Filed in: Featured, Visual FX

Has Weta Digital Taken the Visual Effects Lead?

August 15, 2011 07:32 | By

Weta Digital pioneered performance capture techniques.

In light of the raves that Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been getting from critics and fans alike, and the box office success of the film to date, one development is certain to emerge from the aftermath of the sci-fi action movie’s theatrical run, as with the group of freed apes rising above figurative mist shrouding the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of the film.  There is a new dominant visual effects force in the industry, and its name, for now, is Weta Digital.  Was it a conscious symbolically-presented final image that those Weta-realized apes are perched in Marin County and looking past the bridge onto the Presidio complex in San Francisco, the future and current homes of Industrial Light and Magic?

Make no mistake, ILM ruled the visual effects landscape for the better part of three decades.  From its mid-1970s inception in Van Nuys, California, to its relocation to San Rafael in Marin County thereafter, ILM took the lead on nearly every important visual effects film from Star Wars to The Abyss to Terminator 2 to Jurassic Park and beyond.  Surely, there were other effects companies, with former ILM keys John Dykstra and Richard Edlund forming Apogee and Boss Film Studios, respectively, to compete with ILM in the 1980s.  Other firms such as Dream Quest Images joined the visual effects race and made their presence felt.  By the 1990s, ILM faced competition from new vendors including Rhythm and Hues, Asylum, CafeFX and others who all got shows of various size facing new challenges.  Reportedly, wanting to control more of his creative vision than he was able to achieve working with ILM, James Cameron formed Digital Domain to create the shots he had in mind for True Lies (ILM got the last laugh when they were one of 17 firms that Cameron needed to utilize to complete shots for Titanic that Digital Domain could not handle due to the volume and complexity of work required on that show).

However, by the end of the 1990s, the template for executing visual effects changed along with the climate of creating the work itself.  More computer-generated work was implemented into films as traditional model and matte shots were phased out.  Work began to travel overseas as smaller firms sprouted up.  Peter Jackson created Weta Digital to handle the massive amount of shots that his Lord of the Rings trilogy, shot simultaneously, warranted.  Film productions started to automatically divide bigger shows amongst multiple vendors to achieve the needs of large-scale projects.  Questionable decisions were made in effects-laden films as to what kind of shots would be used, and political chaos ensued over what firms would be creating those shots.  Witness films such as Mighty Joe Young (1998) and Godzilla (1998) whose productions built full-size and suit-performed articulated creatures, then took shots away from practical filming in favor of computer-generated animation, arguably for political purposes.  In those cases, first, rumors of a Dream Quest Images sale to Disney might have motivated the production’s move to more CGI shots on Mighty Joe Young, and the fact that Centropolis Effects was a property of Godzilla’s director, possibly pushed that film in a more CGI-heavy direction.  In both cases, those films were critical and commercial disappointments and fans complained of issues with reduced quality and overuse of computer graphics to realize their title characters.

Weta Digital took motion-capture to new heights with Gollum.

Alas, Peter Jackson’s unqualified successes with Lord of the Rings dictated that King Kong, his next film, would also be created with heavy Weta Digital involvement.  Whereas ILM created realistic dinosaurs mixed with live-action animatronics for the Jurassic Park films, here was a title character who would be realized completely with CGI.  With Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, Weta proved that it could utilize motion-capture and performance-capture techniques and take them to a new plateau to fully actuate Gollum’s performance, with the boost of Andy Serkis’ dynamic performance in capture gear.  Not only hadn’t ILM brought motion-capture translations into CGI in those heights, no other firm had done so on that level previous to the Rings films.  While hardly a new technique, motion capture was also being implemented for a Robert Zemeckis series of CGI films, including Polar Express, Beowulf, and later A Christmas Carol.  But where those films failed to connect with audiences, the characters of Gollum and King Kong, both ably performed by Serkis, resonated with genre fans and the general audience alike.  King Kong might have been a bloated exercise, but Kong as a character worked seamlessly.  Cynics pointed to King Kong being a three-hour demo reel for Weta Digital, but the company triumphantly created a performance and facially-captured character as a film’s star, believable regardless of the environments which the filmmakers put him into.  Curious that George Lucas, ILM founder and still its proprietor, ventured to New York for the December 2005 King Kong premiere.  Was he doing so as a friend and colleague to Jackson, or was he checking out his closest competitor to that point?

How could Weta have succeeded where other firms had not?  Were there in fact too many politics in stateside studio films to bring one unique vision to the screen?  Did Weta’s remote New Zealand location free them of the interference of the opinion-by-committee of studio executives and producers?  Surely, James Cameron believed in Weta when he sought to realize the unprecedented shots that his Avatar dreams entailed.  Cameron had sold Digital Domain and was a free agent of sorts, choosing Weta due to their advances in translating capture data into photorealistic onscreen characters.  When Avatar became the top-grossing film of all time, it did not hurt Cameron’s cause, Weta’s plight, or the concept of realizing films with a similar pipeline of producing computer-generated content.  Of course, 90% of Avatar’s computer-generated character shots occur in a fully computer-generated fantasy environment.  Could Weta work their magic in an earthbound setting?

Andy Serkis delivered the performance for Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

That question was answered last week when Rise of the Planet of the Apes debuted.  Serkis and Weta were back, creating top-flight characters who could carry a film, only this time, both the characters and environments were recognizable to audiences and had to work to the trained eye.  Completely computer-graphics realized chimpanzees, led by Serkis’ Caesar, starred in the film, augmented by gorillas and orangutans in supporting roles.  All characters and environments were grounded in reality and necessitated complete photorealism and believability.  And, to no one’s surprise, Weta achieved all of those points, again taking their challenges to new levels, such as shooting the performance capture data in sunlight in shots which also featured live-action actors and set pieces.  Not only were these apes fully believable as individual beings, but they moved and interacted in a way such as to be irrefutably convincing.  Despite many films claims to creating something that has never before been seen, Rise of the Planet of the Apes did so in a way to break ground aesthetically, technically, and as a pioneering piece of entertainment.

Where does this situation leave the rest of the visual effects industry?  Surely, there is plenty of work to distribute to firms in the US, England, and worldwide, as has been increasingly so over the past decade.  With Centropolis Effects, CafeFX and Asylum shuttered, Dream Quest long absorbed and folded, and other smaller firms struggling and outsourcing, the field of visual effects is left with many uncertainties though there are always intriguing possibilities.  However, unless Weta Digital’s template for creating meaningful characters is cloned and spread out widely among leading entities, it appears that they have now raised the bar for top visual effects facilities.  What other firms will conjure in response remains to be seen.