What the Weta acquisition means for Unity

Alongside Unity‘s (U) latest Q3 earnings the company sent out a press release regarding the acquisition of Weta Digital. The name Weta may not quite ring a bell for you but I garentee you their work will. I regard the company to be the single best visual effects (VFX) studio in the world and needless to say I am hugely excited for the deal. In this piece, I would like to tell you what Weta Digital is, what the specifics of the deal are and what it might mean for Unity going forward.

What is Weta Digital

Weta Digital is a New Zealand digital VFX studio founded by Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk in 1993. While originally founded to take on the digital effects for an earlier Peter Jackson film, the company got its claim to fame for providing the core digital effects of the ever acclaimed ‘Lord of the Rings’ triology. Being a huge Tolkien nerd myself this is of course where I know them from, but Weta is a huge deal in the industry and a company I came to further admire in my time studying as a 3D artist. Weta Digital has won 6 Academy Adwards and have provided visual effects for many of largest and most visually stunning productions of all time. The list is too long to leave here but it includes titles of the forementioned Tolkien universe, Avatar, The Avengers, Planet of the Apes, King Kong, Godzilla, Terminator and many many more…

The company has provided the VFX for the most believable digital characters on the big screen.

Weta Digital is not to be confused with its sister organization Weta Workshop, which provides physicial effects and props to many of these same productions. If you happen to be interested in this part of the story I recommend listening to this episode of ‘The Friendship Onion’ podcast where the man behind it all, Sir Richard Taylor, visited the studio of Dominic Monaghan (Merry) and Billy Boyd (Pippin) of the LOTR cast.

The deal – what it is and is not

The price that Unity will be paying for Weta Digital has already been disclosed: $1.625 billion in a cash/stock deal. The specifics of this combination is not yet being shared. That might sound awfully cheap for an acquisition of this magnitude – but do keep in mind that Unity are not getting everything. Here is exactly what will be part of the deal and what is not.

Unity will overtake:

1. Wetas engineering team of 275 people. The ones responsible for building and maintaining the digital tools used in these productions. Note that this excludes Weta Digital’s artistry team, which will instead become known as a seperate entity called WetaFX.

2. A dozen of Wetas industry-leading tools. Here I have highlighted some of the more interesting ones:

  • Manuka: A specialized physically-based renderer that handles complexity, vast detail and scale efficiently and quickly.
  • Gazebo: A real-time interactive renderer used for viewing in-progress work, pre-visualization and motion capture workflows.
  • Barbershop: A tool suite for working with digital fur and hair to adjust growth patterns, grooming and providing realistic dynamics.
  • Lumberjack: A digital tree creation toolset for providing vegetation, modelling, editing plant topology and manage level of detail.
  • Loki: A physics-based simulation tool for water, smoke, hair, cloth, muscles and plants that integrates deeply with other Weta tools.
  • Koru: An advanced rigging system optimized for multi-character performance that allows large scale puppet control in near real time.
As described in the text that may be too small for you to read, a scene like this could easily have caused major memory problems with most other renderers – but Manuka handles the job.

3. A data platform for interoperable 3D art creation, that allows for hundreds of artists to work seamlessly together.

4. A library of high quality assets that the new non-Unity WetaFX team will continue to accumulate in ‘years to come’.

5. Joe Marks, current CTO of Weta will join Unity in the same role. Prem Akkaraju, their current CEO will instead stay with WetaFX.

You can read a whole lot more about what Weta does and the tools they have created on their website but the key takeaway from of all this is that Unity are not looking to create a VFX studio but instead looking to integrate these tools in their own software. Also note that the new WetaFX is likely to be the largest customer/licenser of these tools going forward.

What Weta brings to Unity

With the acquisition Unity will pursue bringing these next-level and proprietary tools to the masses. With Weta’s world class engineering team integrating into Unity’s equally talented one, there is also potential for these tools to become much more than what they are today. If some of these tools are to be fully optimized for real time applications like inside the core Unity engine itself that could mean a massive generational leap in visual fidelity.

“Weta Digital’s tools created unlimited possibilities for us to bring to life the worlds and creatures that originally lived in our imaginations,” Together, Unity and Weta Digital can create a pathway for any artist, from any industry, to be able to leverage these incredibly creative and powerful tools. Offering aspiring creatives access to Weta Digital’s technology will be nothing short of game changing and Unity is just the company to bring this vision to life.”

Sir Peter Jackson, Chairman & Co-founder of Weta Digital and acclaimed filmmaker.

The move also seems to point towards Unity turning more serious in challenging their main competitor of Epic Games – Unreal Engine still have many advantages over the Unity engine – especially when it comes to more complex hyper realistic workflows. An area where Unreal has done particularly well has been in using the real time graphic pipeline for film productions like what I described in my first post about Unity’s potential future.

More aspiringly though Unity describes the acquisition to enable the next generation of RT3D (Real time 3D Graphics) creativity and shape the future of the metaverse. While rather vaguely described in this context still, I do think the Metaverse will eventually be the major driving force of Unity going forward and the Weta deal could the start of it. They will need more capable tools in order to support the vast requirements of a massive intertwined reality of sorts – but it does tie directly into what Unity does best today: Providing a tool for cross platform development and real time graphics – and their future in that is even more exciting.

Disclaimer: I am not a financial advisor, the opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own – always invest at your own risk.

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