Wingnut's effects house has become a global player


Gollum, meet Neytiri.

Peter Jackson's WETA might have cemented its reputation with his Oscar-winning "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. But much like George Lucas used his "Star Wars" films as a launchpad for Industrial Light & Magic, in the past decade Jackson's effects house has become an industry leader.

For James Cameron's "Avatar," for instance, the company employed nearly 900 people at the height of production, creating multiple CG characters and a system that captures facial details and allows the director to see them in real time.

It all started because Jackson and partner Fran Walsh wanted to make movies without leaving New Zealand. That meant investing in equipment, technology, land and buildings, while bringing a team of global experts to their Wellington suburb.

"We've always had a policy of trying each time we made a film to have some little piece of infrastructure built on the back of the movie," Jackson says.

WETA's roots date to the 1992 horror comedy "Brain Dead" (released in the U.S. as "Dead Alive"). Jackson hired Richard Taylor, a model maker, who along with Jim Booth, Jamie Selkirk, Tania Rogers and George Port, joined with him in 1993 to found WETA Digital.

The name offered a double meaning: It stood for Wingnut Effects and Technical Allusions; and also is a group of insect species -- prehistoric crickets unique to New Zealand.

WETA Digital handles the visual effects; while WETA Workshop creates things in the physical world, from props to costumes to museum-quality chain mail and weapons.

The studio includes Park Road Post Production, a film-processing lab, huge sound stages, film equipment rental company Portmouth Hire and more.

One early breakthrough was a software program called Massive, which allows the animation of large numbers of "agents," meaning huge crowds can be shown without hiring additional extras. An example is the Helm's Deep battle in "The Two Towers."

WETA competes for non-Jackson productions by offering sophisticated effects and New Zealand's lower wages, currency differences and tax breaks. In addition to "Avatar," outside feature credits include "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "I, Robot."

It has become a lure for top effects wizards.

"People come here because they know they'll get a chance to do some really good work," says Joe Latteri, who runs WETA Digital.