big-budget Hollywood film in the past year, there is a good chance you have seen some of Weta's magic at work.

While New Zealand has traded on that magic, it has also helped bankroll it. The taxpayer has contributed tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, attracting big-budget films, most of them to the Weta group.

The Hobbit trilogy will receive about $85m in tax breaks and state subsidies, while last year the Government expanded its big- budget grant specifically to keep the Avatar sequels in New Zealand.

The argument is that, without these subsidies, Hollywood will simply set up elsewhere and our fledgling film industry, filled with so much promise, would collapse.

But not everyone thinks subsidies are a good deal. The Treasury has pointed out repeatedly that, even counting broader economic gains, film industry sweeteners are a bad investment on which the government has lost millions.

Then there was that nasty business with unions over The Hobbit in 2010, when the studios threatened to take the movies elsewhere.

Taylor even marched down Lambton Quay ahead of an army of film workers, protesting against "the murder of the NZ film industry" by Australian unions. The Government eventually changed the employment law, offered more money, and The Hobbit stayed.

It all seems a long way from a bunch of film buddies teaming up to buy a fancy computer.

Aitken doesn't want to comment on subsidies, other than to say that, without them, the Avatar sequels would not be being made here.

"It's obviously hugely valuable to me personally . . . enabling me to work in the career I love in my home town, which is just remarkable. But I think it's for New Zealanders to decide how much they like having this work as part of the culture here."

Taylor is more unequivocal, and says economic arguments against supporting the film industry trivialise its benefits, ignoring the way it offers New Zealand a "voice" in the world.

"Without those cultural touchpoints, we become just a hollow machine."

Even with a swag of awards and its track record, Taylor says Weta Workshop still has to fight hard for its future in a competitive industry where unpredictability is a given.

"If you don't deliver on budget, on time, that would be the end of you."

Indeed, outside of the Avatar sequels, government officials have commented there is not much in the New Zealand film pipeline. Last year, New Zealand's film revenue dropped by $180m or 4 per cent, although post-production revenue rose, a better sign for Weta Digital.

In the foreword to the Weta Digital book, Jackson says there were many times in the company's history when the "future hung in the balance" and the dream could easily have ended. But somehow Weta has pulled through. It seems likely, although not certain, that it will be here in another 20 years.

Matt Aitken will be giving a talk on the first 20 years of Weta Digital between 1pm and 2.30pm at Te Papa today. The history of Weta Workshop is discussed at 3pm.

Tomorrow Richard Taylor and other founding staff will attend a book-signing at the Weta Cave in Weka St, Miramar, from 2pm.

The Dominion Post