After a distinguished run as the visual effects house that brought to life Gollum, King Kong and other incredible creatures for Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and other film spectacles including James Cameron’s Avatar sequels and Avengers: Endgame, Weta Digital is making a major expansion. Jackson and Fran Walsh’s 25-year old concern is launching the offshoot Weta Animated to generate for the first time original content in animation for cinema and streaming platforms.
Spearheading that effort as new CEO of Weta Digital will be Prem Akkaraju, who co-founded SR Labs (formerly known as Screening Room) with Sean Parker. Parker, who became an investor in Weta Digital last year, has joined its board as vice chairman. Akkaraju is on the board as well and remains executive chairman of SR Labs, the premium home viewing venture which continues its campaign to become part of the theatrical release ecosystem and promising revenue to both studios and exhibitors. Man Jit Singh is now SR Labs’ CEO.
Majority owners Jackson and Walsh will underwrite the creative ambitions of Weta Animation by scripting, producing and directing several animated projects for the company. They are in the midst of working on a live action film that Jackson plans to direct, but they are determined to give their level best toward giving Hollywood a truly independent factory for state of the art animated fare.
“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. 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 said in a statement.
Weta Animated will work alongside the Weta Digital state of the art visual effects facility that is based in Wellington. The facility began during the production of the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, with one Silicon Graphics Indigo computer and software and one person to run it.
After Jackson got 20 digital effects shots for the movie, he felt that expansion was necessary, after watching Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 and believing that computers were vital to the future of visual effects he would later use in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. If he didn’t want to spend most of his life on the other side of the world, he’d better build his own. That came slowly, while he directed The Frighteners and then doing the wormhole scenes for the Robert Zemeckis-directed Contact. By the time LOTR was underway, they’d grown to 500 computers and kept going. After the visual spectacle that was King Kong, studio films from all over sought it out. Weta Digital has developed over 100 proprietary tool sets and groundbreaking AI technology.
Jackson and Walsh met Akkaraju and Parker as they came on board as proponents for Screening Room, and Jackson believed he found in Akkaraju exactly the exec he needed to make the move into computer animation, so that he and Walsh could focus on being the storytellers. He will go back and forth between Hollywood and Wellington, and liaise with the entrenched Weta Digital team.
“We’re fortunate to have a strong, creative leadership team at Weta,” Jackson said. “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.”
“Weta Digital began with one machine and just one artist who created the digital effects in Heavenly Creatures,” Walsh said in a statement. “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.”
Said Parker: “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. 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.”
“With Prem joining as CEO, I’m even more excited for what the future holds,” added Parker. “I have long admired Prem’s relentless energy, passion, and leadership capabilities. Prem has the ambition and drive to push Weta to even greater heights, and he brings global reach, strategic thinking, and clear-headed execution to a company whose roots lie in the fertile creative soil of New Zealand, but whose influence has always been global.”
For Akkaraju, running Weta Digital is the fulfillment of a career dream.
“When people speak about the magic of filmmaking, they are speaking about Weta,” he said.
Said Weta VFX Supervisor Letteri: “Now is a great time for us to be developing original animation, something I have long been excited about exploring. 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.”