Unity Software’s audacious $1.625 billion swoop for Peter Jackson’s VFX house Weta Digital is an attempt by the maker of the second-most popular game development platform to close the gap on its rival Epic Games.
The deal is predicated on a strategic bet by Unity that there is pent-up demand for the creation of 3D characters, assets and environments on a scale far beyond its current generation for big budget films and AAA games in elite shops like Weta.
In the first instance, Unity aims to open up the creation of photoreal CGI powered by its Unity games engine to fuel virtual production. It’s a market currently dominated by Epic’s Unreal Engine on stages such as Dark Bay at Studio Babelsberg in Berlin.
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Longer term, Unity has its eye on the metaverse and what it thinks will be huge demand for professional and non-professional content creators to build assets to populate the 3D internet.
The deal promises to make the tools used to create Gollum for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Caesar from Planet of the Apes, and Pandora from Avatar available to creators all over the world. Indeed, Unity’s move for Weta is intended to stoke the market by allowing access to these tools over a cloud-based platform, though whether this will come to pass as Unity imagines remains a gamble.
Explaining the reasoning behind the deal, Marc Whitten, Unity Create SVP and GM, told VentureBeat, “The key for me [is that] the metaverse is going to need more 3D content. It’s going to need an extraordinary increase in the number of people capable of building in 3D. From a Unity perspective, we really started thinking hard about how we could build something that democratizes content creation.”
Under the deal, Unity is obtaining the Weta Digital suite of VFX tools and technology and its team of 275 engineers, who will join Unity’s Create Solutions division. WetaFX remains a standalone entity (under majority ownership of Jackson and led by CEO Prem Akkaraju) and Unity’s largest customer.
Whitten added, “You had this set of people who had built the most spectacular tools ever for 3D content creation that had never been productized, and then you had Unity, where our bread and butter is packaging and democratizing tools and making them more accessible.”
“Industry observers viewed the buy as a shrewd move by Unity to make gains in the rapidly evolving area of virtual production — a term that describes techniques that enable real-time visual effects production and may include technologies such as LED walls,” Carolyn Giardina, tech editor at The Hollywood Reporter, said of the deal. “Most major VFX companies such as Weta, as well as the likes of Netflix and other entities, are exploring or investing in virtual production.”
“This whole space is exploding,” Whitten told her. “This is the beginning… I hope something you see, is a substantial shift in our position and our kind of level of commitment to Hollywood and the industry.”
Weta Digital’s tools provide a range of features including advanced facial capture and manipulation, anatomical modeling, advance simulation and deformation of objects in movement, and procedural hair and fur modeling. All told, Weta Digital’s software assets comprise some 50 million lines of computer code.
More prosaically, IndieWire suggests that means the “secret sauce” behind the facial capture of Caesar will now become more widely available, along with the rendering capabilities of Manuka and Gazebo, the physics-based simulation Loki tool for water and smoke, the Barbershop hair and fur system, the CityBuilder world-building tool, and a Weta VFX asset library in the thousands.
According to Akkaraju, Weta Digital previously evaluated commercializing the tools itself but concluded that selling the technology assets to Unity was the best way to bring them to market.
“There was a gigantic demand for artists and these services that were driven by Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and all the major studios,” he told IndieWire. “But there were so many restraints on specialized hardware and a lot of licenses, and, by putting it in the cloud, you don’t need all these licenses by providing end-to-end service.
“We looked for a partner that could actually bring these tools to life, and fill up the gap between the demand and the supply in the film [and TV] business. Then beyond that, it gets significantly larger as you go into consumer products and you start thinking about this as being the new creation device of 3D content rather than what it is today, which is more 2D content.”
READ MORE: What the New Weta Digital/Unity Metaverse Alliance Means for VFX, Animation, and Gaming (IndieWire)
Weta already has an arrangement with Amazon AWS to create a cloud-based VFX workflow, and has also signed cloud-services bundling deals for Autodesk’s Maya and SideFX’s Houdini.
Unity now intends to offer these tools in a cloud-based Software-as-a-Service subscription model to build on the more than five billion downloads of its apps per month that Unity claims it received in 2020.
According to Bay Raitt, principal of UX design at Unity (and formerly an animator at Weta), Weta Digital’s tools, “have been kind of landlocked inside of Weta,” he told Variety, but with cloud-based access, “You can essentially spin up the Weta workstation and summon the power of thousands of computers from anywhere.”
If the deal can help bring down the cost of virtual production content creation, by providing competition to Unreal for example, all well and good. It could also help to bridge the skills gap between traditional content production and the emerging disciplines of real-time digital production, photographing virtual assets live on LED screens and integrating game engine technologies into VFX pipelines.
READ MORE: Peter Jackson Selling Weta Digital’s VFX Tech Division to Unity for $1.625 Billion (Variety)
When it comes to the metaverse, though, there are dissenting voices skeptical of the whole enterprise and its trillion dollar valuation. Rob Fahey worries that vast amounts of time, money and effort are being thrown at a “massively hyped venture” — the metaverse — that ultimately ends up changing very little about how people interact with their hardware devices, with the Internet, or with one another, because the necessary groundwork hasn’t been done.
“It’s great that Unity is doing some blue-sky thinking about the metaverse and the tools it might require,” he writes in Games Industry, “but companies that can’t afford to spend billions should be far more circumspect, especially since the real value of Weta Digital to Unity is almost certainly going to end up being far closer to its own wheelhouse than to Zuckerberg’s grand and nebulous plans.”