Game-engine maker Unity Technologies is doubling down on Hollywood: Unity announced the intent to acquire the New Zealand-based visual effects powerhouse Weta Digital for $1.625 billion in cash and stock Tuesday afternoon. The acquisition is poised to transform Unity into one of the biggest players in visual effects for blockbuster films and accelerate Hollywood's transition to virtual production and real-time technology.
Unity's acquisition of Weta includes the company's visual effects tools and pipeline, which have been used to produce effects for many of Hollywood's biggest hits, including "Avatar," "The Hunger Games," "The Lord of the Rings," "Game of Thrones" and much of the Marvel cinematic universe. Also joining Unity are 275 of Weta's engineers; in addition, Unity is acquiring Weta's data and SaaS cloud businesses as well as a large library of visual effects assets.
Not included is Weta Digital's core visual effects business; the company's visual effects artists will instead be working under the roof of a newly formed entity called WetaFX, which is being led by Weta Digital's current CEO Prem Akkaraju. The two companies will continue to work together closely, and WetaFX will become one of Unity's biggest entertainment industry customers.
This means that not much will change for Hollywood when the acquisition closes later this year. Studios will still rely on WetaFX artists to create "Avengers"-scale fight scenes and other visual effects — only, the tools used to create these effects will be owned and developed by Unity.
In the long run, however, the deal could be transformational for both major studios and the entertainment industries at large. Unity plans to directly integrate Weta's visual effects tools with its own platform, which could make it easier to transition from existing workflows to a real time-centric production approach.
Unity SVP Marc Whitten told Protocol Tuesday afternoon that this process would have to be gradual. "This isn't about, 'You should stop using Maya and do Unity.' That would be a crazy idea, because that's not how artists work," Whitten said. "We want to make how they work even easier, even better, and more productive."
Key to that is the cloud, according to Whitten. "I believe very strongly that the future is a cloud-based pipeline for art creation," he said. Unity plans to make Weta's tools available through the cloud, which could allow creators from outside of the traditional studio ecosystem to have access to the very same effects tools used for major Hollywood blockbusters.
Whitten linked this directly to a growing need for 3D assets in a variety of industries, which he argued could only be addressed by targeting a broader set of creatives. "That means that you have to make the current professional artists more productive, and you have to make it accessible for a new set of people from the prosumer side," he said.
Weta already took some first steps toward broadening access to its tools when it launched its WetaM SaaS division earlier this year. "Our ultimate goal is democratization of visual effects production," Akkaraju told Protocol at the time.
That sentiment was echoed by Jackson himself Tuesday. "Weta Digital's tools created unlimited possibilities for us to bring to life the worlds and creatures that originally lived in our imaginations," Jackson was quoted saying in a release announcing the deal. "Offering aspiring creatives access to Weta Digital's technology will be nothing short of game-changing."
Update: This post was updated Nov. 9 with additional commentary from Unity SVP Marc Whitten.