In land of Kiwis, Weta bears fruit

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New Zealand is home to a thriving film industry, one that has produced movies like the internationally acclaimed "Whale Rider." It was an early adopter of incentives that attract outside productions. It's also the home of Peter Jackson's effects companies, Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, whose impact on New Zealand's film industry can't be underestimated.

Weta has grown from a boutique effects house serving only Jackson's projects to one that services production worldwide. And that has provided New Zealand with an edge as sharp as Aragorn's sword.

Walt Disney and Walden Media's "Bridge to Terabithia," which opens Friday, revolves around two kids who use their imaginations to create a fantastical land named Terabithia. It was shot in New Zealand not only for the tax benefits but to also to be close to the company that provided the visual effects necessary to create the imaginary world.

"Avatar," James Cameron's latest extravaganza, also is prepping a shoot in New Zealand. The producers had chosen Weta as their primary effects company before selecting a filming location, and after looking at Los Angeles, Vancouver and Mexico, they settled on New Zealand.

"One of the key factors for us choosing New Zealand was being close to Weta Digital," said Jon Landau, Cameron's partner at Lightstorm Entertainment. "We are going to be in a very critical time in terms of our visual effects work, and being able to be in a direct one-on-one collaboration (is highly important)."

As part of the shoot, budgeted at about $190 million, Cameron will film for 31 days on soundstages in New Zealand — spending about a quarter of his budget. (Motion-capture work will be done in the U.S.)

Landau declined comment on the film's effects budget — it could add up to more than half the total budget. In this case, one large-scale Hollywood production, attracted by Weta's expertise, easily could eclipse the production budgets of New Zealand's entire homegrown industry.

Nevertheless, New Zealand film officials do not want to overplay Weta's importance. They point to such other effects houses as Park Road Post in Wellington and Oktober in Auckland that also have contributed to a healthy homegrown industry and a nation of dedicated moviegoers. Last year, 1.3 million New Zealanders out of a population base of 4 million went to see New Zealand movies.

Weta also would rather not think about how it affects the scene.

"It would be terrible to think that (the industry) is dependent on a single company, ours or any other," said Richard Taylor, the multiple Oscar winner who co-heads Weta Workshop. "The New Zealand film industry existed for a long time before we ever came along, and it will exist for a long time after, if ever we sadly finished up. And it will exist, as all places do, due to its competitiveness, its incredibly skilled and talented crews and its unique location opportunities."
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