VFX supervisor Joe Letteri has won two Oscars, a Technical Achievement
Award, and an Oscar nomination in the past three years at Weta Digital.
Now, he’s doing something really big: Peter Jackson’s King
Kong. We got him on the phone, a month from his deadline on
Kong at Weta’s Wellington, New Zealand facilities,
to talk about the new technology and techniques Weta devised to meet
Kong‘s many challenges.
Weta Digital grew from around 420 people to slightly over 500 for
Kong. Letteri drafted Ben Snow as co-VFX supervisor
early and, later, added two more top supes (see sidebar, below). "We
have about 20 to 25 percent more people," says Letteri. "System-wise,
we’ve about doubled our capacity in terms of render farm, disk space,
and everything since Rings." As on previous films,
Weta built its pipeline around Alias’s Maya, Pixar’s RenderMan and
Apple’s Shake. Massive software, which had moved armies for
Rings, managed the digital people and vehicles that
populate Weta’s digital New York.
"We also used [Digital Domain's] Nuke a bit because it has a nice
ability to work with 3D, so it’s good to help build environments and do
pre-comp," says Letteri. "And we still have Infernos here."
For Rings, Weta used a separate company for DI, but
for Kong, they created an in-house DI department
based on a Discreet Lustre system.[Color Supervisor Peter Doyle worked
with Supervising Digital Colorist David Cole and Lead Colorists Billy
Wychgel and Melissa Hangleon.] "We also streamlined and improved
things in the back end – the hardware side, the networking and
infrastructure," says Letteri, "and we had one big philosophical change
in the pipeline: We are more geared toward pulling information together
at render time than carrying it through individual scenes."
What does that mean? Technical directors now light and move
low-resolution proxies rather than highly detailed geometry, whether
they’re juggling complex scenes or complex characters. The
high-resolution geometry rolls into RenderMan at render time.
"With a creature like Kong, you don’t want to open a Maya scene and
have all the fur in it – and you obviously can’t open up a scene with
all of New York in it – so we built a system that uses proxies,"
explains Letteri, "Everything is actually generated at render time. The
system outputs whatever the camera is seeing whenever it needs it."
Working with proxies is not unusual. Studios typically use RenderMan’s
RIB archives to see low-res on screen and then output high-res at
render time. But rather than relying on RIB archives, Weta integrated a
more flexible custom system into its pipeline.
"I’m guessing we’re not the only ones doing that," Letteri says. "As
you start building bigger and more complex scenes, you still need fast
feedback and turnaround time, and this is the only way to manage it.
You can’t wait forever for things to update."
In addition, Kong’s demands required the creation of new simulation and
motion-capture tools. New fur software made the ape hairy, new
fluid-simulation software moved oceans, and new motion-capture tools
helped animators ape Kong.
"We had a fairly good fur solution for Rings, but
there wasn’t all that much fur," says Letteri. "And, there are good fur
engines available – Maya’s got fur, and there’s also Shave and Haircut.
But, when it comes down to putting five million hairs on Kong and
making sure you can control what they’re all doing for every shot, you
need your own software. If something doesn’t look right, you have to
able to open it up and figure out what’s going on."
The fur-simulation software and new fur shaders generate, groom and
animate Kong’s five million hairs when he moves, manage collisions with
other objects, ruffle his hair in the wind and allow it to get dirty
The crew also wrote a fluid-dynamics solver to create an ocean for
Kong’s voyage to New York. The problems with commercial tools they had
used and tested whirled around interaction and scalability. Some fluid
solvers could manage an entire ocean or waves breaking around a boat,
for example, but not both at the same time.
"When you need waves breaking off a boat in a whole ocean, it gets
complicated," says Letteri. "We needed something that would do the
broad solution and the small, specific solution where there is
Gorilla My Dreams
Of course, one of the biggest challenges in the film was its star.
Modelers created Kong- and the digital doubles he interacts with- in
Maya with help from a new tool Weta calls Mudbox. "It acts more like a
painting system than a modeling system," says Letteri.
To breathe life into Kong, rather than rely solely on keyframe
animation for the CG gorilla, the crew turned to techniques and the
actor who had created the Ring‘s Gollum: they
motion-captured Andy Serkis. Like Gollum, a gorilla has similar
musculature to a human, even though the body and face shape is
different. This time, though, the crew captured Serkis’s face and body
simultaneously and the animators used data from Serkis’s performance
for facial expressions as well. New software made it possible for
animators to drive the CG gorilla with the mocap data or with keyframe
animation, and a new system interpreted Serkis’s facial expressions
before mapping data onto the 3D model.
"This is an expression-based system," says Letteri. "The software looks
at the dots on Andy’s face, figures out what his expression says- that
he’s sad, for example- and then applies that to Kong. We’re using mocap
not just to move geometry around, but to actually interpret the actor’s
expression and apply that to the character’s expression."
While Kong had to seem believable, Weta’s digital double for actor
Naomi Watts had to be real. To capture Watts and create her double, the
crew turned to Paul Debevec’s image-based Light Stage system at the ICT
Graphics Lab. "We’ve moved more into image-based lighting than in the
past for real actors and for real materials for set extensions," says
As work on the production nears the end, Letteri sounds pleased. "We’re
swamped right now, but it’s going well. The show is so big that people
could take on large sequences and run with them. It’s given the crew
good opportunities." And, perhaps, another Oscar nomination?
Bring In The Supes
At the start of the show, two-time visual effects Oscar nominee Ben
Snow (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones,
Pearl Harbor) came aboard as co-visual effects
supervisor. And then, during the last few months, two more heavy-duty
VFX supes were brought in: George Murphy, VFX supervisor for
Constantine, The Matrix Revolutions and
Reloaded, who won an Oscar for Forrest
Gump, and Scott Anderson, who received Oscar noms for
Starship Troopers and Hollow Man,
and won for Babe.
"A big chunk of the movie takes place in New York, another big chunk on
Skull Island, and another on the voyage, so we broke it down roughly
that way," Letteri says. "Ben is supervising and shepherding many of
the big scenes on Skull Island and New York that we started early on.
Scott picked up the new New York shots, and George has a lot of the
coverage of Skull Island."
Joe Letteri’s Academy Awards History
- 2005 Oscar Nomination for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for I, Robot
- 2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
- 2004 Technical Achievement Award for groundbreaking implementations of
- practical methods for rendering skin and other translucent materials
- using subsurface scattering techniques
- 2004 Oscar for Best Visual Effects for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Joe Letteri began his career at Industrial Light & Magic, where he
was CG supervisor/artist on The Abyss, Jurassic Park and Casper. He was
an associate visual effects supervisor on Mission Impossible and visual
effects supervisor on Magnolia. Universal’s Kong, scheduled for release
December 14, is his fourth film as visual effects supervisor at Weta,
following the final two Lord of the Rings movies and I, Robot.