The most innovative visual effects company in the world has two insect-like figures cast in stone at its entrance. But don’t let these archaic structures fool you; this place is on the razor-sharp edge of filmmaking innovation, teetering at times into animation so new, the technology has to be invented just to catch up with the idea.
Weta Digital, named after the New Zealand weta—one of the largest insects on Earth—was co-founded more than two decades ago by The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, who along with several industry friends, built the Wellington, NZ-based studio into an Oscar-winning breeding ground for cinematic creativity and CG animatronics. Not only did Weta recreate J.R.R. Tolkien’s densely imaginative world onscreen, its teams are also responsible for breathing life into Avatar—Hollywood’s all-time top grossing film—the Planet of the Apes trilogy, and more.
It was recently announced Weta would continue its Avatar legacy, responsible for creating the four James Cameron-directed sequels, the first expected to hit theaters in 2020. Although if Cameron’s knack to postpone tells us anything, this date is on shaky ground; the famed director has already pushed up the release of Avatar 2, (for lack of a better title), hoping that new advances in CG would allow audiences across the globe to experience the movie in 3D without special glasses. Weta Digital price tags the four-sequel project at costing more than $1 billion, and some of that money will go into research and development of the animation required to satisfy an unrelenting Cameron.
Reportedly, the four-sequel Avatar project has already begun and the studio continues to push the boundaries of spectacularly lifelike production. Shading, for instance, is known as the process of calculating how light interacts with surfaces. When done properly, the viewer is afforded an onscreen picture mirroring real life, with light dancing and shadows lurking in all the places they should. It’s an incredibly complex animation, especially for hair or skin, where light partially shines across the tip of a nose, or through a single strand of hair but may be blocked by another. To solve this issue, Weta uses shading models based on real-world physics. In-house animators determine how light interacts with a particular surface, and calculate each individual wavelength of light separately to make the animation come alive.
This level of mathematic sophistication and attention to detail is not lost on Cameron. “What [Weta Digital Senior Visual Effects Supervisor] Joe Letteri and Weta Digital bring to these stories is impossible to quantify,” he said. “Since we made Avatar, Weta continued to prove themselves as doing the best CG animation, the most human, the most alive, the most photo-realistic effects in the world. And of course, that now means I can push them to take it even farther.”