In the WETA Den

Posted on Posted in Celebrity Run-Ins, Reviews/Commentary

Perhaps it was a good omen when the cab driver mentioned to me that he’d taken Frodo on his first trip to Middle Earth.

On the way from downtown Wellington to WETA Digital’s suburban offices in Miramar, the cab driver asked me if I was an actor in “King Kong.”  When I replied that I was simply a visitor, he conceded that a similar question had paid off for him a few years ago.  It seems that when the actor Elijah Wood first arrived in Wellington to star in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, this cab driver had taken him from the airport over to the Miramar production studios.  Elijah confessed to being one of the main actors in the trilogy and the cab driver assured Elijah that he would “…keep an eye out for him” when the films were released.  Those who have seen the films can surely understand the irony of this understated comment.

Those same studios were actually located right next door to WETA Digital’s office.  Since the normally quiet stretch of residential streets surrounding the area was packed for blocks with parked cars, the driver remarked that filming on “King Kong” must have already been in fully swing for the day.  Interestingly, the studio facilities bore little more than simple markings in small font, doing as little as possible to confirm to visitors that they are at the right place.

WETA Digital’s office also wasn’t the gleaming facility of the type that house such titans of the digital effects industry as Pixar in California.  No, it was actually quite plain.  While they had millions of dollars in high-end computer hardware inside, you could tell that little from the “Lord of the Rings” earnings was used to upgrade the furnishings.

I recognized the name of the front desk receptionist as the person who had e-mailed me a couple of weeks back to deny my visit after I’d sent in a general inquiry.  Of course, she didn’t realize that I’d done a bit of an end-run on her by working through a web of internal contacts to get on someone’s calendar the hard way.

It was a surprise, but really shouldn’t have been, that she required me to sign a lengthy non-disclosure agreement.  While I probably wasn’t going to be seeing anything overly secretive during my visit, signing the document still set things up for them to easily sue me should I run off and share with an internet movie rumor site their deepest secrets.  After I’d finished filling out the paperwork, I stepped back from the reception desk and glanced around for the person who was supposed to appear and wisk me inside.  All that I saw was a younger guy who had been standing silently next to me while I’d signed away my life.  When I made eye contact with him, he said “Hi, I’m Milton.”

Milton Ngan did not look at all like I’d expected; not the least surprising was that he was wearing jeans.  While only in his early-30s, he was already the Chief Technology Officer of WETA Digital.  While working on a master’s degree in computer science at Victoria University in Wellington during the mid-1990s, Milton had taken a night job at a tiny special effects company called WETA Workshop.  Although now employing roughly four hundred, at that time the company was little more than twenty people in size.  Their sole reason for existence was to provide rather rudimentary special effects for the films of a little-know horror director from Wellington named Peter Jackson.

At the time, Peter had just finished up “The Frighteners” with Michael J. Fox and that had marked his first large-budget Hollywood production.  While that film had not been a huge financial success, it did get “PJ” noticed around Hollywood.  With no new film on the horizon after it though, Milton admitted that the highlight of his week was heading out to Peter’s house to help him with such things as getting the videogame “Doom” set up on his personal computer.  During those visits to the house, there were hints hanging from the walls of things to come.  Glances at papers and drawings showed early development on a remake of “King Kong” and hints of a “Lord of the Rings” film.  Small teases of a big future for those true believers in Wellington.

As Milton led me to his office, it wasn’t shocking to find it to be comfortable rather than flashy.  You could tell that a lover of movies and computers lived in that space.  As his computer screensaver cycled through personal pictures in the background, the fruits of Milton’s success were evident.  When a picture of Milton with Steven Spielberg appeared on screensaver, I had to restrain myself from screaming out in awe.  After I took a seat, Milton looked over at me and smiled before speaking.  “Why are you here after coming half-way around the world?”

Perhaps that was the million-dollar question of the day.  Having gotten my way into the dream factory, what did I have to say to its chief?  I admitted that I was trying to use this vacation as an opportunity to finally figure out “…what I really want to do with my life.”  I had spent the past couple of years chasing after graduate school programs that I had then turned around and rejected.  Since I was visiting a region of the world that had a number of successful companies involved in combining my passion for film and computers, I wanted to go back to square one with my future plans and really understand where I could someday fit in at one of those types of companies.

Milton seemed to like that answer.

He went over the wide range of positions that existed within WETA and gave a little background on typical career paths into those jobs.  A studio as large as WETA tended to be quite segmented and artists worked in a very structured, assembly-line manner.  Modelers created 3-D objects, such as a person, within the computer and those objects were then passed along to animators who brought the objects to life by moving them as dictated in the script of the film.  Peter Jackson was surprisingly hands-on with the creative staff at WETA and actually scheduled time to quickly review different animators work and offer suggestions.  After the approval of senior animators, the digital work was ‘composited’ with the live-action film to produce the finished result.  What may have been a green screen behind an actor on a set suddenly had a lush jungle background.

During Milton’s explanations, what piqued my interest the most was a reference to various project coordinators who worked as liaisons between a film’s production team and the digital effects staff.  While the production team was busy filming the actors and keeping the overall work on track, the project coordinators made sure that the animators and other members on the technical side of things were producing work that was inline with that vision.

The funny thing was that until Milton talked about such roles, I wasn’t even sure if they had really existed.  While pursing graduate school programs, I had been describing myself as in search of that type of role, but had been moreso hoping that they existed than really knowing if they did.  Research on the topic had proved inconclusive and that ambiguity had played a large part in my delayed future plans.

Not only was I being told that such a position existed, it also seemed that they were actually in demand.  Naturally, most people at a digital effects house wanted to focus solely on the creative aspects of the work and could care less about the business side of things.  In this industry, the ‘rock stars’ were the animators and anything other than that simply wasn’t of interest.  In sort order, these were all certainly positive revelations to hear and encouragement to receive.

With the lengthy careers overview winding down, I switched the topic over to WETA’s history and its future.  In particular, I wanted to understand WETA’s success given their non-traditional location in the world.  The parallels between New Zealand the Midwest are many and in the case of film industry exposure, New Zealand was once much worse off then even Minnesota due to it’s geographic location.  I found the success of film productions in New Zealand and the Austin, Texas area back home to be very inspiring and something that the now-receded Minneapolis film and digital effects community could learn from.

As stated before, WETA really only came to life to serve Peter Jackson’s rather gory, early horror film work.  The turning point in their history came around 1997 when Peter was supposed to start work on the remake of “King Kong” following “The Frighteners.”  That same year, both a “Godzilla” film and Disney film called “Mighty Joe Young” had been released to mixed results and Universal Studios pulled the plug on “King Kong” a few months into WETA’s early design work.

Peter then shifted gears to work on making a two-part “Lord of the Rings” film for Miramax.  Things at WETA went into a bit of a tailspin when Miramax got cold feet on that project and it was also cancelled.  Over the course of eight months, people at WETA sat around wondering if they were even still employed and Milton actually used that time to finish up his master’s work.  Through some miracle that even Milton does not completely understand, Peter gave a once-in-a-lifetime presentation to New Line Cinema in which they agreed to fully fund the eventual “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  It was, of course, released to much acclaim.

As a result of that production, WETA suddenly went from twenty people to four hundred, Milton returned, and life in Wellington was turned upside down for several years.  WETA only recently finished work on the extended DVD release of the final “Lord of the Rings” film, but had already begun pre-production work on “King Kong” late in 2003.  Rather than taking a break after more than five years of non-stop work on “Lord of the Rings,” Peter took immediate advantage of his newfound notoriety and easily landed funding for the abandoned “King Kong” remake.

While WETA appeared to still be alive only due to the creative force of Peter Jackson, Milton did concede that they were doing other projects on the side when resources became available.  Of note as of late were some effects on “I, Robot” and several commercials.  After “King Kong” was released, most people were hoping that Peter would finally take a break and WETA would try to use their past success to bid on the effects work for more traditional Hollywood summer blockbusters.

After a couple of hours of chatting, Milton offered to take me on a tour of the WETA facility and I was more than happy to oblige.  The first department that we stopped at was the compositing area.  Given the work currently in production, it was not surprising that a middle-aged compositor briefly made ape noises as we passed by his desk.  Littered around the room were metal film canisters baring the production company name of “Big Primate Pictures” and the title “King Kong.”

Heading over to a computer server room, we passed by a large, locked closet door.  Milton mentioned that Peter’s guns were stored in there.  At first, I thought that he was kidding and chuckled.  When he went on to talk at length about Peter’s vintage weapons collection, I stopped laughing.

The server room that we entered was one of many around the Wellington area, all tied together by a fiber-optic network.  Imagine if you will the equivalent of over five thousand personal computers all chattering away to one another and you’d have an idea of the kind of computing horsepower that WETA’s film work has been required to realize.

One rather amusing room was filled with film scanning and printing machines.  It reminded me of a large copier room that you’d find in most offices.  However, rather than copying simple documents, these machines were scanning in the film prints that needed to be digitally altered and then printing out the completed work that we would all enjoy in the theatre.

A fascinating treat was seeing the footage review booths that were used to make suggestions on animators’ current work.  Milton fired up a few clips from the “Return of the King: Extended Edition” and there was also a brief “King Kong” clip featuring star Naomi Watts.  Besides being used for identifying animation issues, these stations were also used to crop the square filmed images for proper framing on rectangular movie screens.

The last stop on the tour was along a hallway full of reference photos taken for “King Kong.”  Since the digital artists were charged with re-creating 1930s New York City, it wasn’t surprising that there were innumerable snapshots of Macy’s department store and the Empire State Building.  There was also a board for King Kong’s home of ‘Skull Island,’ but sadly there were not any photos up yet.

On my way out, the receptionist ordered up a cab and Milton waited around to chat while it was on its way.  We ended up taking about portable storage devices and he mentioned one last story that had actually gotten some global press earlier in the year.  While Peter Jackson was editing the “Return of the King” in London, he was living at a house that lacked an internet connection fast enough to easily review WETA’s daily work.  To resolve that situation, a system had been worked out whereby the day’s work was loaded onto a conventional iPod music player via the internet at a London studio and then physically run over the few blocks to Peter’s house by a WETA employee.

Of course, the one day that the courier had the entire full-length version of “Return of the King” on the iPod, he noticed a couple of large men following him late at night down a dark London street.  After trying to lose the men by simply walking along a series of side streets, the courier started running.  Although the men ran after him, the courier was smaller and faster.  In the end, he was victorious in finally shaking the thugs and made a safe delivery.

Such tales of high film adventure concluded when the cab arrived and I bid farewell to Milton and WETA.  Of course, a minute after I’d gotten into the cab, the driver asked me if I was an actor in “King Kong.”  He wasn’t overly disappointed when I told him that I was just a visitor.  If the morning had taught any lesson though, one couldn’t blame him for asking.