Oral Histories

Peter Jackson's Oral History of Weta Digital

The director goes deep on the revolutionary effects house's work, from Heavenly Creatures to The Lord of the Rings to Mortal Engines and beyond.

by | December 10, 2018 | Comments

The Early Years: Heavenly CreaturesJurassic Inspiration

Notable films: Heavenly Creatures | The Frighteners | Contact

Digital effects powerhouse Weta Digital is responsible for some of your favorite movie characters and worlds from the last 25 years. Trust us: Gollum, Caesar, Middle-earth, Pandora. Chances are if it blew your mind, it started at somewhere inside one of the thousands of computers at in Weta’s Wellington, New Zealand headquarters. It’s a mammoth operation, with the Weta Digital team currently working on post-production for the Avatar sequels, Jungle Cruise, and the final season of Game of Thrones, all as Universal releases Mortal Engines – a showcase for the company’s newest and most innovative work – in theaters this December. And yet it all began very humbly in 1993 with Peter Jackson’s Certified Fresh second film, Heavenly Creatures, for which the director wanted to tinker with digital effects almost for the sake of it. He founded the company with Richard Taylor and Jamie Serkik, got to work, and would eventually change moviemaking as we knew it.

Here, Jackson – who co-wrote the screenplay for Mortal Engines with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh and is a producer on the film – walks us through the history of the company, from the moviegoing experience that turned him onto digital effects through to writing new programs for The Lord of the Rings and finally to the roaming “predator cities” that roam the Earth in Mortal Engines. In the early days, he admits, it was all about “gnarly.”

What follows is a history of Weta Digital, drawn from an extended sit-down interview with Peter Jackson and Mortal Engines director Christian Rivers.

SKIP TO: WETA MEETS TOLKIEN | MORTAL ENGINES


“I really thought I was seeing a living, breathing, T-Rex.” 

“The one event that happened is… Jurassic Park happened. We were getting into Heavenly Creatures and I went to see Jurassic Park, and, you know, the Tyrannosaurus Rex – I really thought I was seeing a living, breathing T-Rex. I just thought, my god. Whatever the future of visual effects is, it’s now gotta be computers.”

Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park (Photo by © Universal / courtesy Everett Collection)

“We started on Heavenly Creatures with one computer – I think we still have it, it’s a doorstop now.”

“We started on Heavenly Creatures with one computer, one single box. I think we actually still have it, and I think it’s a doorstop now – we’ve sort of got our memorial doorstop. But that was so bloody expensive and it took us forever to save up and buy. We’ve got probably six or seven thousand computers [now]. Right up to Heavenly Creatures I’d done some horror movies and things, and we’d always done our own effects, which was all prosthetics and props and zombie stuff and all that. We had done it ourselves – I love effects, I’d never wanna give them to somebody else to do, because they’re part of the fun of filmmaking.”

“We did the effects really just for the sake of doing some CGI, so we’d actually just start to figure it out.”

“To tell you the truth, we didn’t really need any CGI in [Heavenly Creatures]. But, 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.”

Heavenly Creatures
Heavenly Creatures

“Cloth was one of the things that people hadn’t managed to figure out yet – when you look at it today, it’s pretty gnarly.”

“The big nightmare for us on that movie was to do CGI cloth, because one of our characters was a grim reaper-type guy with a flying black robes. So we had to do CGI cloth flowing. Cloth was one of the things that people hadn’t managed to figure out yet, so, we had code-writers writing our code to do cloth for us. When you look at it today it’s pretty crude, pretty gnarly – it looks like stretchy pasty vinyl, it doesn’t really look like cloth. [You can] buy a piece of software for a [cheap] that can do far better cloth now.”

“It usually involves water or fire.” 

“First of all, [you’re] driven by what you have to do, you know? What is the result? We use a lot of readily available, not particularly expensive off-the-shelf programs [to create effects], but occasionally you do get something you would like to do – and it usually involves water, you know, splashing the water, or river water, or fire. That sort of thing that off-the-shelf software can’t quite do. So at that point, you have to write your own software.”

The Frighteners
Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, Peter Jackson, producer Steve Starkey for The Frighteners (Photo by © Universal Pictures)

“The guys wanna do everything better than they did the last time… It sort of drives me crazy.”

“Over the years, we’ve written about a hundred pieces of code for a wide variety of different things, and it drives me a little bit crazy because we keep writing code for the same things every time. Like, we do Avatar a few years ago, and we wrote software to create grass, and trees, leaves, that can blow with the wind, that sort of stuff. And then I come along with The Hobbit, and I want some grass or some shrubs or some trees, so I [ask], Why can’t we use the stuff that we wrote [already]? I mean it was fine for the [prior] film, but we wanted to be better. I mean there was some kind of code, unspoken code – and it’s not anything to do with the ownership of the software, because it belongs to us – but the guys themselves, wanna do everything better than they did the last time. So they don’t want the Avatar grass, or the leaves; they want to do grass and leaves better than last time. They set about writing a whole new grass software, whole new leaf software, and it happens over and over again, all the time. It sort of drives me crazy.”


SKIP TO: WETA MEETS TOLKIEN | MORTAL ENGINES

Pages: 1 2 3 Next

Tag Cloud

Emmys Tarantino RT21 canceled TV shows Summer DC Comics Mary poppins Disney streaming service justice league Film Festival Arrowverse Classic Film History ratings teaser DC streaming service crossover christmas movies revenge American Society of Cinematographers Star Wars Winners spinoff streaming Apple TV+ cats 2020 adaptation YouTube Red LGBTQ IFC Films dragons Animation Warner Bros. Creative Arts Emmys Comedy talk show Quiz psychological thriller CBS All Access natural history Holiday spider-man Baby Yoda versus cinemax Action 24 frames series nature Character Guide Oscars game of thrones Nat Geo Pixar quibi Pride Month cars WarnerMedia TNT Emmy Nominations CNN TLC Vudu sequel Tumblr strong female leads Musical richard e. Grant PBS supernatural golden globes comic name the review Amazon Prime cooking Comic Book anime Red Carpet Schedule mutant jamie lee curtis Video Games Avengers Fantasy OneApp Academy Awards south america Rom-Com Mary Poppins Returns Logo Cosplay Polls and Games cults spain true crime transformers reboot NBC Marvel Studios zero dark thirty HBO Max Reality Competition hispanic kids singing competition CMT San Diego Comic-Con free movies Mudbound social media CBS 2018 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Watching Series batman Heroines police drama Set visit Spring TV halloween spy thriller Turner Classic Movies Certified Fresh anthology Epix toy story Hallmark TIFF Trophy Talk dceu indie Netflix Christmas movies CW Seed SDCC witnail documentary award winner rotten movies we love SXSW Pirates Election Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Disney E3 Best and Worst hist Britbox biography YA what to watch movies Awards Box Office cancelled television Rocketman Grammys Interview Nickelodeon miniseries Apple Endgame Syfy Country foreign Stephen King directors Musicals book binge Disney Channel MTV El Rey comics serial killer Ellie Kemper medical drama aliens Starz Black Mirror historical drama based on movie GoT cops Acorn TV television TV Land Mary Tyler Moore screen actors guild President YouTube Fox News ITV Adult Swim Brie Larson Walt Disney Pictures Lionsgate Song of Ice and Fire elevated horror National Geographic Trailer The Purge Rocky Cannes Sundance renewed TV shows Mindy Kaling ABC Family Food Network Crackle IFC Discovery Channel Writers Guild of America adventure PaleyFest Marathons TCA sitcom Marvel Comics on TV vampires Paramount spanish language zombie mockumentary Shondaland movie DirecTV Western canceled Ovation werewolf 2019 war Star Trek comiccon NYCC Esquire Teen Lifetime AMC harry potter Sci-Fi VICE dc TCA 2017 Martial Arts slashers TV Masterpiece Thanksgiving discovery Apple TV Plus Freeform Year in Review 2016 disaster Countdown Premiere Dates Christmas Chernobyl OWN Shudder 2015 politics VH1 docudrama psycho Superheroes MSNBC USA crime drama Valentine's Day Marvel Television Winter TV tv talk Sony Pictures Women's History Month BBC America stand-up comedy FX Anna Paquin Universal Superheroe unscripted Turner screenings Columbia Pictures Holidays cancelled Dark Horse Comics BBC Infographic period drama Rock Drama GIFs Tubi Toys blockbuster TCA Winter 2020 Netflix Horror Amazon A&E Music MCU Pet Sematary political drama Opinion First Reviews BET Binge Guide New York Comic Con 71st Emmy Awards Sundance TV doctor who Spike TV renewals 20th Century Fox The Witch DGA diversity ESPN green book space Mystery Family romance Paramount Network A24 Amazon Prime Video Peacock Super Bowl The Walking Dead finale Extras game show joker FXX LGBT ABC Nominations TCM cancelled TV series Sneak Peek APB TBS independent technology dramedy X-Men ghosts Fall TV facebook Comedy Central thriller The CW 45 Awards Tour Disney+ Disney Plus HBO First Look Tomatazos festivals Hallmark Christmas movies animated Podcast theme song boxoffice Showtime Cartoon Network zombies Reality Calendar Lucasfilm science fiction children's TV Kids & Family crime thriller RT History sag awards Spectrum Originals Biopics latino Pop casting 2017 Film GLAAD Trivia Lifetime Christmas movies The Arrangement WGN crime FOX Sundance Now Crunchyroll 007 travel sports breaking bad blaxploitation Ghostbusters Disney Plus 21st Century Fox DC Universe cancelled TV shows robots Captain marvel Bravo Hulu cartoon composers USA Network video Elton John YouTube Premium TruTV SundanceTV E! romantic comedy See It Skip It Television Academy Photos