The democratization of visual effects continues at a stunning pace, with or without acquisitions. But it’s hard to beat this example – an Academy Award-winning visual effects studio is now in the hands of a game engine.

So the Unreal versus Unity rivalry is definitely real. Unreal continues apace, and in particular, can appeal to musicians thanks to its unprecedented modular sound engine. But Unity has been no slouch, either. (Major disclaimer: you would not want to make a choice based on these generalizations, as these tools feature really different workflows and development styles. On the other hand, my advice is generally that the best choice is just to make a choice and get to know a tool.)

I covered some of those visual developments quickly a few days ago – the image is either a demonstration of some new sky rendering features, or God speaking to Moses on the mountaintop about what He felt about C# as a code language:

And here’s the “look what we just bought” brag video from the folks at Unity, featuring, yes, Peter Jackson. (Real Peter Jackson fans will think of Weta Digital and associate it not with Avatar or Lord of the Rings but The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures – and this is how long these things gestate, even. Heavenly Creatures was the film that originally birthed Weta Digital.) Weta Digital says they’re the largest single-site VFX studio in the world – certainly one of the leading studios in scale, expertise, and sheer number of awards.

What strikes me is a longer arc in media technology. Computer graphics and visual effects have a long history, one with fairly sketchy, uncertain roots. A lot of those origins go back to the New York Institute of Technology and the 1970s formation of its Computer Graphics Lab.

Computer graphics started out not only out of reach of artists, but very much intertwined with the US defense industry and the Cold War – just like the computer itself. Case in point – early fundraising efforts featured Dr. Wernher von Braun and Major General Bernard Schriever of the Ballistic Air Command. Early physics courses were developed for Navy midshipman. But yes, this school is where ultimately Pixar co-founders Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith and Silicon Graphics/Netscape founder James H. Clark would get their start. It forged a lot of the human connections that would ultimately foster these once-marginal ideas about how to use computer graphics expressively.

Even by the early 80s, a lot of this was down to rendering software – exactly the tech that Unity, Epic, NVIDIA, and others are chasing now. For Pixar, that was REYES and RenderMan for ILM.

In the mid 80s, Pixar tried to sell its tech as hardware. In 2021, Unity buying Weta Digital is all about adding software and expertise – because consumer hardware already is the “image computer.” Tell me you don’t kinda want this as a custom PC case, though. (CC-BY-SA Victor Grigas)

The twist to this story, though, is that even though computer graphics began as slow and difficult to produce and created unrealistic and ugly outputs, there was already a notion to make them available to artists and consumers in general. It’s no coincidence that ILM would indirectly shape the evolution of Adobe – ILM’s own John Knoll co-created Photoshop with his brother Thomas, and it saw early use making mattes of alien tentacles on The Abyss. They sold Photoshop to Adobe, and the rest is history.

It’s also telling that one of the first things Steve Jobs did after getting booted from Apple in the 80s was to buy Pixar. (Hey, if you have $5 million burning a hole in your pocket, why not?) Jobs was ahead of his time, as was the company he bought, and so was the Pixar Image Computer – a $135,000 box that looked like some kind of concrete block and failed to sell. (Part of the evolution of Jobs into a smarter leader was selling off that hardware business and refocusing the company, even if you see some of the same failures at NeXT.) But dumb as that idea may have been, consider this – now you’ve got a Pixar Image Computer on your desk, and another in your pocket. Pixar’s tech is also powering 3D interchange and rendering for everyone. The Pixar and NeXT boxes didn’t work then, but something like them now dominates the world.

Weta Digital, for its part, has been one of the top digital studios since its creation. Apart from Jackson’s work, most of the Marvel Universe has used their VFX, as did Game of Thrones – and they have a big roster of upcoming projects. Some of those assets they’ve sold off, like their Mari texture painting app for Avatar. But motion capture remains a specialization, which is probably the big story here – note those fake skeletons and muscles and body parts in the promo.

Amidst metaverse hype and (justified) mistrust of Facebook leadership and their new Meta moniker, I think it’d be easy to sour on the idea of 3D tools for everyone. But ultimately, I’d argue that 3D accessibility won’t destroy animation – look even to the resurgence of real-for-real visual techniques on big productions. Democratization is always vilified, but I’m not sure laser printers or Kodachrome cameras or your smartphone really do end art.

Maybe more to the point, even as democratization has accelerated, a lot of these toolsets remain used for what they always were – games and films. Those media remain bound on the production side and consumption side by human scale – there are limits to how much human beings can do with their time and bodies, much as studios might try to push the envelope and make them sleep under their desks. And there are certain things human consumers find fun and entertaining, and things we don’t. (See also the early failed attempts at storytelling by Pixar’s founders.)

But it’ll be wild to see what Unity does with Weta tech. That’s a whole lot of legacy and expertise that’s irreplaceable. And it may speak to how demanding production is today – that people expect the tools to work like a game does.

And for audiovisual artists who grew up with WETA, it’s hard not to get a little sentimental.

Unity Announces Intent to Acquire Weta Digital

Oh yeah, uh… Fender did also buy PreSonus, which is probably good news for both, but you see why I found this one more fun to write about.

Weta tech is coming to SideFX Houdini, too. Presumably, that licensing deal will simply transfer to the new owner. But that means double the Weta VFX tools – and Houdini integration with both Unreal and Unity at this point is basically a given, with the new Weta stuff along with it. That beta is due any day. Details:

WetaH combines SideFX’s award-winning Houdini platform, an industry-standard within VFX, with Weta Digital’s new cloud-based software service and VFX tools, renowned for driving Weta’s iconic work in films like Avengers: Endgame, Alita: Battle Angel and War for the Planet of the Apes.

WetaH offers the benefits of Weta Digital’s years-long R&D commitment to Houdini to anyone, anywhere. Architected and stress-tested by artists working with the industry’s most visionary directors and storytellers, WetaH will unlock the untapped potential of Houdini and the Houdini Engine across many facets of the pipeline through a monthly cloud-based subscription.

Weta Digital’s software service will launch WetaH and WetaM via private beta in Q4 2021 and will help to democratise VFX through ground-breaking partnerships that provide unprecedented access to the industry’s cutting-edge technology.