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The launch of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is the culmination of 20 years of creativity and innovation by New Zealand pioneering visual effects company Weta Digital, based in Wellington.
Since director Peter Jackson started out with a leased graphics computer to generate 14 shots of special effects for Heavenly Creatures, Weta Digital has transformed itself into a powerhouse of immersive filmmaking that continues to break down barriers between live action and computer-generated imagery.
Science and imagination
A critical factor in Weta Digital’s success has been fusing science and the imagination to create anything from a thunderous battle scene to an intricately-rendered character.
Weta Digital has long had a culture of innovation, a process that was stepped up with the arrival of Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri in 2002 and his push for R&D (research and development) to solve fundamental problems.
Four-time Oscar winner Letteri specialises in developing compellingly realistic characters, from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy to Caesar for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014). He and the 1100-strong team at Weta Digital have forged relationships with scientists and mathematicians to gain insights into discoveries that enable them to create a more believable imagined world.
Many of the company’s researchers come from a background in academia, not filmmaking. Some join the team in Wellington permanently or on sabbatical, while Weta Digital has also formed strong partnerships with researchers at universities in the United States, New Zealand, Germany, Korea and elsewhere.
“When you’re building a creature that doesn’t exist,” says Letteri, “it will seem more real and compelling if its physiology is grounded in the laws of nature.”
Smaug the Dragon
Bringing the much-anticipated character of Smaug the Dragon to life for the three films in The Hobbit Trilogy, for example, posed many technical challenges. Smaug’s crocodile-shaped snout didn’t lend itself to human speech, and animators needed to convey both the Dragon’s enormous size – twice as big as a Boeing 747 – and the intricacy of his facial expressions.
The team researched bat wings, the talon structure of birds, the movements of komodo dragons and turtles, and the armour-like skin of armadillos to produce concept drawings for Smaug.
Tissue - a muscle-simulation system Weta Digital initially developed on Avatar - allowed the animators to simulate Smaug’s muscle movements, while flame-throwing tanks from WWII provided the inspiration for the ignition system for his fiery breath.
Between the second and third Hobbit movies, the design evolved to give Smaug a bat-like thumb at the tip of each wing. The evolution reinforced Smaug’s size, allowed him to grasp platforms and pillars, and helped the animators convey his emotions.
One of the company’s most fruitful partnerships has been with a Columbia University researcher Eitan Grinspun, who studies the elastic rods used in computer modelling to simulate the impact of physical forces on natural objects, such as a tree bending in the wind.
For Letteri’s purposes, Grinspun’s explorations provided a unique element to the approach the award-winning software developers at Weta took to redesigning its digital hair-grooming software. Grinspun was invited to work at Weta Digital in Wellington in two-month stints and helped contribute to the toolset used to create fur-bearing creatures ranging from the Planet of the Apes films to Snowy in Tintin.
Horses as well as apes make a frequent appearance in Weta Digital’s work, prompting the team to work with researchers from New Zealand’s Massey University to refine its horse model for the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Weta Digital filmed horses running at different gaits on Massey’s equine treadmill at its Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences in Palmerston North. The team studied joint movements captured on x-rays and CT scans, interviewed anatomists, and even captured the expressions on horses’ faces as they ran.
The study enabled Weta Digital to build a highly realistic computer model that enables animators to peel off the skin of a running horse to see the individual muscles working beneath. The model has been shared with Massey to use as a teaching aid.
Creating realistic simulations of water is another area in which Weta Digital has developed partnerships with the academic world.
To capture the nail-biting river chase sequence in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, filmmakers used footage shot on real rivers and close-up shots of actors in a freestanding ring of water on a stage but relied heavily on the CG water created by Weta Digital.
These large-scale water simulations rely on mathematically modelling. “As filmmakers, we’re able to explore the models developed by mathematicians in an accelerated, practical way,” says Letteri.
“We might want to see how water flows in a waterfall, or what happens to waves when two pirate ships are being tossed around in a storm. Physicists need to find a correct mathematical solution while we can work with something that’s 98% correct providing it makes a shot look real.”
One of Weta Digital’s most important research and development projects in recent years, the Manuka renderer, allows artists to create complex images quickly – more shots, with more detail in each shot.
This is particularly important for Peter Jackson’s style of filmmaking, in which every frame is full of background detail.
The software was developed in time to be used for some shots on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but has been invaluable in giving filmmakers the tools to convey the scale required by fight scenes in the third and final film in The Hobbit Trilogy.
Could The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies have been made 20 years ago, at the start of Weta Digital’s journey? Maybe, says, Letteri, but it would have been very different.
“Filmmaking is all about story, and today we are able to give the director more choices on how to present that story visually on screen. The technology we’ve developed over the past two decades has allowed us to extend an audience’s sense of believability to make films like The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies such an immersive and exciting experience.”