Behind the Scenes with Stuart Adcock

Published on August 21, 2023

Susie Kleis LinkedIn Project Manager at Wētā FX

Stuart Adcock talks to us about his career path and the challenges and rewards that come with his role as the Head of Facial Motion department.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into VFX?

I studied Computer Animation at Bournemouth University in the UK. In my final year, Playstation set a competition to design, model and animate a video game character. I was lucky enough to win this competition and a job offer at Sony Playstation. I started working for them as soon as I graduated. I ended up working in video games for 15 years, but I always had the intention to work in VFX one day. I started a position at ILM based on my video game experience with facial motion capture and real time graphics. My long term goal was to come to Weta and gaining experience at ILM helped me get here.

Back in 2006, I came to NZ as the client for the video game ‘Heavenly Sword’ with Andy Serkis who recommended we use Weta to help us pioneer the use of full performance capture in a video game. We spent 8 weeks in the motion capture stage at Weta. I knew then that I wanted to return to Weta. I took a week off after the shoot, hired a car and travelled around the South Island. I discovered how stunningly beautiful the country was and knew it was a place I wanted to return to at some point.

When and why did you join the Wētā FX team?

I was at ILM for 3.5 years supervising a research project to do real time facial capture. That was a 2 year project. At the time, I was keen to get working on a film and supervise the facial performances as previous to that in games, I was an Art Director. I was lucky that ILM gave me the opportunity to do that on a number of films, including Episode 8 and Ready Player One. I had a long term contact who had returned to Weta and recommended me for this role. It seemed like the perfect role had suddenly become available, and when does that ever happen! I had a good idea of what I could bring to the role and was sure it would be a great opportunity. I was really keen to work on the Avatar sequels, and to be inspired and led by Joe Letteri was a big attraction.

What does your role as Head of Facial Motion entail?

For any show that requires facial animation, there will be a facial motion individual or team associated with that show. The special thing about Weta is that they have identified two very specific ‘Facial Motion’ and ‘Facial Modelling’ teams which are considered as being a part of our identity for the character work we do at Weta. To produce high end facial animation with a very specialised team. Our clients come to Weta to get the best possible emotionally engaging performances and Weta has created two specialised departments for this. My role is to oversee the work and team from show to show. Including dailies sessions, reviewing artists work, reviewing facial puppets and ensuring we have the best tools to do our job, mentor the team and make sure the right people are on the right projects to maximise efficiencies, and the end results. Ultimately the goal is to make the world’s best facial performances and that’s what drives me every day.

What parts of your job do you find the most challenging and the most rewarding?

The most challenging part of the job is that all departments need to be in sync for the end goal and work together. Strong communication between departments is essential. We have to be really clear with our requirements and work together across departments. We can’t lose sight of the creative goal. To capture the essence of an actor’s performance and portraying that as a character or creature is equally challenging, often a great mix of art and science. The most rewarding aspect is seeing the team thrive and enjoying their work. When the shots start to get finalled, you know you are creating something special, that is a great feeling. We tend to work on complex projects so we are always pushing boundaries in our field.

What are the commonly asked questions that you get asked from candidates who want to know more about working at Weta?

Lots of people ask about what Wētā FX does to help transition the move overseas. I was so impressed about my experience that it was very easy to talk about it. They pick you up from the airport, give you a hotel for two weeks, a car (and driving lessons if you aren’t used to driving on the left side of the road).

Many people who worked in London aren’t contractors (self employed), so that was a big question, and giving them more insight on how to use that to your advantage. Being a contractor, you manage your own time. Some people might want to take a long weekend but make up the hours during the week. Others might want to go surfing at lunchtime and make up the hours in the evening. You get paid by the hour, but the hours can be flexible to suit your lifestyle. One misconception is that you don’t get paid for your lunch break, but you do. There has been a huge change over the past 4-5 years to improve work life balance. Your hours are capped and although that can change based on project targets, the hours are nowhere near what they used to be.

I often get asked about the structure of Weta. As we are department based, you are always surrounded by like minded senior people in your area of expertise, which really helps you learn from those around you, even while enjoying a cup of tea. While others around you might be tackling problems on different shows, you are able to solve them together. Department production managers work with the shows to help facilitate and support the crew, which really helps make you feel looked after and not pulled in different directions.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the Facial Motion department at Weta?

Don’t be afraid to apply! The work in our team spans from very technical to some of the best creative eyes in the business. If you are able to demonstrate you fit somewhere on that scale and you have a passion for facial animation, then that’s the kind of people we are looking for.

What do you love most about living and working in Wellington?

I love the fact that my commute to work is 6 minutes (literally a 6 minute cycle!) and in my lunch break I can be by the sea enjoying the fresh air. While it’s smaller than London, you can keep yourself very busy in Wellington. It has meant I have been able to take advantage of all the things I couldn’t do in London and has resulted in a higher quality of life, and something I’m not looking to change. I have a beautiful sea view from where I live. I’ve taken up surfing, spearfishing, mountain biking, motorcycling and I’ve got my eyes set on sailing. Wellington is a charming city. I love hanging out at the Chocolate Fish cafe at my lunch break for a fish sarnie. My favourite restaurant is ‘Bambuchi’ in Hataitai, the dishes are quirky, original and so delicious. The menu always has something new from the talented chef and he often takes the time to talk you through his ideas.

-Thanks Stuart!