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Unity and Weta: the deal of the Year

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Unity and Weta Digital announce a historic deal.

Unity will spend $1.625 billion to acquire the tools, core pipeline, IP and engineering teams of Weta Digital (275 engineers).

The VFX studio will keep working on films and will remain independant, under the name WetaFX. WetaFX will also become the main M&E customer of Unity.

Tools for the world

The main takeaway of this deal is the fact that tools only used at Weta until now will be available to a wider audience. These tools include:

  • Manuka, “the flagship path-tracing renderer used to generate final frames and is able to produce physically accurate results based upon specific spectral lighting profiles.”
  • Gazebo, “the core interactive renderer used for viewing scenes in real time with visual fidelity inside any pipeline attached application. Since the Gazebo real-time rendering of the 3D viewport approaches the same results from Manuka, artists can iterate in context of the final frame regardless of which application they use. Gazebo is also the core of the production pipeline for pre-visualization and virtual production workflows.”
  • Loki “provides physics-based simulation of visual effects including water, fire, smoke, hair, cloth, muscles, and plants. Physical accuracy for complex simulations is delivered through the use of cross-domain coupling and high-accuracy numerical solvers.”
  • Physically-based workflows: “Tools including PhysLight, PhysCam, and HDRConvert provide the foundation for lighting and color workflows. Using these tools, artists can create spectral-based lighting and accurately replicate effects of different lenses, sensors, and other parts of the pipeline, resulting in a physically accurate rendering workflow for both Gazebo and Manuka.”
  • Koru, “an advanced puppet rigging system optimized for speed and multi-character performance. Using Koru, technical directors and developers can create constraints, rigs, deformers, and puppets to support high-performance animation, cloth simulation, and similar applications.”
  • Facial Tech which “provides advanced facial capture and manipulation workflows, using machine learning to support direct manipulation of facial muscles and transferring actor face capture onto a target (puppet) model.”
  • Barbershop, “a suite of tools for hair and fur that supports the entire workflow from growth through grooming. Artists can use a combination of procedural and artist-guided tools to grow hair and fur, adjust growth patterns, and groom the final model. Advanced procedural tools support concepts such as braided hair, and the resulting models are simulation-ready to provide realistic dynamics resulting from motion and wind.”
  • Tissue, a tool which “enables artists and animators to create biologically accurate anatomical character models that accurately represent behaviors of muscle and skin, and transfer the resulting characters into simulation tools.”
  • Apteryx which “provides artists with a complete workflow starting with procedural generation of feathers, hand sculpting, and grooming for animated feathered creatures and costumes.”
  • World Building: “These tools include Scenic Designer and Citybuilder to support world building, layout, and set dressing ranging from planet-scale to small-scale scenes. With these tools, artists can procedurally create scenes with node graphs, place content programmatically, and manually adjust placement.”
  • Lumberjack “provides the core toolset for vegetation and includes modeling, editing, and deformation tools. Using Lumberjack, artists can author and edit plant topology including animated geometry, manage levels of detail, instancing, and variability among individual assets.”
  • Totara, “a procedural growth and simulation system for vegetation and biomes that integrates with Lumberjack to create large-scale and complex scenes procedurally. Using Totara, artists can grow individual trees and entire forest biomes, grow other vegetation such as vines, adjust growth parameters and control biomechanics, add snow cover, and reduce the complexity and size of scenes.”
  • Eddy, “an advanced liquid, smoke and fire compositing plug-in for refining volumetric effects. Eddy allows artists to generate new, high-quality fluid simulations and render them directly inside their compositing environment.”
  • Production Review tools.
  • “Live viewing tools support the mixing of computer-generated (CG) content in real-time with on-set camera feeds. These tools support live mixing for on-set viewing, live compositing of CG elements onto chromakey or other CG elements, depth-based live compositing and projection of face capture onto a motion capture puppet.”
  • Projector, “a production tool supporting scheduling, resourcing, and prediction, with controls for data access and analytics to improve production decision-making.”

Unity explains that these tools will, at some point in the future, be available for every artist/studio, combined with a cloud platform.

Moreover, Unity insists that you won’t have to leave behind all your current tools: “Our intent is to […] ensure they easily integrate with the workflows artists already use. It should be easy to take advantage of these advanced capabilities directly in the digital content creation (DCC) tools such as Maya and Houdini; and it should be easy to move and manipulate content into the Unity engine and more. you will be able to use the DCC canvas you already know and love, get access to a growing set of incredibly powerful tools used in movies like Avatar and Wonder Woman, and get incredible content from our content library to fulfill your vision.”

Another major point: Unity acquired the asset library from Weta Digital, which includes “urban and natural environments, flora and fauna, humans, man-made objects, materials, textures, and more”. This asset library will be available as well. Even better: WetaFX will keep feeding the library when working on upcoming movies and TV shows.

What about the VFX studio?

As we explained, the VFX team (around 1700 people) will remain independant, under the name WetaFX. And will use Unity tools. Peter Jackson will own the majority of WetaFX.

Not so fast

This $1.625 billion deal will be paid using a combination of cash and stock. Weta Digital CEO Prem Akkaraju will remain at the head of WetaFX. Joe Marks, CTO at Weta, will join Unity as CTO of Weta Digital.

The acquisition should close before the end of 2021 and is subject to regulatory approvals.

What do we think?

This deal will have a lasting impact on the whole digital creation world. Regular announcements by Unreal might have given the impression to some that Unity would slowly fade away: it now seems obvious that Unity has no intention of giving up. Quite the opposite.

With this acquisition, Unity stands alongside companies dominating the M&E/VFX industries such as Autodesk, SideFX, Foundry.

We now have to wait until these tools are available. Unity will of course need to tweak at least some of them: tools used only in a single studio are usually finely tailored to specific needs. The fact that the engineering team from Weta has joined Unity will, of course, be a key element of this process.

From a financial perspective, Unity will diversify its source of income. The company should therefore be stronger and more resilient.

From a studio perspective, this announcement is probably very good news: competition is always beneficial to customers, and they will have more tools to choose from.

Fore more information, you can check out the official announcement at Unity, and watch the videos in which the Unity & Weta Teams, including Peter Jackson, explain the move.

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