Post-'Hobbit' Weta Looks Warily to 2015 and Competition From ILM

From del Toro Back to Jackson
Joe Pugliese

When filming on Hobbit finally began March 21, 2011, almost all of Guillermo del Toro’s work had fallen by the wayside. “I didn’t want to make Guillermo’s movie,” says Peter Jackson. Not that he tossed out everything, he adds diplomatically. “Certainly some of his DNA is in it still. Some of the things he did I certainly liked and took bits and pieces from it.”

The premier effects house has 'Avatar' sequels lined up, but Industrial Light and Magic will dominate the coming year

Despite The Interview controversy, the final installment of The Hobbit trilogy weathered the storm surrounding holiday movie going, taking in over $100 million so far, on track to match the first two installments. It’s good news for Peter Jackson and his partners at Weta, the Wellington-based visual effects house he co-founded with Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk back in 1993.

Their big break came in 2001 when the first The Lord of the Rings movie was released, garnering four Oscars including one for best effects. The subsequent Hobbit trilogy only cemented their reputation as the world's premiere visual effects house, by some estimates edging out industry leader Lucasfilms’ Industrial Light and Magic, which was sold to Disney in 2012.

“When you’re working on these types of films, the audience has a heightened expectation, and it exponentially gets more heightened that you're going to deliver something visually extraordinary that outdoes the previous things you've done,” Weta's Taylor tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That ups the ante, the demands on investment in technology and knowledge and self-training.”

Read more Weta Cave Expanding to Meet 'Hobbit' Demand

Weta and the Peter Jackson movies are a key component of not just the country’s film industry but their travel industry as well. At the height of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, they had helped make tourism the nation’s number one business. Today, it has slipped to number two, behind agriculture, but still remains a vital turbine in the Kiwi economic engine. And tourism has been driven by movies, which is why lawmakers in Wellington are so liberal with tax incentives bringing production to New Zealand.

“The industry and the government worked last year to move our incentive rate, which has certainly brought in a whole range of interesting projects,” Film New Zealand CEO Gisella Carr is happy to report. Incentives are at 20 percent for using Kiwi locations, goods and services, with what Carr calls an “uplift” of an additional 5% for shows like Avatar that partner with the government in showcasing the country or an invest in infrastructure or technology. "The Hobbit predates this latest incentive, but obviously there's a partnership around it. One in five tourists are citing The Hobbit as having driven their interest here,” notes Carr.

Weta has two Avatar sequels in the pipeline as well as the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon remake and DreamWorks' Life Between Oceans. And while Disney’s experience with Dream Quest Images, an effects house it bought in 1996 and shuttered only five years later, has some believing ILM's best days are behind it, others believe the best is yet to come. 2015 will bring Avengers: Age of UltronJurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, three ILM projects that are likely to finish at the top of the box office, which is why Taylor knows it would be foolish to rest on his laurels in an industry where technology moves at blinding speed.

Read more Google, Legendary and Others Invest $542M in Magic Leap

While The Lord of the Rings relied heavily on handcrafting from Weta Workshop, The Hobbit employed robotic manufacturing, computer-driven milling, 3-D laser printing and plasma-cutting equipment for 60 percent of props and production design. “Such is the demand to heighten the level of manufacturing, create something extraordinary, something never seen before,” Taylor says about keeping pace with audience demands.

Of Weta Digital he says the technology is, “Still moving at a blinding pace, but the ability to see the changes is growing less and less every year because let’s say five years ago, the technology that drives the technology, the hardware within the hardware, crossed a line where anything at all the human mind can imagine can now be realized at a level of top realism for a world audience.”

The world audience will no doubt be awed next year by ILM’s work on 2015’s biggest tent poles, but Taylor isn’t too worried. Five years ago, Weta Workshop signed an agreement with a feisty startup, Magic Leap, centered in Dania Beach, Florida. In October, the company raised $542 million led by Google and including investors like Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull. “That’s a technology that will change the way we view imagery,” says Taylor of the secretive company that some compare to Oculus Rift, a 3-D immersive technology. “That’s an incredible opportunity, and I’ve had the pleasure of sitting on the board of Magic Leap for the last two and a half years and our company has been heavily involved in it. That will offer a world audience something extraordinary in the future.”