25 years on, ‘The Frighteners’ still thrills as Weta Digital’s first calling card

A look back at the VFX studio’s first major project.

When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners was released in 1996, it’s safe to say few people would have realized that more than 500 visual effects shots were created by a small VFX studio established by the director in Wellington, New Zealand. Of course, a couple of years later, everybody would come to know about the creative powerhouses of both Weta Digital and Weta Workshop following the release of The Lord of the Rings.

Weta Digital had been established initially to craft digital VFX for Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, released in 1994, then ramped up significantly for The Frighteners. That latter film, which saw Michael J. Fox able to communicate with the dead, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this week, so befores & afters thought we would look back at the early days of Weta Digital and the VFX work behind it.

Below, Matt Aitken and Wayne Stables, now both visual effects supervisors at Weta Digital, recall their time on The Frighteners, including the each tech involved and how they accomplished particular shots such as Wallpaper Man and the glowing ghosts.

b&a: Where were you both right before working on The Frighteners?

Matt Aitken: We were both pretty much doing the same thing, which was both working at Weta Digital when it was very small, working on a couple of Peter’s projects. The thing that we came off to do The Frighteners was a mockumentary called Forgotten Silver, that Peter made with a friend of his. Weta was about eight people, I think. What do you reckon Wayne?

Wayne Stables: It would have been something like that because you were working there with George Port. John Shields and I had done a little bit of work part-time, and then I came in full-time with a couple of other people just before The Frighteners.

Matt Aitken: We had to grow for The Frighteners. In fact, that was a big part of the story of The Frighteners was how we had to ramp up to meet the challenges of that film. One of the things that has stuck in my mind is that we actually delivered 570 shots for that film. I think at the time it was a record for digital visual effects for a movie. I don’t know how long that record lasted. There was a lot of work that we had to get through.

Wayne Stables (top left) and Matt Aitken (bottom) chat to Ian Failes about ‘The Frighteners’.

b&a: That actually seems like quite a lot of VFX shots for back then.

Wayne Stables: These days we, you work on these films with 1000, 1500, 2000 shots. And everybody, for some strange reason seems to think that, ‘Oh 500 visual effects, that’s nothing.’ But even to this day, it’s still a lot of work.

b&a: Can you also paint a picture of the visual effects scene in New Zealand at the time?

Matt Aitken: There was a little bit of work going on and television commercials, there was Ian Taylor’s group in Dunedin at Animation Research—they do a lot of real-time graphics for sports. They were doing television, and it’s all CG-animated television commercials, at the time. But apart from that, there were people who were basically just enthusiasts who were just doing it off their own bat, finding whatever gear they could find that had a graphics card in it and tinkering and playing around. There wasn’t really an industry to speak of at all.

Wayne Stables: That’s always one of my memories of it as well. I mean, these days it’s so different with visual effect schools and degrees and everything out all around the world. But I think, Matt, you and I probably came from a similar background in that as well, and at the time it was really one of two ways that people got into VFX. One was from a very artistic bent, people like Christian Rivers. Matt and I—our background was more software development.

We didn’t really have a lot of software. On The Frighteners, Matt wrote bunches of stuff for Wallpaper Man. I wrote a lot of our compositing software that we use for the ghosts, just because we just didn’t have any other way to do it. I don’t know whether it was particularly efficient what we wrote, but it got the job done and it taught me…I know it taught me an awful lot about visual effects.

b&a: What do you remember were some of the early pieces of tech that Weta had or needed to get? I’m thinking film scanners, SGI boxes, software like Wavefront etc?

Wayne Stables: We had Silicon Graphics Indigo2s. It was a like a 20 gig hard disk tower sitting off the side.

Matt Aitken: Yeah, and we each had a tape drive because you got your plates on a DLT tape. So, if you got assigned a shot, it would turn up on your desk on a tape and you’d load it onto your local hard drive because although we had a network, it wasn’t really fast enough to move scanned film plates around. So we got our plates on a drive and we would finish the shot and it would go back onto the tape and then over to the film recorder to be recorded out.

Wayne Stables: I can also remember on The Frighteners the big flashy thing that we got was the SGI Onyx.

Matt Aitken: Oh yeah. The Onyx.

Wayne Stables: Big processors in it. A monster device. It was a real big thing in New Zealand when we got that. It was like, holy heck. My toaster probably has more processing power inside of it. Actually that’s a lie. Even for the time the graphics, what Silicon Graphics did with the graphics processing, it was pretty awesome. It was pretty phenomenal.

Matt Aitken: That was a hell of an investment.

Wayne Stables: It was a big step forward. It was not a small amount of money to invest.

b&a: And were you in just a house at the time?

Matt Aitken: It was room in a house in the centre of town at first. But Peter was setting up in Miramar then. It was when he was really establishing the empire that remains there to this day. The space we moved into was where the Weta Cave is now. Right on the corner of Camperdown Road and Weka Street. Eventually we expanded upstairs, but even then it was really just two or three rooms that we started off in.

Wayne Stables: I remember the theater didn’t exist there, you sit downstairs and there were a couple of rooms downstairs with a Steenbeck.

Matt Aitken: Oh, that’s right. If we were running selects of, maybe Peter shot some elements for us, you’d have to load them up on the Steenbeck and scroll through and write down edge numbers to pass to the scan operator. It was all pretty rudimentary.

b&a: But, incredible what you achieved. I guess it would be fun to talk about some individual things. Wayne, you mentioned Wallpaper Man. I just love that effect.

Wayne Stables: That was all Matt. Matt wrote the software that made Wallpaper Man happen.

Matt Aitken: That was what I spent the majority of my time on the show on. It also had various incarnations; Wallpaper Man, Sink Man, Carpet Man and Portrait Man.

b&a: How did you approach that at the time?

Matt Aitken: Well, it was interesting because the way we were set up then is that you were a generalist, you’re an artist on a shot and you would do whatever modelling you needed to do, do whatever texturing you needed to do for your models that you’ve made, set up your lighting, do your rendering, do your compositing. But then very early on, and I think this was one of the things that really worked, was that we identified that character animation was enough of a specialist skill that even with the size that we were at, and I suppose by the time we really got stuck into The Frighteners—we got up to about 50 people at our peak on The Frighteners—so we were sort of growing as we worked into the show.

But, we recognized that the character animation was something that we wanted to have people specializing in. Wayne mentioned Christian Rivers, and he had those really strong character and creative skills and so he specialized in animation. So for those shots, he would animate a figure and then I would build the environment, and what we didn’t have was any real cloth simulation tools. We used something called Dynamation for the Grim Reaper character. That was hard to get that working because it was a really early cloth sim, well, you could use it for cloth simulation work, but it was very easy for things to still look like rubber. Getting a believable cloth simulation out of that software was tough.

To actually get something that wrapped over a character while it was moving under the wall, I just ended up writing software that took Christian’s character animation and a flat wall, and created the surface that wrapped over it and UV’d that so that we could have the wallpaper texture on it. You know, a lot of the tools that we needed didn’t exist. We just had to write them ourselves.

b&a: Wayne, with the compositing approach, I’ve always loved the ghost ‘glow’ and the way it impacted the background. Tell me about the approach you did take to comp’ing those ghosts.

Wayne Stables: There was a certain amount of preliminary work that was done to explore some ideas. We probably used compositing packages like Eddie and others just to play with glows. John Shiels, who alas is sadly no longer with us, did a lot of work on that. And long story short, there used to be little bits of code that came with SGI boxes, just little bits of C code snippets that would show you how you layered this type of thing or did this type of effect. So I began to write some compositing stuff, just really stringing those operations together and doing the world’s most simple command line compositing system where you just feed a little text file that would do things. And that was based on, well, we know we wanted our ghost to have a glow, so you’d take a plate and you give it a big blur, you do something else. They were fairly simple operations.

It just developed over time to being more part of the GUI packages that came with SGIs. They were able to make sliders, so then I wrote a simple little UI that really just exposed those 10 parameters that an artist might choose to tune their effect. Then I just went absolutely crazy, apparently at some point and even wrote the world’s most basic nasty network renderer where it would actually crunch things out on people’s individual desktop boxes and would try and feed stuff through there and run and composite the frames.

b&a: Amazing.

Wayne Stables: People always say to me, how did you guys start out on The Frighteners, didn’t you need ILM? I think the truth was, nobody told us we couldn’t. Nobody said, ‘Matt, you can’t go and write the software to do this cool thing.’ And it was fun. It was an awful lot of fun to do.

Matt Aitken: It’ll always have a special place in my heart, that project, because it was such a pioneering experience. And we probably were at work way too much of the week because we just were so involved in what we were doing. Just being given that opportunity to do all this hero digital visual effects work.

Peter was shooting miniatures that Richard Taylor made. There was also a little bit of digital environment work, and a few all-CG shots at the end, the big worm hole from hell stuff that Gray Horsfield did on the Onyx. There was a bit of everything. There was character work, there was effects, I mean, it actually ran the whole gamut.

b&a: I also still love, to this day, the Grim Reaper. I feel like there’s something incredibly scary but also dynamic about that character. Especially the mirror/bathroom shot. Can you share your memories of that character?

Matt Aitken: They actually had thought that they would film him as a bluescreen element. So Richard Taylor’s team at the Workshop made a very elaborate puppet. They had this puppet that would articulate, they filmed it blowing in the wind. It ended up being really great reference for us to match to. There are shots where it jumps onto the car and does all these dynamic moves, so there was no way that they could get a puppet to do all that stuff and to integrate into the plate photography. It became, in some ways, our first full CG character.

One of the challenges was trying to get the cloth working, because it really is just a piece of cloth. That’s its whole thing. There’s some really great character animation in it and the shot that I remember is in the museum. It just has such great character animation, even though it’s just a piece of cloth, it was really menacing and had great presence.

Wayne Stables: The thing I remember about the Reaper, by the way, and I think it’s something that you still find hard to do today, was its hands. Because I remember when Gray first did some shots and those hands were three-fingered things. I remember Richard being quite perturbed by it. We ended up with a much more articulated hand on it. And of course to this day I still find hands really hard to do in CG.

b&a: What happened after The Frighteners? I remember reading you were going onto making King Kong, but obviously that didn’t happen for a few years.

Matt Aitken: Just to backtrack a little bit, a significant thing about The Frighteners was that we first had to recruit from overseas to build up the team, to have the number that we needed, because there just weren’t the people in the country that had the skills. That was a really key part of it. Some of those people went home, the company sort of downsized, we all took a bit of a break.

And then Peter was going to make King Kong. We spent about six months on that before Universal pulled the plug. We filled in that gap with primarily with some work that Peter lined up for us on Contact for the wormhole sequence. Then, by that stage, Peter had Lord of the Rings underway. So we essentially spent the next three years in pre-production on Lord of the Rings, which is an amazing gift that Peter arranged for us, in that we had that amount of time to get ourselves set up, to build the pipelines.

Coming out of The Frighteners, we knew where all the holes were in our abilities, and we knew what we had to develop. A lot of the groundwork was laid down in terms of the departmental structure for Weta that still exists through to this day. It was three years through to the shoot, then the shoot, and then three years of post, just on Lord of the Rings for six years as a company. That was the only job in-house during that time. To spend six years on the films was quite special.

Wayne Stables: You have to remember as well, back then, that there so many things that we take for granted today. You want trees in a shot? We can do that. You want fire, you want water? Just none of that stuff had been done. It was so new and across the world everybody was trying to work out how to do these incredibly complicated things. When Matt and I started, I stand by the fact it was a lot more inventive, what we had to do, because things hadn’t been done before. I think what we did on The Frighteners, I would argue would have been a challenge for any visual effects company at the time.

Matt Aitken: That time was somewhat the wild west, but it was also a really deeply creative time because there were no established procedures, like you’re saying, Wayne, there was no rule book for any of this stuff. You just had to figure it out as you went along. And we had Peter driving us, and Peter’s the original, ‘Let’s not assume that we can’t do this because nobody’s done it before. That’s what we want to do. Let’s just do it. We’re just going to do it.’ He was so enthusiastic. And that’s what drove us.

Wayne Stables: Arnaud Hervas and Allen Edwards, who would later write Shake, actually came to work with us, and helped with all this. I’d written a piece of code that would take the mesh of the Reaper, because it was too heavy to animate with its full mesh, so we used to do this lower-res thing and then we’d do a smooth operation. I wrote some code that smoothed it out, that was possibly the worst piece of code ever written! Certainly one of the slowest. It would take, God-knows-how-long per frame to do this stuff. And Arnaud, who’s a very skilled software developer, took my code that might take 10 minutes per frame, or maybe it was an hour—something horrific—and made it run probably in seconds per frame.

I’d say to him, ‘Oh you took my rubbish code and made it work.’ And he would say, ‘No, I took your very good code that just had a few rough edges that I smoothed off and made it run.’ I think they went off to Sony after The Frighteners and then wrote Shake after that. I know I learned an awful lot, possibly more than I realized at the time.

b&a: It clearly was a game-changer for you guys and for Weta Digital back then.

Wayne Stables: Yes, in some ways I would say The Frighteners is my favorite thing I ever did because it was the first big thing and we learned so much from it. Although it had its challenges and it was hard and we worked very long hours—it wasn’t without its sense of stresses and probably panic attacks—it still has a very big place in my professional heart.

Matt Aitken: What I would add to that is that it was an achievement. And while the film itself didn’t really find its audience at the time, it kind of has since, but I think there’s no way that we would have been allowed to do the work on Lord of the Rings if we hadn’t, if Peter hadn’t had our work on The Frighteners to show as a calling for what Weta Digital could achieve. So it more than achieved its required role in terms of the growth of Weta Digital as a company, not just in terms of what we knew ourselves, but being able to convince studio executives that we could take on a task like the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Wayne Stables: It was probably one of the two most important things we did really isn’t it? The Frighteners got us known, and then we went into Lord of the Rings and then people still didn’t know who we were, but then the Lord of the Rings cemented that for us in that time afterwards. Once that was done, once Lord of the Rings was done, it was like, okay, The Frighteners wasn’t a fluke. In many cases it was Peter, who’s the man to thank for establishing this crazy industry that I often say has no right existing in New Zealand, but for which I am immensely thankful it does exist inside of New Zealand.

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