September 7, 1998

Jackson's Weta to Spend $10 Million on
Computer Systems for Tolkien Trilogy

by Heather Wright

WELLINGTON's Weta Digital will spend more than $10 million on new computer systems to create about 1000 special film effects for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The films will be made in New Zealand by Wellington's Peter Jackson for United States company New Line Cinema, with a US$130 million (NZ$260 million) budget.

Miramar-based Weta Digital is a key player in bringing the J R R Tolkien fantasy classic stories to screen.

Jon Labrie, chief technical officer for Weta Digital, says new hardware and software, costing more than $10 million, will be required for the project which he believes is the biggest special effects task undertaken in the Southern Hemisphere. A 60:40 split in cost is expected between hardware and software.

Mr. Jackson is a partner in the film effects company Weta. It comprises Weta Workshop, which creates physical-based effects such as models and puppets, and Weta Digital, which works with computer effects.

Additional staff will also be employed. Mr. Labrie says up to 23 staff have been working on research and development for the movies for more than a year.

"From the beginning of the new year we'll be looking to ramp-up the facility. From about January 1999 through to May-June, we'll be in pre-production and increasing hardware, software and artists."

Weta is looking for about 25 more computer staff, though numbers are not finalized.

He expects to find half of the staff he needs in New Zealand. At present "most people in the facility are kiwis" but there are not enough highly skilled people in New Zealand for the project.

It is generating a huge amount of interest, says Mr. Labrie, and Weta has been inundated with offers.

Full production will begin about a month after principal photography begins in early May.

"We're looking at well over a thousand special effects shots for the trilogy." The 1996 movie The Frighteners came in just short of 500 shots.

Mr. Labrie says the bulk of the special effects will be traditional compositing of live actors against filmed background, 3D character animation, and environmental enhancements, such as adding mountains.

Weta Digital is a Silicon Graphics facility, running Indigo2, O2 and Octane workstations along with several four-processor Origin 200 servers, a single processor Origin 2000 server, and an eight-processor Onyx super-computer. A Mac and a couple of personal computers are also used and a 100-base-T network pipes in data.

The workhorse software is Silicon Graphics's Maya with several other packages used, including SoftImage 3D modeling and rendering software, and SoftImage Eddie integrated compositing, editing and visual effects software.

Weta also uses proprietary software created in-house.

Mr. Labrie says Weta expects to be adding both hardware and software throughout next year.

While decisions on exactly what will be purchased have not been finalized, Mr. Labrie says about 50 personal computers will be required for the trilogy, up from the current 24. "Most of them will be high-end, high-power."

He is also looking at increasing the current 100-base-T to gigabyte, and adding a terabyte of central disk storage to augment the current 18-gigabytes to 36Gb attached to individual machines.

Mr. Labrie has yet to decide whether to go for fibre-channel or ultra-SCSI. Fibre-channel offers 100-megabits per second capacity while ultra-SCSI offers 40Mbits/sec. "We have to work out whether we want storage capacity or access speed most."

Switch capacity will be doubled to handle the increased data load across the network.

Additional seats of Maya and Pixar's RenderMan will also be required, and the company is working on three separate projects to create software to achieve effects for the films. An in-house asset management system using the internal intranet will also be needed to track all the data.

Weta also wants to run a "very intelligent remote communications system" to enable Mr.  Jackson and the Weta Digital staff to maintain close contact.

Weta Digital was created to provide special effects for the 1993 film Heavenly Creatures, and is the reason for Weta's existence, Mr. Labrie says.

Weta Digital has created special effects for films and television series including Jack Brown Genius, The Frighteners and Contact.

The first Tolkien film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is due for release in late 2000, with the entire trilogy expected to be completed late 2001.