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As Trilogy Ends, Weta Trolls for Projects

The New Zealand digital effects firm, which is best known for its work on the 'Rings' films, now must branch out.

November 23, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

MIRAMAR, New Zealand — The computers are relatively quiet, and the seats have begun to empty inside one of the world's most cutting-edge visual effects companies.

It's downtime here at Weta Digital, the computer effects shop best known for bringing the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to life.

The final chapter, "The Return of the King," is finished and heading to theaters Dec. 17.

And Weta Digital, located in a suburb of Wellington, the nation's capital, is heading into a period of huge uncertainty.

The company is co-owned by Peter Jackson, the New Zealand native who directed all three "Rings" movies, and it is arguably the most successful piece of his movie-making empire. Its work on the first two "Rings" films has earned Oscars.

Visual effects are increasingly important for major studio films, and the competition among effects firms is increasingly fierce. Profit margins are becoming paper-thin.

This is the challenging environment in which Weta Digital must find projects to replace the work from "The Lord of the Rings."

The job falls largely to Chief Operating Officer Eileen Moran, who has been seeking contracts in film and television for the better part of a year.

Her efforts are starting to pay off. Several Weta Digital staffers are now in Vancouver, Canada, and working on the set of "I, Robot," a remake of Isaac Asimov's classic science fiction book. A couple more are preparing a team to work on television commercials.

But Moran fears her firm is handicapped when it submits its bids.

"People assume that we only work on Peter's projects," she said. "They also can't get over the fact that we're so far away from Hollywood."

At stake is the strength of the country's fledgling film and effects industry, said Suzanne LaBrie, facilities manager for Weta Ltd., the parent company of Weta Digital.

"If there's no work, people won't have jobs and they won't be able to stay -- either with us, in Wellington or in New Zealand," LaBrie said.

Weta Digital expects to have plenty of work in 2005, when production ramps up for Jackson's remake of "King Kong." In the meantime, Weta is struggling to keep its key staff members from being poached by rivals. Industry observers agree that there are not enough experienced workers to fill the more than 5,000 jobs available in live-action movies, animated features and video game projects.

One morning, during the 100-plus-hour workweeks leading up to the final "Rings" deadline, Moran's phone rang.

She said it was a courtesy call from Sony Pictures Imageworks to let her know it was sending recruiters to town, hungry for staff and looking at hers. Imageworks declined to comment.

It wasn't the first time. Moran said she received a phone call over the summer from DreamWorks SKG animation executives who were short-handed for several projects, including "Shrek 2."

She said she told them, "We'd be happy to work with you in November, when we're ramping down, so that no one leaves here without a job."

But DreamWorks couldn't wait. Recruiters came to Wellington and offered to double the salaries of Weta workers if they left New Zealand immediately to take jobs in Glendale, said artists who were wooed.

Weta lost only "a couple" of people, Moran said. DreamWorks declined to comment.

Days later, Moran said, she received a bouquet of flowers from DreamWorks. The card read, "Good luck with 'Return of the King.' "

Sitting in her office, an Elvish long bow and quiver full of arrows only a few steps away, Moran grimaced at the memory.

"The nerve, you know?" she said.

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