RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT IN 3D COMPUTER GRAPHICS: THE EXPERIENCE OF WETA DIGITAL

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Developing content and applications is becoming increasingly complex, as different situations and challenges come up every day. The established profile of the developer needs now to redefine its horizons. It is an evolution that ranges from the pure programmer, one with their code, to the technical professional with cross-disciplinary skills, aware of exploiting the soft skills everyone talks about.

This factor is acquiring considerable relevance in all areas of industry. We proved this true when we met Paolo Emilio Selva, the chief of the software development department at Weta Digital*, the visual effects giant headed by Peter Jackson.

Paolo exemplifies the typical cliche of the Italian brilliant mind that reached success abroad, without even joining the brain drain. He could easily have stayed in Rome, where he was working as a researcher in the laboratories of Tor Vergata University: over 15 years ago, Paolo created those HMI (Human Machine Interface) systems that today are being used in the development of the interfaces of the future. Simply put, his passion led him elsewhere, to pursue and fulfil his dreams at the end of the world.

(FLT) – Why did you decide to drop everything and start from scratch in VFX?

(PES) – I have always been fond of cinema. I often wondered how the scenes and visual effects of the most spectacular films were made. When I was young, however, there were no specific curricula at the university, so I first took up engineering, then computer science. I started my career in other fields, continuing to cultivate my passion for cinema. I spent almost every night, after work, at Cinecittà studios often keeping late hours to help out friends who worked in production. I was never an artist, nor did I feel the need to be one. I have always had a passion for solving problems of others, by developing software that can do that. That’s what I felt my disposition was and I liked doing that. In 2007 I left for London, initially a guest at a friend’s house, while I was trying to understand how to start my new career. I was hired by Jellyfish Pictures, which was definitely not the company it is today with over 200 artists, but rather a start-up. In the meantime, I had the first interview with Weta Digital, and several months after the typical “we’ll let you know”, we formalised the contract that allowed me to move to New Zealand.

The VFX breakdown of Shan Guo shows the main development phases of one of the principal locations of Mortal Engines, released at the end of 2018. The design of Shan Guo, a digital landscape stretching over 5000 square kilometres, required the combined use of procedural workflows and 3D matte painting resulting in the creation of the fabulous backgrounds on which the rest of the scene is projected (credit: Weta Digital)
Many years have passed since Avatar was released but its look remains timeless thanks to the quality of the work done by Weta Digital. James Cameron worked very closely with the New Zealand studio, to introduce many techniques that soon changed the way of producing films, especially those that privilege CG elements over shooting. Avatar, among other things, is known for introducing a virtual camera system, in addition to bringing the 3D vision in cinemas to the general public. (credit: Weta Digital)

(FLT) – Who did you learn from?

(PES) – At Weta Digital, I had the honour to work every day with so many outstanding artists, who have won all kinds of prizes and awards. In particular, as a developer, I learnt a lot from Luca Fascione, the person who helped me arriving at Weta, besides being my first boss. Now, he is the director of the entire Technology and Research department of the company, of which the Software Engineering department, which I direct, is currently part. We are a group of about 20/25 people, which varies depending on the projects we are running in certain periods.

(FLT) – Productions that have made the history of cinema were created in Weta Digital studios and this tradition seems destined to continue with the sequel of Avatar. How much does Weta Digital invest in research? How is it conducted?

(PES) – Our main research focus is on realism techniques. We want to position ourselves in the VFX industry as the best you can find in this field, so we invest in the production of tools that can recreate and manage all the assets of a scene, from vegetation to the groom. Furthermore, we are constantly working on the development of a proprietary rendering technology: Manuka. The research is supported in various ways. First, with some constant activities, on top of which we add the specific ones for each project. We first understand what we will need to realise the shots we are commissioned, at least in broad terms, from the script and the specifications of the production; then we proceed with development. The work generated for a production progressively increases our resource background, making the development of internal tools sustainable also in economic terms. Another key resource is the academic world. We collaborate with many universities to support thesis and research projects, such as those of Siggraph papers. Thanks to the collaboration with the academic circles, we can scout the profiles that can be valid candidates to join our R&D team. Finding suitable profiles for these roles is not easy, because it is a very diverse and complex discipline, which requires quite a wide skillset. The R&D recruiting is among the most difficult ones; fortunately, we normally need fewer professionals than other departments. Developers stay at Weta Digital for several years, usually working on medium and long-term projects, while elsewhere professionals are very often hired for specific projects. This is why there is much more turnover, and the number of interviews to identify all the necessary candidates increases significantly.

(FLT) – What skills are needed to work in such a complex scenario?

(PES) – You definitely need a problem-solving attitude. Every day, in production, new, unpredictable things happen with very tight deadlines. Planning and managing projects meticulously help to keep everything under control but the developers are required to face very important challenges daily, so they have to try their best. This is the reason why in Weta we improve ourselves and grow with each new film we produce. When I arrived in New Zealand, in 2008, it often happened that Joe Letteri asked me for updates regarding the tools I was developing. Yes, a true legend. Yes, a living legend of the VFX, the director of the group, who personally supervises newcomers to make sure everything goes as it should. This was quite stressful for me, but it helped me grow as a professional. From the programming point of view, I knew how to do my job, so I never had any major technical difficulties. Even so, I was not used to those rhythms. I had to “pick it up fast” and always be ready.

ego 3d fractals protocube weta digital
For Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, Weta Digital has shot over 500 scenes, including those in which the protagonists are on planet EGO. For that specific purpose, Weta created a highly innovative and visually striking 3D fractal system that has earned it the attention of international critics, besides receiving several important awards (credits: Disney. Marvel Movies)

(FLT) – Your group creates the tools that help solve production needs, to the benefit of thousands of artists. What has changed for you in terms of responsibility?

(PES) – Managing the group means I have more responsibilities towards the production, lots of meetings and lots of coordination tasks. I can no longer develop a product entirely, following the whole process but I mainly deal with bug fixing. I try to have a full picture and help the guys with the experience in production I have gained in ten years’ at Weta Digital.

(FLT) – What is the most complex aspect of managing a team of developers?

(PES) – Undoubtedly, planning the projects, in particular, to make people understand the importance of deadlines and the need to account for unexpected circumstances and plan extra time accordingly. This does not surprise me. A developer has a very technical profile, therefore they naturally lack the disposition for project management. Nevertheless, it is a skill that you must develop if you intend to operate in a company where your work needs to synchronise with that of hundreds of other people. It takes time and patience but I think it’s important to insist on it and convey this message to make the team grow.

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Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. The production image, which precedes the final compositing, shows even more clearly the parts deriving from the original shot and the digital effects created in post-production. The shots were completely rendered with Manuka, the proprietary engine of Weta Digital (credits: Weta Digital)

(FLT) – What is your general opinion on the main developments in technological innovation?

(PES) – I think it’s the right time for them. Finally, the HMI technologies I dealt with when I was a researcher at the university in Rome, are being financed with major investments by the leading brands of automotive and other sectors that can truly influence the course of the industry worldwide. Investments of this magnitude will certainly produce very important results, introducing devices and interfaces that will become part of our daily life, making our tasks easier. I see a widespread desire to do and develop and I believe this is very positive for those who love innovation.

(FLT) – What advice would you give to young people who want to be developers today?

(PES) – To put into practice what they want to do. What really matters is what you do, not what you can do. If you don’t put it into practice, education and training serve you to a limited extent. It often happens that you step into the working life doing things you don’t like, or don’t fully satisfy you. It is normal to do this to bring home a decent salary. But this should not discourage you from following your true ambitions: if you use every second of your free time to do what you really want to do, the right opportunity will come, sooner or later. You must be ready to catch it and make an important choice. You need a bit of courage, a good dose of self-sacrifice and, above all, a lot of determination. You should have fun while doing things, not perceiving them as a burden. You should try every day to learn something new or to do things differently.

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Paolo Emilio Selva (credits Weta Digital)

* Paolo Emilio Selva (head of Software Engineering) is responsible for the development of technologies and innovation at Weta Digital. Since 2008 he has been constantly involved in the development of many of Weta’s key technologies, which include tools like TopoCloud (a toolset used to create solutions within Pantaray, a proprietary ray-tracing technology), used to produce The Adventures of Tintin, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Jungle Book, and many others. Paolo’s team has also developed Totara, a system for creating and managing vegetation parametrically, a fundamental tool in the production of the recent film War for the Planet of the Apes.

** Weta Digital is the main company of Weta, a holding company based in Wellington, New Zealand – https://www.wetafx.co.nz/

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This post is also available in: Italiano

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Francesco La Trofa

Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at Treddi.com and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.