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What the New Weta Digital/Unity Metaverse Alliance Means for VFX, Animation, and Gaming

The deal means democratizing Weta Digital's industry-leading toolset, more real-time virtual production, and Weta having the financing to make its own animated movies and series.

Weta Digital

“War for the Planet of the Apes”

Weta Digital

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With Tuesday’s announcement of Unity purchasing Weta Digital’s VFX tech division for $1.6 billion, we’re going to witness a metaverse alliance between the two companies. This means Weta-style real-time virtual production of the magnitude that ILM and Epic achieved with “The Mandalorian,” greater cinematic-style gaming, and the eventual push toward interactive 3D content, all wrapped around a cloud-based rendering workflow that democratizes Weta’s sophisticated toolset for millions of new artists. Oh, yes, it also means that Weta Digital co-founder Peter Jackson is now a billionaire and his fledgling animated division now has the capital to make its own original content.

Unity, the industry powerhouse platform for creating and operating interactive, real-time 3D (RT3D) content, acquired Weta’s tools, pipeline, technology, and 275 engineers. This encompasses the dozens of proprietary hardware and software that brought “The Lord of the Rings,” “Avatar,” “The Planet of the Apes” trilogy, and numerous Marvel movies (including “Eternals”) to life. So that means the secret sauce behind the facial capture of Caesar will now become more widely available, along with the rendering capabilities of Manuka and Gazebo, the physics-based simulation Loki tool for water and smoke, the Barbershop hair and fur system, the CityBuilder world-building tool, and a Weta VFX asset library in the thousands.

What it doesn’t mean, however, is any interruption in what Weta does best as an industry leader in Oscar-winning VFX, which will now be known as WetaFX as a standalone entity and Unity’s largest customer (under majority ownership by Jackson and helmed by CEO Prem Akkaraju). “Weta Digital’s tools created unlimited possibilities for us to bring to life the worlds and creatures that originally lived in our imaginations,” said Jackson in a prepared statement. “Together, Unity and Weta Digital can create a pathway for any artist, from any industry, to be able to leverage these incredibly creative and powerful tools. Offering aspiring creatives access to Weta Digital’s technology will be nothing short of game changing and Unity is just the company to bring this vision to life.”

"Avatar"

“Avatar”

20th Century Fox

“WetaFX will continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible and sweat the finest of details, and millions of people will suddenly have a set of tools that allow them to be creative in ways they never could be before,” Akkaraju told IndieWire.

The alliance with Unity came about to address the problem of supply and demand. “There was a gigantic demand for artists and these services that were driven by Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and all the major studios,” added Akkaraju. “But there were so many restraints on specialized hardware and a lot of licenses, and, by putting it in the cloud, you don’t need all these licenses by providing end to end service.

“And we sat in a very unique position at Weta where we had the robust toolset. And we looked for a partner that could actually bring these tools to life, and fill up the gap between the demand and the supply in the film [and TV] business. Then beyond that, it gets significantly larger as you go into consumer products and you start thinking about this as being the new creation device of 3D content rather than what it is today, which is more 2D content.”

The idea of being able to create the equivalent of a Caesar virtual character or Pandora world in a video game was quite enticing to Unity. “If you could make those [high-end] tools accessible to other professionals to grow a city to build a game through…then in order to be able to deliver that, we’re going to have to [set up] a pipeline in the cloud,” added Marc Whitten, senior vice president/general manager of Unity.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING, Gollum, 2003, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection

Additionally, this metaverse alliance will help expand virtual production, especially the LED-stage virtual production service industry, which is sprouting around the world, thanks to the success of “The Mandalorian” StageCraft platform from ILM and powered by Epic’s Unreal game engine. Weta Digital has its own version of this in Wellington, New Zealand, in partnership with Avalon Studios and Streamliner, and now Unity will provide the vital real-time capability.

From Unity’s perspective, they’ve been playing catch up with Epic in trying to lay the foundations of its own metaverse. But whereas Epic made deep inroads on the content side by placing its high quality visual fidelity into real-time, metaverse-friendly platforms, Unity has not. But now, according to an industry insider, “they can begin the challenges of getting Weta’s technologies and knowledge running in real-time.”

“We’re in hyper drive now with an assortment of new tools and a team and tech that we didn’t have access to before, and we’re gonna see the virtual being dropped pretty soon and it’s just going to be a standard [production] in the coming years,” said Akkaraju.

Meanwhile, Weta Animated, which has three animated features in development (including some with director Jackson and his writing/producing partner Fran Walsh), is now financially positioned to control its own destiny with original content (both keyframe and performance-captured). “Holding rights and IP and going to streamers with co-ownership is the next generation of deals moving forward with IP,” added Akkaraju.

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