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Creating the impossible: A tale of two VFX houses

New Zealand’s film industry is well known for its ability to produce impossible images for global film and television, but the country’s visual effects houses say they can’t coast on that reputation.

Some of the many films and TV shows featuring digital effects from NZ companies Weta Digital and PRPVFX Photo: Weta Digital / PRPVFX

When it comes to producing film and television for the global market in New Zealand, there are two clear industries in the country – the Wellington-based companies which attract the big blockbusters, and the Auckland scene, which has studios full of TV shows and smaller-budget films.

While there is competition for film work between the country’s two biggest cities, it’s not a total rivalry, with the two industries often working together and sharing jobs, skills and technology.

But they do have different goals and needs, and this can be clearly seen in the digital visual effects business, where artists create dazzling images on their computers, turn ordinary landscapes into alien vistas and paint out the inconvenient wires and rigs that don’t need to be seen on screen.

And whether they are a special effects powerhouse like Weta Digital – a company that is consistently involved in some of the biggest movies in the world – or a smaller business like PRPVFX in West Auckland, working on TV shows that run for 25 seasons, all the visual effects (VFX) houses know one thing for sure: no matter how good they get and no matter how far their images travel around the world, they can’t ever take it easy.

Weta rules in Wellywood
The team at Weta Digital have put New Zealand visual effects on the world stage, and from their Wellington headquarters create widescreen images for some of the biggest films ever made, including multiple visits to Middle Earth.

Founded in the early 1990s to create the digital effects for Peter Jackson’s early films Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners, the Lord of the Rings series allowed Weta Digital to establish itself as its own entity. After Jackson’s King Kong remake, the company began to focus on going out and attracting third parties to New Zealand.

Weta Digital crew are now familiar sights in the credits of many of the biggest blockbusters. It has half a dozen major visual effect projects in the works, six Oscar wins and 1600 staff, double the size it had a decade ago.

But chief operating officer David Wright told RNZ the reality of the business was that, as good as any company’s reputation is, it only got them in the door to bid for new projects.

“Our success can be quite temporary, it’s really only as good as the last project we’ve worked on.

 

“There is a very competitive global industry, we compete with visual effects houses like ours in Australia and Vancouver and Montreal, London, Paris, and in Asia.

“So we don’t ever rest on our laurels.”

He said the company operated in a very price-sensitive global market and the ability to get repeat business was never guaranteed, even when the country can offer tax breaks and screen grants.

 

Weta Digital chief operating officer David Wright. Photo: Weta Digital

“The best we can do is contribute our showreel of our past work, the talent of our people, and our price for the services, and that’ll be laid out on a table in front of an executive on the other side of the world, and they’ll compare a similar package from a visual effects houses in Australia, Vancouver and London and it really is a bit of a lottery over who will come out on top in that environment.

“Reputation gets us into the conversation and gets people considering literally working on the other side of the world.”

Weta Digital has been bidding for more projects and securing a greater number of projects in recent years, but they’re generally smaller and compartmentalised. Mr Wright said while offshore studios might have awarded all the VFX to Weta in the past, they were increasingly breaking it up.

“So what we see is that we might get to work on a third of the visual effects of a particular project, and two other visual effects houses in different parts of the world will be working on exactly the same film simultaneously.”

He said this helped the company to keep continually working, rather than waiting for one big score, and this continuity of work was the proudest achievement for Weta Digital’s founders, including Jackson and long-time partner Fran Walsh, rather than any individual project.

Over the years, the company has made a number of technological breakthroughs that have had a huge impact on the film industry at large, including the ‘Massive’ crowd creation programme and the company’s motion capture work.

But it is also an industry of hard graft and elbow grease, with a huge amount of labour needed to fool the filmgoer’s eye. Even with the highs and lows of blockbuster movies, some VFX artists have been with the company since the beginning, and there is a regular influx of new and hungry talent from the other side of the world.

Mr Wright said the overseas recruits generally spent three to four years with Weta Digital.

“The nature of the industry is such that it’s a very mobile industry, so we tap their brain, and they take their insights and learnings with them.

“Many of them step off into their own start-ups, with tech and thought processes and offshoot business around Wellington.”

While funding and tax breaks was the focus of many looking at the film industry, Mr Wright said the offshore earnings were spent in the local economy, with wages going back into the community and businesses such as hotels, caterers and coffee suppliers kept busy.

Mr Wright said there was now a solid base of people working in the capital contributing to the biggest movies in the world.

“If you go to a cinema here, people are sitting to see the end of the credit roll, for the names coming up on these global blockbusters which are Wellington names.

“They are Kiwis, and that’s a source of immense pride for Wellington.”

Keeping on with the Power Rangers
Weta might be the biggest fish in NZ’s digital pond, but there are plenty of other species swimming around.

Further north, in the country’s biggest city, studios and locations buzz with TV shows and smaller movies, and there is a small army of caterers, set builders and special effects artists kept working steadily on stories that have a massive international audience, even if they’re not familiar to many Kiwis.

PRPVFX has been creating these home-grown effects for more than 20 years, and was founded by visual effects artist George Port to help create the world of Xena: Warrior Princess. Since then, the company has been working on television shows such as Spartacus, Legend of the Seeker and Ash v Evil Dead, and movies such as 30 Days of Night and Green Lantern.

But the main source of PRPVFX’s regular work has been the various incarnations of the Power Rangers, which have been shot in West Auckland for years.

“I came on board at season 11,” says visual effects producer Carol Petrie, “and we’ve just finished season 25.”

Ms Petrie started at the visual effects house in the days of floppy discs, when producers had to physically carry hardware with data on it across town, and had to burn DVDs of their work every night before they could head home.

The age of broadband has made it a lot easier to transfer huge amounts of data to overseas producers, but she said some things haven’t changed over the years.

“There is a huge amount of problem solving, you have to go through every script and find a solution to everything.

“It’s mentally tiring, all that constant thinking, especially when you’re also trying to make things look a bit arty and cool.”

While a fraction of the size of the Weta behemoth, PRPVFX follow the same philosophy of not coasting on its success. Even after producing visual effects for 20 years, the effects house needs to deal with the ebbs and flows in the industry, and hustle to get the work available.

Visual effects supervisor George Ritchie – who has also been in the industry since the 1990s when he started as a matte painter – said the company use the periods between large projects to upskill artists and train them up on the latest technology and software.

“We’d rather keep people on and have a core group of workers, rather than a model that relied on freelance work. That allows staff to have families and buy a house, instead of living from job to job.”

A deliberately low-key outfit operating out of a West Auckland industrial estate, many of the best visual effects produced by PRPVFX are those the audience never notice – removing wires from drop-kicking ninjas or adding wisps of smoke to apocalyptic landscapes.

Mr Ritchie said it was a lot of work to get these type of projects, especially when many of the budgets involved too small to be eligible for things like the screen production grant.

But he said that keeping a tight crew over the years had been a major factor in PRPVFX’s ability to deliver.

“Expectations from producers are always high, even if they haven’t got the budget to back it up. But there is a huge demand for visual effects, and somebody has got to make them.”

Ashif Ali
Ashif Ali
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