Sometimes the best visual effects are the ones no-one will ever notice. When Oenomaus took a knife to the eye, the gruesome result was originally realized as a physical prosthetic. While the match of skin tone, texture and realism was great, the decision was made after shooting that the wound should be more of a cavity than a swollen protrusion. Wanting to avoid a costly and time-consuming 3D matchmove and render, we elected to try a 2D solution based on a classic optical illusion; that convex objects when rotated 180 degrees read as concave. This approach paid off as it allowed us to use the shot footage itself rather than a complex skin shader with dynamic lighting. There was still a huge amount of meticulous hand tracking, warping and blending that went into each setup, but the final result held up even in extreme closeup.
Although both techniques are now industry standards, muscle models as a basis for good creature work and VR previs with mocap’d cameras were a hard sell when I implemented them at Weta in LOTR R&D.
With VFX producer Charlie McClellan, I established the facility’s department structure and core pipelines, set up the shot database and vfx breakdowns for the trilogy, and selected and supervised key staff (like Bay Raitt and Jason Schleifer who led the groundbreaking work behind Gollum).
I spent my time during the early years at Weta on various projects; rotocapture, early muscle system experiments and procedural city building R&D for King Kong, tests for the movie ‘Pitch Black’ and proof of concept demos that helped green-light LOTR.
The Weta logo itself is an inverting homage to Escher’s “Moebius Strip II”. ( Animation of both Weta bug and Pitch Black creature by Ramon Rivero)
Peter Bailey’s early designs reflected the decision not to be concerned with technical issues during the initial creative period. After a suitable section of script had been agreed upon, video was recorded of Peter and I acting out their interpretation.
The shaders were all just texture maps, based on real world sources. Peter started blocking thru broad body moves, then added complexity right up to the point when he animated the dynamic swinging of the ear flaps. Patrick’s lipsync was progressively refined , as were the shaders and lights.
In early 1997, I collaborated with Patrick Runyon and Peter Bailey on a character animation demo piece. The character was to be a neurotic devil, similar to George Costanza or Sal Rosenberg.
Peter animated the body in Softimage, Patrick animated the face in Symbolics, I tied it all together, rendering everything in Explore.
Making the titles for the show “That’s Fairly Interesting” brought the added promotional benefit of a 10 minute featured item about the process itself. My insufferable smugness and blonde tips were typical of the time.