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Unity Is Buying Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, the VFX Studio Behind Lord of the Rings

Game engine maker Unity has announced its intent to acquire Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based VFX studio owned by Peter Jackson that’s behind the special effects in films including Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, as well as Avatar, Avengers, and the final two seasons of Game of Thrones.

Weta Digital’s VFX and tech span facial capture, anatomical modeling, simulation and deformation of moving objects, procedural hair and fur modeling, and a number of other advanced techniques that have gained it notoriety over the years. The planned acquisition, which is expected to cost Unity $1.62 billion in a mix of cash and stock, will see Unity acquire its tech and assets as well as 275 Weta engineers who will join the company. The deal is expected to close in Q4 of this year.

It’s worth pointing out that this acquisition is being announced at a time of reckoning for Weta Digital. Just over a year ago, a local news investigation uncovered numerous allegations of a toxic work environment, bullying, sexism, and harassment. A subsequent independent review affirmed some of these allegations, after which its founders and CEO pledged to implement the report’s recommendations to improve work culture.

When asked by IGN about how Unity intended to handle work culture issues at Weta, Unity senior VP and general manager of Unity Create Marc Whitten offers this response:

“At Unity we take very seriously that we build an inclusive environment and workplace for all of our employees, whether they’re coming in from an acquisition or whether they’re — we’re a huge believer, it’s our corporate values around respect and empathy and opportunity for everyone. It’s something we’ve always spent a lot of time on in building our overall culture. In our own diligence, we made sure we felt good about the culture and the people that we’re bringing in and how we’re making sure we can take the culture that is Unity and ensure that everybody working there feels that they have a great place to work.”

As a part of the acquisition, Weta’s VFX teams will continue to exist as WetaFX, still owned by Peter Jackson and led by CEO Prem Akkaraju, and will continue doing film VFX under Unity’s Create Solutions team. However, Weta’s tech and assets will eventually be integrated into Unity’s cloud platform so that anyone using Unity can access them.

Whitten said that it didn’t have a firm timeline as to when this integration would happen, but said when it did, it would represent a meaningful shift in how accessible VFX technology and assets are to not just filmmakers of all sizes, but game developers, AR and VR creators, and others. He pointed out that Unity wants these tools to be usable not just by professional artists, but by everyone, including hobbyist creators working on YouTube and TikTok.

“I think you’ll see levels of detail that you may not have imagined before. Even bringing non-realistic things to life in really interesting ways. And you’ll see the ability for more people to create in a higher level of 3D than maybe they have the tools for today.”

More specifically, Whitten suggests that “procedural creation” or AI-assisted creation of assets will open the door to much more accessible creation of 3D assets, even by people who don’t necessarily have a lot of expertise in the field.

“A good example is the facial animation they use for motion capture,” he says. “[Weta] actually thinks about how blood flows through your capillaries at every millimeter down from your skin through the muscle, and simulate it so when they then go back and do the mocap it feels more alive in ways you won’t necessarily recognize — you won’t say, ‘Oh, they got the blood flow right,’ — it’s just that by doing it right it gets closer to something that looks like reality and therefore feels better to you. That doesn’t mean everything needs to look like reality; there’s lots of ways to do the same thing as a very stylized or even retro or whatever, but that same powerful set of procedural tools hopefully allow the next generation of creators to do things they can’t even imagine today.”

Alongside the tech, Whitten says we’ll eventually see assets from films Weta works on appear in Unity’s asset store. Nothing branded or recognizable of course (so no, you can’t just slap King Kong in your video game) but assets previously used in blockbuster films such as forests, cobblestones, and animal movement might one day end up available for use by anyone working in Unity.

Put together, Whitten ties Unity’s plans for Weta into a vision of a word we’re hearing a lot these days: metaverse. He says that whatever the metaverse ends up being, one thing is for sure: it’s going to need a lot of 3D content to populate it. And that’s good news for people making things in Unity.

“It’s going to be an extraordinary increase in the number of people who are making 3D content because that’s where the creativity will actually come from,” he says. “To me, the beautiful idea is getting all the way to that level of empowering any individual to create in 3D in ways we probably aren’t even thinking about right now.”

Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.

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