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Each new movie that comes out from Peter Jackson’s visual effects workshop Weta Digital seems to showcase some breathtaking new effect that pushes out the boundaries of what can be achieved with visual effects.

Sebastian Sylwan

Sebastian Sylwan

With the Lord of the Rings films, it was the particularly clever use of motion capture to create the eerily realistic movements of Gollum, played terrifically by Andy Serkis.

In King Kong, motion capture was again used to great effect, but some of the real advances came in the form of complex algorithms that allowed hair to move on Kong’s body more convincingly than it had in CGI movies previously. Some clever software was also designed to flesh out the computer model of Manhattan, taking buildings and randomising them to avoid programmers having to design each building individually. Avatar looks set to continue the trend.

Much of the R&D underpinning such developments keep Weta at the cutting edge of the visual effects game and therefore, keeping these techniques close to its chest in a cut-throat market would seem to be fairly important.

But in the same way that Weta has learnt from the considerable body of research published by academia on computer graphics, it now plans to boost the industry’s knowledge of CG itself but publishing papers in academic journals outlining research it has undertaken.

Speaking over the weekend at the hugely interesting Animfx conference, Weta’s head of research and development, Sebastian Sylwan, said the first piece of Weta R&D to be published would feature as part of the proceedings of Siggraph Asia 2009, the major computer graphics conference taking place in Japan in December.

Sylwan, formerly a senior manager at computer graphic design software maker Autodesk, told me that the plan was to begin publishing Weta-originated research in academic journals. Where appropriate, developments will be open-sourced to improve visual effects industry techniques.

Sylwan was brought onboard at Weta to head up an R&D team dedicated to coming up with new innovations to enhance Weta’s upcoming slate of films.

He said Weta was also ramping up its involvement with New Zealand universities to collaborate on R&D projects, with discussions already underway with Otago, Massey and Canterbury universities and AUT.

Sylwan was interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand recently – here’s the interview with him.

Myself and colleague Aimee Whitcroft were also tweeting from Animfx via Idealog’s twitter stream. Check out the tweets here (#animfx)