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The Fellowship Of Weta
“The question I seem to be getting a lot is, ‘how could something as large as Lord of the Rings actually come together in a small country 10,000 km away from Los Angeles?’” said Labrie. “In truth, it’s the responsibility of Peter Jackson.” When Labrie joined Weta in 1995, there were seven animators, and they didn’t even have e-mail. Labrie who describes himself as the “head geek” at Weta, said that he was originally brought on board to scale the facility to accommodate the 35 artists that were needed to finish the postproduction work on Universal Pictures’ The Frighteners.

After The Frighteners, Jackson was scheduled to undertake a remake of King Kong for Universal. But Universal backed out, not wishing to release the film against Mighty Joe Young and Godzilla that year.

It was then that Jackson decided to undertake a far more ambitious project.
“Peter came to me and said, ‘You know, I’m not interested in working with Hollywood. I want to build the infrastructure in New Zealand to do my work, and would you be interested in sticking around to help me build the next generation facility?’”

Originally, Weta had a production deal with Miramax to make The Lord of the Rings, but Miramax was insisting on two films.

“We did about a year’s worth the research and development while we were under the Miramax production deal,” explained Labrie. “When Miramax blinked, Peter shopped the project around L.A. New Line Cinema enthusiastically embraced it, saying that it should probably be three films, and they increased the budget to something a bit more realistic.

“We were able to convince New Line early on that it wasn’t going to be a traditional relationship, where they come to us and contract Weta to do the work,” he said.

Indeed, nothing about Weta is traditional. For the past four years the company has been solely focused on completing this project. In fact, Labrie reported that they haven’t yet looked beyond their current project.

“[We] never really sat down and put together any kind of marketing plan or strategy to define the growth of the company, or what kinds of projects [we] might want to take on in the future. The approach that we’ve taken so far has been less of a ‘let’s build a company to do effects projects’. We’ve had almost a production sensibility — ‘let’s build a team of people, and let’s size up and get what we need in place to actually achieve this job.’ We’ve had the luxury of doing that because Lord of the Rings is such a long undertaking.”

In terms of the artists, perhaps one third of them are New Zealanders, while rest have come from the U.S., Russia, Australia, France, Canada, Japan, Korea and China.

“Some of these people come to the door saying ‘I’ve wanted to work on Gollum since I read the book.’”

Indeed to say the book has a huge following of devoted fans might be a bit of an understatement. The novel, which has been read by over 50 million people, in 25 different languages, inspired an entire genre of movies and fiction. When New Line Cinema posted the web site for the film, it was swamped with 41 million hits in its first weekend, averaging close to a million hits per hour, “which was New Line’s first indication that they probably had some sort of a phenomenon on their hands.

“I read the book myself six or seven times when I was a kid,” said Labrie. “And I’ve read it a couple times since then. So, I’m a bit of a fan myself. But we’ve got some people on the production that are real nut jobs. But they’re good to have around. They bring a real passion to the work.”

Where will Weta be after
The Lord of The Rings?

“Weta is 240 odd people right now. 155-160 of them are artists. I don’t think it's going to be that size after The Lord of the Rings, because it’s pretty difficult to actually run a visual effects facility that size successfully. Personally, as a business model, I can’t see us saying that we’re going to do effects in New Zealand ad infinitum,” said Labrie.

“It’s a nomadic business and you are generally pulling from a world market. Even if you hire an [artist] for some incredibly low rate, as soon as they develop the skills that they need to survive in the business, they are going to start looking somewhere else. People are less loyal to facilities than they are to projects. People are working at Weta because of Lord of the Rings.”

But in the meantime, the production crew, artists and even the talent have developed a unique family atmosphere. “The artists that come to work at Weta feel like they are part of a larger thing, not just a large project.” said Labrie. “Because we are a long way away, there is more of a family atmosphere in terms of the production; there isn’t a division between the production and the facility. It’s something that I don’t think most of us will ever see again. We all knew what it could have been when we first signed up.”

So where will Weta be after The Lord of the Rings?

“Because the project will have taken almost five years from beginning to end, that’s basically the useful life on a large portion of the infrastructure that we would have purchased and installed over that time. And by the time we’re done, most of what we’ve put in place is going to be obsolete, and the next major round of films are probably going to require technology that is the next generation and beyond. So we don’t think in terms of how to use all of this technology after Lord of the Rings.

“What’s next? The quick answer is we don’t know… the long answer is that sometime, probably nine months before we start to wrap on film three, we’ll be starting to look around,” said Labrie.

“We are already doodling with the idea of possibly branching out the business into other areas — possibly interactive development. A lot of people have come to us from the game industry, and that market is becoming increasingly interesting. It’s also increasingly cutthroat. We’re not going to enter it lightly. We’re only going to enter it if we think there will be specific content that we can provide that is going to be compelling.”

So is there a video game in the works?

“Electronic Arts is doing a Lord of the Rings game, which will be released in conjunction with film two,” said Labrie. “We are working very closely with them to take content that we developed for the film and repurpose it for the game. We are already sending them models and textures and environments and other materials for them to do the polygonal reductions on, and all those sorts of things necessary for them to build their game environment.

“We wouldn’t really be able to do justice to it at this stage. It wouldn’t be the kind of thing you’d want us to do,” he continued. “We wouldn’t want to blow that particular piece of it. We are very focused on making sure that the films are right…. We are very focused on making sure that The Lord of the Rings is successful.”

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