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Unity, Weta, and Faceless Platforms

 

Unity, Weta, and Faceless Platforms

Courtesy of Ben Thompson, Stratechery

At the beginning of a video announcing Unity’s acquisition of Weta Digital, Peter Jackson, filmmaker extraordinaire and the founder of Weta, and Prem Akkaraju, the CEO of Weta Digital, explained why they were excited to hand Weta Digital over (beyond, of course, the $1.63 billion):

 

Peter Jackson: We knew that digital effects offered so much possibility for us to be able to create the worlds and the creatures that we were imagining.

Prem Akkaraju: Now we’re taking those tools that we have created and are handing them over the Unity to market them for the entire world.

Peter Jackson: Together Unity and Weta Digital can create a pathway for any artist in any industry who will now be able to leverage these incredible creative tools.

The creation, development, and now sale of Weta Digital is a great example of how the ideal approach to innovation in an emerging field changes over time; understanding that journey also explains why Unity is a great home for Weta.

Weta’s Integrated History

Peter Jackson has said that he was inspired to start Weta Digital after seeing Jurassic Park and realizing that CGI was the future of movies; the first movie Weta worked on was Heavenly Creature, which Jackson says didn’t even need CGI. From an oral history of Weta Digital:

 

We used the film as an excuse to buy one computer, just to put our toe in the water. And we had a guy, one guy, who could figure out how to work it, and we got a couple of bits of software, and we did the effects in Heavenly Creatures really just for the sake of doing some CGI effects so we’d actually just start to figure it out. And then on The Frighteners, which was the next movie we [did], we went from one computer to 30 computers. It was a pretty big jump.”

Weta, as you would expect given how nascent computer graphics were, was integrated from top-to-bottom: Jackson’s team didn’t make software to make graphics for Jackson’s films; Jackson actually made a scene in a film that needed graphics to give his team a reason to get started on making software. That bet paid off a few years later when Weta played a pivotal role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The feedback loop between movie-making and software-development was tight in a way that is only possible with a fully integrated approach, resulting in dramatic improvements from film to film. Jackson said of Gollum:

 

Now the first Lord of the Rings film, Fellowship of the Ring, which has Gollum in about two shots, he’s just a little glimpse, and it’s completely different to the Gollum that’s in the next film, The Two Towers. [That first] version of Gollum was pretty gnarly, pretty crude. It was as good as we could do at that time, and we had to have something in the movie, but we put a very deep shadow, and you know that was on purpose because he didn’t look very good. But, nonetheless, we ran out of time, and that was what we had to have in the movie. We still had another year to get him really good for the Two Towers, where he was half the film, so the Two Towers Gollum was a complete overhaul of the one from the first film. It finally got to the place that we wanted to go.”

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