Chris White has always been interested in the intersection of art and computer technology: he just never imagined it could turn into such a rewarding career. As a visual effects artist and supervisor, White has spent nearly the last two decades based out of New Zealand after finding a home of likeminded visionaries at Weta Digital in Wellington. With two Academy Award nominations to his name for his work on Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011) and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), he has been there for some of the most significant technical breakthroughs in movie history: whether that’s legacy franchises like Star Wars and Jurassic Park, or game changers like The Lord Of The Rings and Avatar. From getting “very lucky” by being in the right place at the right time to begin his career to becoming world renowned for his attention to detail, White has helped bring entirely new worlds into existence … and distort the ones we already know with terrifying results.
White was studying art and computer sciences in California when he got his break, the field of interest to him after developing a passion for computer graphics. An intern at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) – the historic visual effects house founded by George Lucas – he was working on the perfect project at the perfect time. “I was developing these tornado type structures in virtual reality,” he says. “It was at the perfect time when they did Twister (1996). So I ended up doing an internship and working through the code to make the tornados.” The 1996 film was a massive hit, becoming the second highest-grossing movie of that year only behind Independence Day (1996) and its realistic creation of tornado effects earning an Academy Award nomination. White says his interest in the field was “immediate”, especially at that period during the mid-to-late 90s. “They were doing such cutting-edge stuff at the time,” he recalls. “I was in the field of doing destruction and physical effects and in terms of computer graphics – which was still in the early days then - they were doing ground-breaking work. I was immediately hooked! Coming straight out of school, there was so much I learned from those supervisors and that environment.”
Many of those supervisors would become White’s fulltime bosses after his ILM internship led to a fulltime job with the company and a career in the field of visual effects. There was still extensive work being done with models and miniatures in blockbusters as well, meaning that he had to opportunity to learn from “people who had worked on films going back to the original Star Wars”.
“At the time we did feel like these are some new things that we’re trying,” he says. “I think that was the exciting part about it: there was no road map on how to create some of these effects… I remember my very first day I was waiting as an intern and they took me to where they were doing dailies for another film and I sat and watched the elephant stomping on the cars in Jumanji (1995). I was like how did they get the elephant I just – I was blown away! I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, it was such a new thing.”
White – who was based near San Francisco – had no intention to end up on the other side of the world working with Peter Jackson. His first priority was finishing school and completing his master’s degree, which he had to put on hold when he was employed at ILM and began working in the industry on films such as The Perfect Storm (2000), Men in Black II (2002), the Jurassic Park sequels (1997–2001) and Star Wars prequels (1999–2005).
Yet while on Twister, White made friends with several artists who had just returned from working on The Frighteners (1996) in New Zealand. It was five-time Academy Award-wining visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, who White had collaborated closely with at ILM, who finally lured him to “come down” to Aotearoa when he left for production on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. “I fell in love with the country and we’ve stayed ever since,” laughs White. “Some 17 years later or something.”
Now based out of Wellington at Weta’s headquarters, he says one of the big highlights has been working with Jackson who’s “just one of those directors”. “I think a lot of it is what you learn from him in terms of narrative,” says White. “He’s explaining when you’re doing a visual effect why it’s important and why it’s important for the story. It’s not only just that we’re doing ground-breaking stuff, but it was also to fulfil that narrative, so you’re constantly learning something new as you’re producing that work – it wasn’t just from a technical level.”
With sci-fi and fantasy both having “equal influence” for White growing up, he couldn’t have found a better place than Weta Digital who have become the world leaders in cinematic visions of both. “It’s hard to describe,” he says of The Lord Of The Rings. “It was so grand but also so beautifully done, it just pulled me in as the type of film you wanted to see as you were reading the books.”
The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King (2003) and Avatar (2009) are two of the highest-grossing films of all time and both titles White worked on in his early days at the company, along with King Kong (2005) which was a landmark moment and one of his “most memorable”. “The big thing was creating New York for King Kong,” says White, with that project taking two years in-and-of itself. “It was such a big task because we had to regenerate the entire city and we had to come up with new software just to build every building from scratch. We thought we’d be able to use a lot of modern New York, but they’d changed so much since the 30s. We even had our research team there that were finding photographs and digging up old maps. It was a huge historical project because Peter (Jackson) wanted the skyline to be as accurate as possible to what it was at the time.” It became a massive “research project and a big software project” as the team had to generate 60,000 buildings on the island of Manhattan and 100,000 in total.
It’s this skillset that “really drew” White to Weta, with their attention to detail on seemingly minute elements impacting those on a much bigger scale within the same film. On The Hobbit trilogy he served as visual effects supervisor, taking that same meticulous approach with real-world New York in King Kong to an entirely manufactured one from J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. “I’ve always been drawn to creating different worlds and tended towards those type of sequences where you’re looking at something you’ve never seen before,” says White. “That’s why working on the goblin caverns in The Hobbit, a lot of stuff would be about how they’re constructed, why the rocks are formed a certain way… same thing with Lake Town being on a lake and the structure and the shape of the wood and what they’re made of.” Discussions with Jackson – and all of the filmmakers they work with – are a key part of how and why Weta are so good, not to mention conversations with the concept artists and designers who help infuse the imagined worlds with a sense of reality that has captured millions of imaginations.
“Even with the artwork, I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I’ve always enjoyed working at Weta because there’s a lot of discussion behind why certain things are created,” says White. “In terms of history, we discuss not just how a thing looks a certain way, but how the thing works, the history of it, every optic, every detail has a history to it and that feeds into how we design and create things.”