Interview with Weta’s Joe Letteri

As a cineaste, I respond to all elements of a motion picture. I enjoy quality writing, rich performances, gripping music and sublime photography. I also like to watch [stuff] blow up, Orcs fight Elves and monsters to rise from the oceans. That’s where good special effects come in. There are few places in the business right now as exciting as Weta Digital and Weta Workshop, the New Zealand-based houses behind the Lord of the Rings series and the upcoming film The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. We had the good fortune recently to speak to Oscar winning digital effects guru Joe Letteri about The Water Horse and his fascinating career.

UGO: Your are a Senior Visual Effects Supervisor. How do you get a job like that? Where do you go to school? What’s the career track for that?

Joe Letteri: Heh. When I did it there wasn’t much in the way of school. It was sort of a teach yourself, learn as you go. Figure it out as you go along, and we still do a fair amount of that but there are a lot of programs now that at least teach you the art and technique of the industry. Not specifically the supervising – that’s more of the job itself. There’s learning how to create graphics and animation. There’s actually any number of ways to come out. There’s the heavy kind of science research side of it, there’s programs at Cornell and Stanford and so forth to go for things like that. There are schools that will focus more on the animation side of it, there are some place that have an all around program and then, just a lot of work experience.

UGO:We movie fans, we have come to expect another great film from Weta, whether it’s or Lord of the Rings or King Kong, and it seems like they’re ready every year. I know that it takes a tremendous amount of time to get a project ike this going. How long have you been working on Water horse?

JL: Well, let’s see, Water Horse was actually one of the quicker projects we put through. We worked on that for about a year and a half.

UGO: That’s not so bad. You guys really know what you’re doing down there!

JL: [laughs] Yeah, we’re getting the hang of it.

UGO: Well, on Water Horse, the creature, Crusoe, is absolutely adorable. Did you worry about making it too cute?

JL: We had this whole idea of how he would grow. When you first see him, the idea was he is kinda ugly, we wanted him to look like something that just hatched from an egg, not that a little duck isn’t cute, but they’re all sort of messy and you don’t quite know what you are looking at. That was the intention. When Alex [Atel, the actor playing Angus MacMorrow] first sees him and it’s in the dark and the lightning flashing, it’s like, ‘what is this thing? It’s kinda weird.’ But then he realizes it’s a little infant and he’s immediately drawn to it. Then we took that to next step where he turned into a puppy and that was all about having fun. Then there’s the awkward teenage phase that he goes through for a little while. He gets separated from Alex and is trying to figure things out. Suddenly, he’s lost his best friend, he’s on his own and he’s not quite an adult. So there was a short phase of that. And then the adult was more about maturing and accepting of who he was but always going back to his old friend and remembering him.

[The Water Horse – Interview with Weta’s Joe Letteri]

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