There are a couple of ways to absorb what it is that Weta Digital actually does in 2016.

You can have Joe Letteri, its Oscar-winning boss and co-owner (with Peter Jackson) patiently explain it.

Your brain will soon be throbbing with terms like "spherical harmonic illumination", should you ask him what's going on in the big shot of Avatar that sits behind him.

You can have visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken, who's been there for 20 years, show it to you on a big screen in a presentation that makes it feel like those adventures in Middle-earth and Pandora were a lifetime ago, such is the array of movies the company has worked on in the past year or two - including the newly released Pete's Dragon.


Or, you can wander on to the company's motion capture stage, where half a dozen of the Weta Digital team are running tests on a robot character with a colleague suited up and doing his best android walk.

In the next room another is cabling portable carts of the company's mo-cap tech in preparation for an overseas shoot (more of which later).

Or, you can ask to visit the data centre. If you stand in the middle of all that processing power, you can pretty much feel all those sweated-over 1s and 0s in the roar of the hundreds of servers and the water-cooling system.

Its render wall can generate 250 terabytes of data a day. There are racks carrying 18 petabytes of storage, with a robot fetching and filing 62,500 high-capacity tapes or everything that's ever been made here (plus another 4PB on disk).

The place sucks as much electricity as Wellington Hospital and the data centre comes with a dairy factory-sized heat-exchange system. That means some days Weta Digital gives off steam.

And it's gone full steam ahead (see sidebar) on multiple movies for multiple studios. That's even with Jackson not needing to play with the digital toybox he helped create, since his Hobbit trilogy ended in 2014.

Weta Digital is now a big deal all by itself. Digital Chief Financial Officer David Wright won't be drawn on exact figures but says its turnover is in "the hundreds of millions, not the tens of millions".

Statistics New Zealand movie industry figures say local post production and production businesses generated $1040 million in revenue in 2015, with $515 million half of that from overseas.

The place's 1500 staff - many recruited from overseas but 70 per cent New Zealanders, Australians or residents - has grown with every big project.

There was just a 150-strong Weta Digital workforce staff when Letteri, an American who had worked for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) on films like Jurassic Park, arrived to work on the final two Rings movies and stayed to run the place.

It grew to 450 at the end of Rings, 550 by the end of King Kong, 900 for Avatar, 1200 for The Hobbit.

All those films marked pivotal points in the company's technology. That included the development of motion capture for Gollum and Kong and the totally computer-generated world of Avatar.

If, on The Lord of the Rings, visual effects (VFX) were added to enhance the filmed actors and action, by The Hobbit the emphasis had changed to instead adding the actors shot against a blue or green screen to a computer-generated base.

Now Weta Digital is creating and animating photorealistic characters from scratch. That's whether they be with us no longer (inserting a digital stand-in for the late Paul Walker into Fast and Furious 7) or just very long (the giants of The BFG including Mark Rylance's title character).

That Rylance got the credit pleases Aitken: "The thing that we found very gratifying was that people talked about Mark Rylance's performance as the BFG and how subtle it was. It means that the work is completely invisible."

The giants of <i>The BFG</i>, including Mark Rylance's title character, were created by Weta Digital.
The giants of The BFG, including Mark Rylance's title character, were created by Weta Digital.

Whether that's made movies better is up for debate. But it's certainly been good for business. With the company winning work on more non-Jackson movies since The Hobbit than they did in all the years before it, they now have a team of 25 departments spread over more than a dozen buildings in Miramar.

That makes it one of the biggest private sector employers in the Wellington region.

It wasn't always like this. Aitken was the second digital specialist employed by the original Weta company in the mid-90s. That was just as Peter Jackson began to embrace visual effects on his early movies Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners.

Aitken laughs that his phone now has more power than the computers they began with. Eventually, Weta Digital became its own entity, separate from Weta Workshop, which specialises in production design, miniatures, costuming and props.

These days it's rare that the two arms work on the same project. Weta Workshop has expanded beyond movies into merchandise and museum exhibits. Workshop boss Richard Taylor has also become a producer of children's television via his Pukeko Pictures.

But while Workshop's wares are tangible, Weta Digital has effectively become its big brother.

"They just think Weta is the Cave," says Wright about the perception of the two Weta companies as he sits in his office, which is 50m away from the museum-cum-shop.

"It's like an iceberg. The Cave is actually the tip and 90 per cent of the business is sitting behind that."

Much more than 90 per cent of Weta Digital's business comes from American film studios.

One recent notable exception? The wild pig in Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the little New Zealand movie that outstripped all those visual effects blockbusters at the local box office.

"We were very pleased to be involved in the project, says Aitken. "Taika had this stuffed pig's head he was prancing around in the river with."

It was replaced with a hairy, living, breathing digital version. And yes, he probably got mate's rates.

"I wasn't involved in the business. But I hope we did and I suspect we did because he couldn't have afforded it otherwise."

Which makes you wonder what happens when those who can afford to have Weta Digital make them a multimillion-dollar creature come calling? Must be a strange negotiation.

So Mr Letteri, let's say I'm a studio or director in the market for a giant monster. What would the conversation be?


Er, because I have a crucial action scene in the middle which involves a giant hairy monster ...

"Okay so what is the hairy monster to do?'

He destroys villages on a distant moon. Because that is what the movie is about. At any point would you advise me the script needs some work before I come see you?

"You might be getting there. Your always try to look at what is going to make a character resonate with an audience."

"We try to do characters, not creatures. If a creature is a giant hairy monster that smashes things, that in the end doesn't buy you a whole lot. I would rather have a giant monster who is conflicted. Like Smaug - something that has a motivation, a history, a twist to it."

Then there's another conversation to be had about "how much?"

Letteri: "We have to say here's what we think it will cost and the studio will come back saying 'of course we don't want to spend that much'.

"You are always trying to figure out - can you do the quantity and quality of work that is being asked for what the studio wants to spend on the project?"

There's a new normal in the blockbuster business when it comes to visual effects.

Rather than contracting one VFX firm, the big studios now spread the work across many companies by competitive tender process.

For the studios, it mitigates the risk of a single facility not delivering on time and drives costs down.

For operations like Weta Digital, it means they are at the mercy of their clients. And it can be a tough business. Californian VFX company Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy shortly before winning the special effects Oscar for its work on Ang Lee's Life of Pi.

"The analysis of that failure is as much around the power that the studios have," says Wright. "They are quite a dominant force and their business practices in terms of how risk averse they are manifests itself in payment schedules, or breaking up work, or shorter and shorter deliverable time frames.

"You don't actually have a lot of leverage. Your reputation is one thing but you know who is driving the deal at the end of the day. "

Wright thinks the company may have reached its ideal size.

"The thing that is challenging us most is how big can we be or should we be?

"There are a lot of visual effects being produced in the world and there is a lot of demand for visual effects internationally. So, arguably, there is more work to be secured ... at the same time there is a recognition that the competitive nature of the industry is such that the next work is not going to be as profitable as the previous work."

And in some ways Weta Digital is just like any other New Zealand exporter - though their product is weightless and cost-free to deliver, the Kiwi dollar against the greenback can cause Wright some sleepless nights, even with a hedging strategy.

But the company is diversifying, in a way. They aren't just pumping out finished shots to the world. They are going out to help create them.

Jackson and his colleagues may have created Weta Digital and its sister facilities to bring Hollywood to New Zealand. But now the company has been sending teams doing motion capture in Vancouver with Steven Spielberg on The BFG, in Paris with Luc Besson on Valerian and his City of a Thousand Planets.

Weta Digital pioneered the use of motion capture in real world locations on 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, first using infra-red cameras that didn't interfere with the lighting being used to film a scene conventionally, to track actors like Andy Serkis as ape leader Caesar.

The next mo-cap squad is heading to Austin Texas for Alita: Battle Angel.

The film is being directed by Robert Rodriguez, having been co-written and produced by James Cameron from a Japanese manga series about an amnesiac cyborg.

That's why, on the Weta Digital motion capture stage, a small guy in a suit is on screen as a giant fierce-looking cyborg, taking his first baby steps in a post-apocalyptic world.

So are visual effects running movies?

Joe Letteri - Senior Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital

"They can make movies and they can ruin movies. One of the difficulties about visual effects is that it is really easy to do the wrong thing. That is why I like working in a live action context as much as possible.

"Working with actors, you are grounded in the physical reality. You can use that to extend the fantasy component of it. But the more you cut your moorings, the more you are making stuff up, the easier it is just to lose that humanity.

"It is getting easier and easier to do. But that doesn't mean it is easier to do well."

Matt Aitken - Visual Effects Supervisor, Weta Digital

"As a practitioner I enjoy going to films without visual effects but that is because I can't help but be distracted by the visual effects.

"I think people will make that comment when the visual effects aren't necessarily successful. But we've become so intrinsic to film-making that I think we're what enables films to get made.

"The kind of films that people enjoy going to, the films that are successful at the box office are all visual effects-driven films.

"Bad visual effects won't ruin a good film but good visual effects can't save a bad film."

Weta Digital's filmography since The Hobbit trilogy

Fantastic Four

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

Krampus* (WW)

Fast and Furious 7 - restoring the late Paul Walker into the film after he died before its completion.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Trip

Deadpool - increasing Ryan Reynolds' facial expressions in the character's superhero mask.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Central Intelligence - making Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's character a chubby teenager in flashback scenes.

Jungle Book - Creating scenes where Mowgli is kidnapped by monkeys and encounters King Louie. Also created a virtual reality spin-off of scene to promote the movie.

Independence Day: Resurgence - creating the scene of a giant alien queen chasing a school bus in the desert, among others.

The BFG* - animating the BFG himself and other characters and the environments around them.

Pete's Dragon* - animating the flying furry dragon in the NZ-shot Disney movie.

And upcoming:

Alita Battle: Angel* - the Robert Rodriguez-directed manga-inspired cyborg action produced and co-written by James Cameron.

War for the Planet of the Apes* - third in the rebooted man vs talking primate franchise.

Justice League - Batman returns with Wonder Woman et al. (WW)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - French director Luc Besson's retro space adventure.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - the second of Marvel's sci-fi action comedy franchise

Spectral - Special Ops vs supernatural sci-fi thriller

• The Avatar sequels - James Cameron's return to Pandora.

*Lead visual effects provider. (WW) = involved Weta Workshop

Joe Letteri is delivering a digital effects masterclass "Bringing Virtual to Reality" at the Big Screen Symposium, Business School, University of Auckland today , 2.45pm

Other speakers at the two-day event include Cliff Curtis, Pete's Dragon producer Barrie M. Osborne, Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and American novelist-screenwriter Jonathan Raymonde.

For more info: