Oral Histories

Peter Jackson's Oral History of Weta Digital

The director goes deep on the revolutionary effects house's work, from Heavenly Creatures to The Lord of the Rings to Mortal Engines and beyond.

by | December 10, 2018 | Comments

The Early Years: Heavenly CreaturesJurassic Inspiration

Notable films: Heavenly Creatures | The Frighteners | Contact

Digital effects powerhouse Weta Digital is responsible for some of your favorite movie characters and worlds from the last 25 years. Trust us: Gollum, Caesar, Middle-earth, Pandora. Chances are if it blew your mind, it started at somewhere inside one of the thousands of computers at in Weta’s Wellington, New Zealand headquarters. It’s a mammoth operation, with the Weta Digital team currently working on post-production for the Avatar sequels, Jungle Cruise, and the final season of Game of Thrones, all as Universal releases Mortal Engines – a showcase for the company’s newest and most innovative work – in theaters this December. And yet it all began very humbly in 1993 with Peter Jackson’s Certified Fresh second film, Heavenly Creatures, for which the director wanted to tinker with digital effects almost for the sake of it. He founded the company with Richard Taylor and Jamie Serkik, got to work, and would eventually change moviemaking as we knew it.

Here, Jackson – who co-wrote the screenplay for Mortal Engines with Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh and is a producer on the film – walks us through the history of the company, from the moviegoing experience that turned him onto digital effects through to writing new programs for The Lord of the Rings and finally to the roaming “predator cities” that roam the Earth in Mortal Engines. In the early days, he admits, it was all about “gnarly.”

What follows is a history of Weta Digital, drawn from an extended sit-down interview with Peter Jackson and Mortal Engines director Christian Rivers.


“I really thought I was seeing a living, breathing, T-Rex.” 

“The one event that happened is… Jurassic Park happened. We were getting into Heavenly Creatures and I went to see Jurassic Park, and, you know, the Tyrannosaurus Rex – I really thought I was seeing a living, breathing T-Rex. I just thought, my god. Whatever the future of visual effects is, it’s now gotta be computers.”

Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park (Photo by © Universal / courtesy Everett Collection)

“We started on Heavenly Creatures with one computer – I think we still have it, it’s a doorstop now.”

“We started on Heavenly Creatures with one computer, one single box. I think we actually still have it, and I think it’s a doorstop now – we’ve sort of got our memorial doorstop. But that was so bloody expensive and it took us forever to save up and buy. We’ve got probably six or seven thousand computers [now]. Right up to Heavenly Creatures I’d done some horror movies and things, and we’d always done our own effects, which was all prosthetics and props and zombie stuff and all that. We had done it ourselves – I love effects, I’d never wanna give them to somebody else to do, because they’re part of the fun of filmmaking.”

“We did the effects really just for the sake of doing some CGI, so we’d actually just start to figure it out.”

“To tell you the truth, we didn’t really need any CGI in [Heavenly Creatures]. But, we used the film as an excuse to buy one computer, just to put our toe in the water. And we had a guy, one guy, who could figure out how to work it, and we got a couple of bits of software, and we did the effects in Heavenly Creatures really just for the sake of doing some CGI effects so we’d actually just start to figure it out. And then on The Frighteners, which was the next movie we [did], we went from one computer to 30 computers. It was a pretty big jump.”

Heavenly Creatures

Heavenly Creatures

“Cloth was one of the things that people hadn’t managed to figure out yet – when you look at it today, it’s pretty gnarly.”

“The big nightmare for us on that movie was to do CGI cloth, because one of our characters was a grim reaper-type guy with a flying black robes. So we had to do CGI cloth flowing. Cloth was one of the things that people hadn’t managed to figure out yet, so, we had code-writers writing our code to do cloth for us. When you look at it today it’s pretty crude, pretty gnarly – it looks like stretchy pasty vinyl, it doesn’t really look like cloth. [You can] buy a piece of software for a [cheap] that can do far better cloth now.”

“It usually involves water or fire.” 

“First of all, [you’re] driven by what you have to do, you know? What is the result? We use a lot of readily available, not particularly expensive off-the-shelf programs [to create effects], but occasionally you do get something you would like to do – and it usually involves water, you know, splashing the water, or river water, or fire. That sort of thing that off-the-shelf software can’t quite do. So at that point, you have to write your own software.”

The Frighteners

Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, Peter Jackson, producer Steve Starkey for The Frighteners (Photo by © Universal Pictures)

“The guys wanna do everything better than they did the last time… It sort of drives me crazy.”

“Over the years, we’ve written about a hundred pieces of code for a wide variety of different things, and it drives me a little bit crazy because we keep writing code for the same things every time. Like, we do Avatar a few years ago, and we wrote software to create grass, and trees, leaves, that can blow with the wind, that sort of stuff. And then I come along with The Hobbit, and I want some grass or some shrubs or some trees, so I [ask], Why can’t we use the stuff that we wrote [already]? I mean it was fine for the [prior] film, but we wanted to be better. I mean there was some kind of code, unspoken code – and it’s not anything to do with the ownership of the software, because it belongs to us – but the guys themselves, wanna do everything better than they did the last time. So they don’t want the Avatar grass, or the leaves; they want to do grass and leaves better than last time. They set about writing a whole new grass software, whole new leaf software, and it happens over and over again, all the time. It sort of drives me crazy.”


Pages: 1 2 3 Next

Tag Cloud

Ovation comedies Tumblr Nominations french Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Rock Cannes Western CBS VH1 teaser Classic Film facebook Chernobyl Hallmark Christmas movies Fox News Premiere Dates Comedy crime drama cancelled TV shows Countdown joker scorecard Food Network hollywood kids FXX Pop TV dragons Trivia 2015 docudrama discovery Pirates Winners cats Hallmark based on movie Emmy Nominations Masterpiece golden globes chucky what to watch serial killer Ghostbusters HBO Go diversity Britbox TLC 24 frames Black History Month Film Festival 72 Emmy Awards dramedy FX on Hulu archives BBC critics cinemax television BBC America cancelled television Sundance 20th Century Fox canceled Marathons Creative Arts Emmys foreign cars Stephen King doctor who Valentine's Day TV Land news zombie Dark Horse Comics spinoff twilight The Purge TCA Winter 2020 The Witch Action Warner Bros. Holiday Avengers Lionsgate Disney Cosplay Crunchyroll USA Epix Winter TV blockbuster witnail FOX FX Marvel Television 2019 a nightmare on elm street tv talk spanish Awards Musicals reviews Mudbound mockumentary Reality Competition animated sequels HBO Crackle 99% 71st Emmy Awards Musical Year in Review Apple TV Plus Certified Fresh TCM RT21 DC Comics Funimation spider-man BET Awards A24 children's TV Adult Swim TV renewals Lucasfilm Brie Larson cartoon YouTube Arrowverse Watching Series Captain marvel streaming Pride Month Comics on TV DGA superhero strong female leads ABC Family Drama venice RT History Vudu video on demand Set visit harry potter Toys Netflix Polls and Games sag awards mutant Spring TV Freeform USA Network ABC festivals jamie lee curtis 45 A&E documentary The Arrangement Superheroe video Endgame First Look hist Mystery revenge Amazon Fantasy Oscars spanish language MCU free movies Academy Awards dogs binge See It Skip It Television Academy war football PaleyFest elevated horror Thanksgiving richard e. Grant criterion satire blaxploitation Television Critics Association Marvel Studios adventure Baby Yoda Logo disaster romantic comedy Box Office movies Grammys Mindy Kaling Peacock Character Guide Interview franchise theme song Black Mirror First Reviews zero dark thirty dark Hear Us Out SDCC fresh indiana jones Tomatazos nfl E! New York Comic Con james bond Music Universal fast and furious IFC Films Photos Hulu scary movies cops Lifetime Columbia Pictures Writers Guild of America Disney+ Disney Plus GLAAD canceled TV shows science fiction crime Turner MSNBC National Geographic Fall TV sports politics NYCC Paramount President Pet Sematary Awards Tour Showtime Horror TV Travel Channel award winner south america The CW Spectrum Originals Family emmy awards Country crossover LGBT technology mission: impossible El Rey casting TNT asian-american talk show cults game show WarnerMedia Election child's play boxoffice directors cooking DC streaming service 2018 deadpool Rom-Com toronto Infographic travel 4/20 Rocketman werewolf Star Trek Amazon Studios DC Universe finale CNN renewed TV shows 2020 political drama Discovery Channel batman TCA 2017 parents nbcuniversal Super Bowl screenings ghosts italian universal monsters 2017 Comic Book versus green book slashers Mary Tyler Moore Elton John HBO Max BAFTA Reality Calendar indie Best and Worst Extras Amazon Prime Video game of thrones NBC VICE series Disney streaming service singing competition Christmas die hard screen actors guild APB SXSW Nickelodeon BBC One Shondaland comiccon YouTube Premium psycho movie Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Alien stand-up comedy Star Wars crime thriller Esquire reboot TBS Tarantino DirecTV Disney Plus spy thriller breaking bad natural history Ellie Kemper Biopics ID Tubi BET Marvel toy story LGBTQ Pixar Starz IFC Paramount Network GIFs CW Seed romance true crime concert all-time space Superheroes Teen X-Men VOD Amazon Prime Emmys Netflix Christmas movies justice league medical drama psychological thriller Heroines Apple TV+ unscripted Fox Searchlight period drama MTV OneApp rt archives anime Song of Ice and Fire Anna Paquin Walt Disney Pictures Video Games 007 historical drama TCA Pop biography Rocky classics rotten adaptation halloween 2016 nature YouTube Red San Diego Comic-Con aliens GoT miniseries AMC Podcast worst movies Shudder anthology social media The Walking Dead CBS All Access Mary Poppins Returns TIFF halloween tv ESPN PlayStation Syfy The Academy 21st Century Fox supernatural Sony Pictures Cartoon Network zombies WGN Disney Channel YA documentaries obituary Turner Classic Movies thriller American Society of Cinematographers cancelled TV series History Apple hispanic Sundance Now vampires composers spain best sitcom Comedy Central Summer transformers australia Sneak Peek SundanceTV rotten movies we love OWN quibi PBS TruTV japanese sequel christmas movies ITV TCA Awards Acorn TV Mary poppins Film Sci-Fi Martial Arts Binge Guide stop motion dc Sundance TV ratings stoner worst Bravo laika remakes comics comic books Schedule comic Women's History Month films name the review E3 Lifetime Christmas movies cancelled Trailer Animation Quiz boxing Trophy Talk police drama CMT independent latino Opinion Holidays festival black Nat Geo dceu Kids & Family robots Spike Red Carpet book