WETA Digital is one of the most prominent VFX houses. This little New Zealand studio has grown into one of the most powerful companies in the industry.

Cover image — Lord of the Rings: Return of the King via New Line Cinema

With the incredible advances WETA Digital has made, it’s almost unbelievable that the studio has only be around since the 1990s.

Named after a native New Zealand insect (the weta), WETA Digital was founded by Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor, and Jamie Selkirk in 1993. The studios first project was creating special effects for Peter Jackson’s film Heavenly Creatures. They would continue to work on Jackson’s projects and also the 1997 Robert Zemeckis sci-fi Contact.

In this video from John Shiels, you get a glimpse of the experiments being worked on by the research and development team. This work helped Peter Jackson secure his next major feature — and paved the way for WETA Digital to become a digital VFX empire.

In 2001, Peter Jackson released The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The film was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning Best Visual Effects. The Lord of the Rings trilogy created the software Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment, or MASSIVE.

Army from Lord of the Rings

Image — Lord of the Rings: Return of the King via New Line Cinema

The program uses computer animation and artificial intelligence to create crowd-related visual effects. Instead of having to individually animate every character, MASSIVE allowed users to create massive crowds with individuals that act independently.

The program was used to create the epic battle scenes, in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought each other. The program was licensed out to other VFX houses, and has become standard software for animators. MASSIVE has been used on several features like Avatar, Flags of Our Fathers, WALL-E, and most recently The Hobbit.

WETA Digital would modify MASSIVE to bring life to the flora and fauna to the world of Pandora in Avatar.  The special effects in Avatar  won the Oscar for Best Achievement for Visual Effects. In this video from The FoundryRobin Hollander shows how WETA Digital used NUKE and OCULA on James Cameron‘s Avatar.

WETA Digital also created the software CityBot. The program allowed them to create entire city landscapes. It was developed for King Kong to create the New York City of 1933.

For King Kong, they also had to develop a new simulation and modeling software for Kong’s fur. They would also apply CityBot and the fur techniques to San Francisco and the various apes of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

WETA Digital is also known for the final battle in Iron Man 3. Not only did the studio work on some of Iron Man’s armor, they actually created a digital double for Robert Downey Jr. after the actor injured his leg on set. You can see the double jumping into a suit in this VFX breakdown.

WETA Digital completed the J.R.R Tolkien Middle-earth series with a Hobbit trilogy. In this breakdown of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, you can see how the animators took a tremendous performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and created the dragon, Smaug.

The team at WETA Digital also salvaged Furious 7. They were responsible for animating Paul Walker, after the actor died during production. Using unused footage from prior film and the actor’s brothers, the were able to complete the scenes needed after the films rewrite.

Paul Walker CGI

Currently WETA Digital is working on films like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.

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