Beaver County native wins fourth Oscar for visual effects
Aliquippa native Joe Letteri earned his fourth Oscar for Best Visual Effects on Sunday, but it was no less thrilling than the first, he said Wednesday.
“It’s always nice to win, whether it’s the first or the fourth,” he said. “It’s nice to get together with everyone that has been nominated. There was a lot of good work out there.”
Letteri, 52, a 1975 graduate of Center Area High School in Beaver County, was part of a team that won the Oscar for special effects on “Avatar.” The groundbreaking movie, directed by James Cameron, depicted the alien world Pandora, where humans want to expand their mining colony into the land of the native Na’vi clan.
Reached by telephone at his home in New Zealand after a day of traveling from Los Angeles, Letteri said “Avatar” presented “a whole new range of challenges” in its blend of live action and a virtual fantasy reality in three dimensions.
“Most of the (technical) barriers have been knocked down with this movie,” Letteri said.
Letteri, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, worked at Industrial Light & Magic, the California special-effects company of “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, before director Peter Jackson hired him to work on the second “Lord of the Rings” movie, “The Twin Towers.”
Letteri won his first special effects Oscar for “The Twin Towers” and followed it up with Academy Awards for the third movie in the “Lord of the Rings” triology, “The Return of the King,” and the remake of “King Kong.”
The Weta team and Letteri are known in the film industry for their expertise in creating virtual landscapes and in capture-motion technology. The motion technology uses sensors attached to a real actor’s face and body to transmit data to a computer. Technicians use the computerized motion data to create the realistic motions of fantasy characters like the Na’vi, King Kong, and Gollum, the ring-obsessed villain in “Lord of the Rings.” The team also created the entire fantasy world of Pandora, with its floating mountains, luminescent seed pods and charging hammerhead rhinos.
While Letteri and the rest of the special effects team won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, the movie did not win Best Picture award, though it was nominated.
“We were all hoping we’d win Best Picture. So many people around the world were embracing it so wholeheartedly,” Letteri said. The film has become the highest-grossing movie of all time in North America.
But Letteri’s parents were nevertheless pleased.
“We were all so very thrilled with his receiving the Oscar,” said his mother, Gilda Letteri, who watched the ceremony on television with Joe, her husband and Letteri’s father, and their neighbors and friends in Center.
The Oscar winner was unable to visit his parents during this trip back to the United States, but the ceremony was still a family affair because he and his wife, Abby, brought their daughter, Sophia, 11. “It was a great experience,” he said. Now back in New Zealand, Letteri’s work will continue on other projects: “Tintin,” based on a series of Belgian comic books, and “The Hobbit,” the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings.”