New Zealand FX Houses Move Beyond Middle-Earth to Challenge Weta Digital

I am Mother Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Netflix

There's more to the country's special effects sector than just Peter Jackson's pioneering studio.

Visual effects from New Zealand long have been synonymous with Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor's pioneering studio Weta Digital — and not without good reason, considering the six Oscars the company has won for its work on the Lord of the Rings franchise, Avatar and other visionary tentpoles.

In recent years, however, a whole range of technology providers, VFX studios and postproduction companies have emerged in Auckland, Wellington and even Queenstown to challenge Weta Group's status as the only world-class shop Down Under. Rising Auckland-based studio Blockhead VFX, for example, has grown from doing advertising and credit sequences on TV series to full-blown VFX work in feature films, such as Netflix's postapocalyptic sci-fi thriller I Am Mother.

Many of the newer companies see themselves as the Weta empire's collaborators, though, rather than its competitors.

"There is plenty of great work up for grabs that Weta Digital isn't going to be able or interested in taking on," says Greg Harman, CEO of Mechanic Animation, which in recent years has worked on hundreds of episodes of Marvel's various animated TV series, such as Avengers Assemble and Spider-Man. "We see ourselves as part of what's becoming a healthy ecosystem."

Adds Hugh Calveley, founder of Auckland-based tech company Moxion: "Because we traditionally come from a rural, farming background, I think we've understood that it would be very easy to export our top soil, so to speak, and not have any value-add. The equivalent of that in the digital age of film would be inviting people to come shoot our beautiful landscapes, but then do all their post, editing and additional credited work offshore — whereas we're more than capable of doing a lot of that work right here in New Zealand."

Moxion has reinvented traditional film dailies through a proprietary technology that allows actual footage to be viewed, with metadata, seconds after it's captured in the camera — and then encrypts that data and makes it accessible to collaborators on a worldwide basis. The company also has worked closely with Auckland-based digital workflows provider The Rebel Fleet, which serviced recent Hollywood tentpole shoots such as Paramount's Ghost in the Shell and Warner Bros.' The Meg.

"It's a technology that's born out of the remoteness of New Zealand and the big foreign films we have serviced," says Calveley, citing Moxion's recent partnership with Disney on its New Zealand shoot of Mulan, due out in March. "But it's a solution our collaborators find creatively empowering wherever they are working." 

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.