Behind the Scenes with Joe Weidenbach

Published on August 24, 2018

Tanya Buchanan Recruitment Manager at Weta Digital

Joe Weidenbach is a Senior Creature Puppet TD. In addition to his day-to-day work at Weta, Joe teaches at the Victoria University Miramar Creative Centre.

Tell us a bit about your background. How did you first get started in VFX?

Weta’s actually my first experience with professional VFX, although I’ve been shooting both practical and digital effects since I was 10 and my best friend got a super 8 camera.

I started out studying aerospace engineering (I stopped when I found out that I’d most likely be designing brake lines or studying shear strength on bolts or rivets instead of designing planes and helicopters), and then moved to computer science. My department started offering electives in computer animation just prior to the release of Fellowship of the Ring, and I took the class and realised that’s what I needed to be doing.

Five years and a different school for my bachelor’s in animation later, I got into casino gaming (slot machines/video poker) as a multimedia artist creating rapid prototypes in Flash. Eventually that migrated into Unity development as a technical artist, and I ended up working at several independent game studios developing pipelines, shaders, and rigs before coming to Weta to join the Production Engineering department.

Parallel to my work on gaming, I taught University courses in animation and game design for about eight years before moving to New Zealand. All in all, it took about 15 years from the idea’s inception, but it’s been a good move.

What are your roles at Weta Digital? What does a typical day look like?

I’m currently a developer on the Puppet team in Creatures. We develop components for Creature TDs to integrate in animation puppets, primarily using the Koru framework.

We’re a small team, so my day could be spent tracing bugs that have been uncovered by animators, or developing new tech that we want to use for future shows. It’s very collaborative.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work at Weta?

I’d say mostly the bleeding-edge quality of the development (which is also my favourite bit). So much of everything we do is based on custom technology, so it’s very difficult to apply previous experience or familiarity with the existing framework to get going. At the same time, that also is exciting, because it means we’re on the cutting edge, and it’s fun to actually develop new tech rather than just maintaining existing tools all the time.

How did you get involved with the Victoria University/Weta Digital partnership?

I was on the Visual Effects Society Board with Doug Easterly, who is the head of the School of Design at Victoria. He and Kevin Romond have been working for several years to create this partnership, and Kevin knew my background from when I started at Weta in Production Engineering. Kevin recommended me, and since Doug knew me he reached out to see if I was interested in being part of the programme.

What are some of the long-term goals for the programme? What are the implications for Weta?

The biggest piece of this is that we have instructors that come from Weta directly teaching these students in real-world techniques and work flows. We have a full motion-capture stage at the campus, along with solid cameras and film equipment. Additionally, the film and music students have facilities in the same building in Miramar, so we’re able to create collaborative projects that can have professional results.

For Weta Digital, this is a local source of potential talent, and from what I’ve seen of the students so far, it’s pretty promising.

What is the best part about working with young creatives?

When they “get it”. Seeing that light bulb turn on when they understand difficult concepts is really rewarding. I tend to teach pretty technical courses (last year I taught creative coding, and this year I’m teaching rigging and simulation), so there’s a fine line to walk in needing to convey highly technical information in an artist-friendly manner. When students understand something though, especially topics that are as difficult as what I tend to cover, it feels really good.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?

When I’m not in the middle of a course, I tend to focus on my other interests (texture painting, lighting, and games). I also tend to have a few indie game ideas in various states of development that I like to work on. I’m also active on the Board of the Visual Effects Society, which keeps me busy.

Outside of technical stuff, I like cooking (American barbecue with lots of slow-smoked meats, spice rubs and slather sauces), and hanging out with my wife and our cat.

Thanks Joe!