'Avatar' Oscars could make Weta household name

When Oscar nominations are announced Tuesday, Weta Digital will surely get a nod for "Avatar" visual effects. Unfamiliar to many, the studio has been on top for years.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

Update at 8:25 a.m. PST Feb. 2: "Avatar" has snagged nine Oscar nominations: visual effects, best picture, art direction, cinematography, directing, film editing, sound editing, sound mixing, and music (original score).

Weta Digital is sure to get an Oscar nomination for its visual effects work on 'Avatar.' The publicity the record-breaking film has received may finally make Weta a household name. Fox

When the trumpets sound Tuesday morning and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its annual Oscar nominations, could there be any more of a sure thing than that James Cameron's mega-hit "Avatar" will grace the list of visual effects honorees?

After all, while many people have enjoyed the film's sprawling anti-colonialism storyline, there's little doubt that what has made the movie the highest grossing of all time is its stunning computer-generated imagery, primarily the intricate, intensely detailed and impressively realistic world of Pandora.

Because "Avatar" is Cameron's baby, the countless others that made the film what it is have perhaps been inadvertently left out of the whirlwind of praise--at least in the eyes of the general public. That nearly $2 billion in box office receipts has been generated by moviegoers who came out see the latest offering from the "Titanic," "Terminator," and "Aliens" director.

But beyond Cameron and his team at Lightstorm Entertainment, the people who may deserve the biggest kudos--and who have to be considered the odds-on favorite to walk away on March 7 with at least one visual effects Oscar--are the folks at Peter Jackson's New Zealand-based Weta Digital.

Of course, the folks behind the effects of films like "Star Trek," "2012," "District 9," and several others probably also think they're shoo-ins for the Oscar.

Still, if the mainstream public knows anything about visual effects studios, it's probably because of George Lucas' famous Industrial Light & Magic, which has been doing its thing--and winning Oscars--for decades.

These days, though, there's a small group of visual effects houses that are considered by those in the industry to be in the top tier, among them Digital Domain, Sony Imageworks, and Rhythm & Hues. And with all the buzz around its work on "Avatar," Weta Digital might just be the one that finally emerges and takes its rightful place alongside ILM in the public's gaze.

Game-changing innovation
The average filmgoer might not be nearly as familiar with Weta as a visual effects house as with its co-founder, the director Peter Jackson, who made the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, as well as the recent reboot of "King Kong." But industry insiders have known for years that Weta is a force to be reckoned with.

And while the company has hundreds of top-notch artists working on its various projects at any given time, its ascendance to the top of the mountain is seen by some as being linked to the arrival of one man, Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor and Weta partner Joe Letteri.

"Letteri's tenure at Weta has coincided with the company's rise to one of the world's leading visual effects studios," wrote Variety associate editor David Cohen in a 2007 article,

That's a notion to which Jon Landau, the producer of "Avatar," subscribes.

Weta has become known especially for its digital character work. It first gained major recognition for this specialty with its work on Gollum in the 'Lord of the Rings trilogy,' for which it won three Oscars. Fox

"I think you can look to Joe Letteri," said Landau of one of the primary reasons for Weta's place in the top-tier of visual effects studios. "Peter (Jackson) had a vision of what he wanted the company to be, and it was always a very forward-looking vision, not just 'Let's perfect the techniques today,' but 'How do we create techniques we'll use tomorrow?' And Joe came in and brought a sensibility not just from a technology standpoint, but also an aesthetic sensibility to the table."

In its history as a visual effects studio, Weta has won four Oscars. Letteri has been a recipient of three of them, for the latter two "Lord of the Rings" movies, and for "King Kong." Weta also won a fourth Oscar for the first "Lord of the Rings."

To Letteri, who said Weta worked on "Avatar" for about four years, one of the most game-changing innovations that he got to work on with "Avatar" was what he called the "virtual production stage."

This process, which has gotten a lot of ink, is what is very likely to have the most lasting effect on the film industry, and even on others, like virtual worlds.

"Cameron wanted to be able to see his actors moving within the virtual environments while still on the motion-capture stage," wrote Anne Thompson in Popular Mechanics. "So he challenged his virtual-production supervisor Glenn Derry to come up with a virtual camera that could show him a low-resolution view of Pandora as he shot the performances.

"The resulting swing camera (so called because its screen could swing to any angle to give Cameron greater freedom of movement) is another [of the film's] breakthrough technologies. The swing camera has no lens at all, only an LCD screen and markers that record its position and orientation within the volume relative to the actors. That position information is then run through an effects switcher, which feeds back low-resolution [computer graphics] versions of both the actors and the environment of Pandora to the swing cam's screen in real time. "

This innovation was crucial, Letteri recalled, because Cameron didn't provide Weta--or any of the other visual effects studios that worked on some of the film's shots, including ILM--with story boards or pre-visualization. Rather, Cameron wanted to critique the actors' performances as they happened, in real time. It was very much "in the moment" filmmaking, Letteri said.

Another of Weta's innovations on "Avatar" was a new system for developing the way that muscles are produced for computer-generated characters. Letteri said that in the past, most visual effects studios would have crafted characters' skeletons and simply layered the digital muscles on top. But, he said, that's not how real muscles work. Instead, they have fibers that are firing up and down the body, and so for "Avatar," Weta "re-wrote our muscles to be correct biomechanically."

Weta won three Oscars for its visual effects work on the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, and many credit its innovative work on the Gollum character for those awards. New Line Productions

Innovations like this, and another involving a new system for lighting massive areas like Pandora's jungle, are not likely to be things that the average moviegoer will notice, Letteri said. But for the visual effects artists, coming up with systems that can automate processes that must be repeated over and over in a film like "Avatar" is crucial.

And it's the chance to work on big films and the resulting innovations that helps draw the kind of top talent Weta and its top-tier competitors need these days, said Cohen.

"It's very important if you want to be a top-flight visual effects studio to have projects that will attract top artists," said Cohen. "People get into this because they want to do cool stuff."

The different visual effects houses are also known for their specialties. For Weta, its last few major projects have been about perfecting its technique on digital characters. That became clear with the "Lord of the Rings" films and the studio's work on Gollum and then its Oscar-winning work on crafting King Kong. And now "Avatar."

Each visual effects studio has a certain kind of film they are particularly good at, and sometimes they'll hold out for the right projects.

Weta "had a chance to do three other movies, and it took us six months to get a green light on 'Avatar,'" said Landau. "And [Weta] passed on all of them because they believed that 'Avatar' was the way to their future business...They said, 'Look, we would rather wait for 'Avatar because we believe in the movie and where it would take us as a company.' That's a big risk for a company, because that's a big loss of income. And that speaks to their philosophy."

For Cameron and Landau, however, choosing Weta was a clear choice because of some of the skills they knew Letteri and his team had.

"We went with Weta," Landau said, "because, number one, we believed they had the creative ability to create characters that were engaging and emotive. And number two, they could work flexibly with our film. We couldn't go out in advance and story board [it]. That's a difficult thing for some other companies to embrace."

One criteria that has to be considered when thinking about whether a visual effects house is top-tier is whether it can handle a never-ending stream of big projects.

To Cohen, that's a key differentiator. He said there are some studios that can do one film after another, but can't always take on that many shots on any individual project.

"There's a relatively small number of places that can do a lot of work," Cohen said, "and Weta is in that group. They have to always stay busy, because if they're carrying any staff, they have to pay them."

That's definitely an issue for Weta, but the company has been able to keep a core group of several hundred artists tied to New Zealand. In part, that's because the company has been working on one mega film after another: the three "Lord of the Rings" films back-to-back-to-back, then "King Kong" and then four years on "Avatar."

But even as it's focused on those main projects, Weta has also been working on others as well. For example, it worked on "District 9," "The Water Horse," Jackson's own "Lovely Bones," and others, all while "Avatar" was in production. And it is already working on "Tintin" and "The Hobbit"--films that will be coming out in the next couple of years.

Still, "Avatar" may be the film that ultimately puts Weta on the visual effects map, in the public's perception, at least. And after four years, it can only be a huge relief to see the movie getting the kind of reaction it's gotten and will be getting.

Of course, Letteri and his team had to work almost until the film's launch to make that happen. It launched in December, and he and his team were still delivering the last shots in November.

"It was great to finish," Letteri said. "It was a very intense period of work. [But] at some point, you just want to see the movie."