After 25 years delivering some of the industry’s most ground-breaking visual effects, Weta Digital is getting into the original animated film and episodic business; they’ve just named Prem Akkaraju as CEO of their new venture, Weta Animated. The expansion has been a long-time dream of majority owners, multiple Academy Award winners Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who will write, produce and direct several animated projects for the company, working alongside Weta’s world renowned visual effects business for the film and television industry.
“We are huge fans of animated storytelling in all of its forms, but it can be a long, protracted, and often costly way to make movies,” says Jackson. “That’s, in part, why we have created this company – to change the model and open the doors to filmmakers and storytellers who might not otherwise be given the chance to show what they can do.”
Jackson goes on to say, “We’re fortunate to have a strong, creative leadership team at Weta. Both Joe Letteri (Senior VFX Supervisor) and David Conley (Executive VFX Producer) have played a huge role in the success of the company. The years of experience that Joe and David bring to the table are invaluable. With the expansion of the company, adding someone of Prem’s caliber to this mix is essential. I’ve gotten to know Prem well over the past few years. I’m thrilled he’s agreed to lead the company through this exciting growth phase. Prem’s energy and passion for film is inspiring; we cannot wait to work with him.”
“Now is a great time for us to be developing original animation, something I have long been excited about exploring,” said Letteri. “Storytelling is an essential part of what we do in visual effects and being able to bring our creative experience to new stories in early development opens up a world of unique possibilities.”
With over 1,550 artists and engineers, Weta Digital has won six visual effects Academy Awards, ten Academy Sci-Tech Awards and six visual effects BAFTA Awards. The company is known for revolutionizing the VFX production pipeline for some of the biggest films of all time, including Avatar, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and Avengers: Endgame. Their exemplary digital characters, including Thanos from Endgame and Caesar from the Planet of the Apes Trilogy, have become standards by which all similar work is judged. Over the past 25 years, Weta Digital has developed over 100 proprietary tool sets and groundbreaking AI technology.
“Weta Digital began with one machine and just one artist who created the digital effects in Heavenly Creatures,” says Walsh. “None of us knew what we were doing, but even in those early days we could see the incredible potential of this new technology. Since then, VFX has become a huge industry, but our goal has remained the same – to bring stories to life, through the power of imagination. If you can dream it, we can create it.”
This sentiment is shared by Napster co-founder, entrepreneur, and tech visionary, Sean Parker, who made a significant investment in Weta Digital last year, and who has joined the board as Vice Chairman. He commented, “I have been a Weta superfan for the past two decades—I recall my sense of wonder when I first saw the character of Gollum brought to life, and later the surreal feeling of being transported to the alternate reality of Pandora. The team at Weta never fails to inspire: their artistic imagination is unbounded, and their technical accomplishments have made that creative expression possible. I have spent most of my career as an entrepreneur building and expanding companies, many of which sit at the intersection between content, technology, and commerce. This unique combination of artistry and technology is precisely what sets Weta apart from its peers.”
“As an entrepreneur I look for industries that are undergoing seismic shifts—and Weta promises to be a disruptive force by catering to the tremendous unmet demand for high-quality animated content,” Parker added. “Producing animated content has high barriers to entry, both technically and artistically, but Weta, with its leadership team, technology, and deep bench of creative employees, principals and collaborators is uniquely positioned to succeed. One of the great privileges of my professional life has been getting to know Peter and Fran, and every Weta team member whom I’ve had an opportunity to meet.”
According to Akkaraju, “When people speak about the magic of filmmaking, they are speaking about Weta. For over 25 years, Weta has led the VFX/animation industry by fostering an incredibly talented group of artists who work in tandem with a gifted team of computer scientists and engineers. I’m thrilled to be joining Peter, Fran and the extraordinary team at Weta as we enter into a hypergrowth stage with the launch of original content, bolstering our VFX service business and expanding our technology capability and infrastructure.”
Throughout the ongoing pandemic, Weta’s VFX and animation work has continued safely and uninterrupted. “The strength of our business is in the artists”, says Conley. “And over the last few months they have shown that strength not with their creative skills, but with their ability to quickly adapt to new work environments. It puts a lot of pressure on how we manage the business, but its success to date is acknowledged across the industry and really reflects a collective commitment from our entire team.”
Source: Weta Digital
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.