Where Hobbits Live Virtually: A Look Inside Weta Digital – Wired

by Sep 12, 2000Lord of the Rings (Movies)

Weta Digital has started building a wall of machines with the sole function of rendering the Lord of the Rings images. By the time the films are finished Weta will have 200 processors dedicated to rendering.

Wired reports on how Tolkien’s Middle-earth is coming alive slowly but surely in Peter Jackson’s nondescript video effects studio, Weta Digital.

Where Hobbits Live Virtually

by Kim Griggs

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — It’s only here and now that anyone could have a shot at putting what’s lived in countless imaginations, J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy Lord of the Rings, onto a film screen.

Middle Earth, according to filmmaker Peter Jackson, comes alive in the geographical diversity that is New Zealand. One end of the country faces off against the Antarctic mass; the other end is caressed by Pacific warmth. And money talks, as New Line Cinema’s U.S. dollar commitment more than doubles when translated into Kiwi currency.

But Tolkien’s fantasy world is also filmable now because technology gives the filmmakers a stab at capturing Middle Earth in all its complexity.

In a nondescript suburb of New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, the team at Weta Digital, part of Weta Ltd., an offshoot of Jackson’s Wingnut Films, is producing more than 1,200 visual effect shots for the three films.

These purveyors of state-of-the-art film ingredients — Weta Digital and the physical effects division at Weta Workshop — have as neighbor a battered-looking old ice cream factory. But turn up the side road hill and a new building announces that here, past the security, some extraordinary people are producing what fans hope will be some extraordinary images.

It’s been two years since the making of the films was announced, and for the digital artists it’s getting busy. According to Jon Labrie, chief technical officer at Weta Digital, the team is now into actual production for the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring.

The deadline for the visual effects for the first film is October 2001. Research and development of effects for the later films, The Two Towers and The Return of the King continues.

“Where the rubber meets the roads is when, eventually, you end up with a large number of artists, compositors, rotoscopers, painters, animators, (and) model makers,” Labrie says. “They’re all sitting in front of machines trying to achieve their jobs.”

The special effects team has diverse tasks to perform. The character Gollum is totally computer generated. His image, like all the others being created on screens scattered around Weta, are a closely guarded secret.

The team will also have to contend with hobbits: regular-sized actors who will be shrunk using computer effects. Weta will use everything in its arsenal for the films.

“We will be using motion capture quite extensively on Lord of the Rings, but we will also be using traditional key frame animation as well,” Labrie says.

Crucial to all this is rendering. Rendering, says Labrie, is a catchall term for the process of creating finished output from the work done by a digital artist.

At first the Weta Digital team was able to queue work overnight, taking advantage of idle workstations. Until recently, the job queue was finished by the early hours of the morning.

“But suddenly we had a number of days in a row where we’d come in in the morning and there were still lots of things pending. And you’d have artists coming in, sitting in their chairs and waiting for two hours to see the results of last night’s rendering,” Labrie says.

“At that point we were like ‘We need to buy another chunk of processing power to get through our nightly tasks.'”

Daytime checks on work-in-progress need to be speedy too. “If you’ve got one processor it might take you five minutes. If you’ve got 32 processors you might get it back in 10 seconds. And you’re like, ‘that doesn’t work,’ so your ability to iterate your work goes up and it’s directly affected by the amount of processing available to the facility on a day-by-day basis.”

So Weta Digital has started building a wall of machines with the sole function of rendering the Lord of the Rings images. So far Labrie has purchased 16 dual-processor SGI 1200 servers running Red Hat’s version of the Linux operating system. By the time the films are finished — the first one is due out by the end of 2001 — Weta will have 200 processors dedicated to rendering.

The new processors are cost-effective and fast, Labrie says. Each of the 32 processors cost about US$3,400. “Peter Jackson wants us to get as much of the money onto the screen as possible, so the less we can pay for our processors the better off we are.”

Price has to be balanced against the support available from the vendor involved, Labrie says. “You don’t want to hire a bunch of cheap machines from a bunch of fly-by-night vendors who are not going to be around when suddenly all of your machines start breaking.

“What’s great about the SGI solution is that you have an open-source, open-market solution, but you’re getting that from a vendor that’s already established.”

SGI spokesperson in New Zealand, Scott Houston, said the move to using Linux and supporting it opens up new markets for SGI. “More importantly for the filmmaker guys, we understand their systems.”

Other animators have also taken to these SGI processors. In Korea, Digital Dream Studio has bought 200 processors for a 3-D animation film planned for release next year. But at Weta, Labrie isn’t rushing his purchases. He, after all, has a longer time frame: The last movie in the trilogy is due out in 2003.

“We don’t want to buy it all at once, because you know the prices are dropping and the speeds are going up,” Labrie said.

Not only will the number of machines at Weta Digital increase, but a new building is going up to house the growth in staff numbers. Weta Digital employs around 90 artists now and expects to have 140 on board by the end of the year.

They will be working long after the New Zealand location filming finishes at the end of this year. At the moment the film crew is heading for South Island locations, with some sites only accessible by helicopter, according to the film’s publicist Claire Raskind. “That’s quite a thing to orchestrate,” Raskind says.

And the Weta Digital team expects more challenges to orchestrate. “Peter’s probably going to come to us late in the piece, you know, for the third film and say ‘I want to put a shot in here that’s got a million people in it. You know, a million creatures running around like crazy,” Labrie says.

“And by that time we’re probably going to be able to say ‘OK.'”


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