Under the Radar

Bringing a Robot to Life in 'Chappie'

Film Review Chappie

Chappie is the latest sci-fi feature from director Neill Blomkamp, who made two of the best sci-fi films of the last few years, District 9 and Elysium. Both films featured strong performances from actor Sharlto Copley, whose performance provides the basis for the robot at the center of the new movie.

The new movie tells the story of a police droid who develops consciousnesses after he's stolen and reprogrammed. The powers that be can't bear the idea of a robot who can think and feel, so a manhunt ensues. The film also stars Hugh Jackman, Dev Patel, Sigourney Weaver and NINJA and ¥O-LANDI VI$$ER, the rappers from notorious South African group Die Antwoord.

Military.com talked to Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Harvey, who gave us some insight into the combination of practical and digital effects that brought Chappie to life. Harvey has been the behind the effects of some of our favorite movies of the last few years, including Zero Dark Thirty, Fast & Furious 6 and Battleship.

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A lot of our readers appreciated your work on "Zero Dark Thirty." Talk about the effects shots in that movie.

The big thing we did in that film was the helicopters. You know I would say probably 95 percent of the time you see part of the stealth Hawks, the image was digital.

We filmed with actual real Black Hawks on location out in Jordan. You get a much better actor performance when a real helicopter is coming down on them fast and blowing dust around it. It feels much more authentic than just looking up to an empty sky. That was one big reason, but the other reason was that environment interactions that the helicopter would create on the set.

Even though we knew it was going to be quite a bit of work to have the practical Black Hawk that was in camera, the tradeoff was worth it, just by the performances, camera framing, and the environmental interactions. We put our digital effects in on top of that and then augmented a lot of the dust to help everything really, really fit.

Film Review Chappie

It’s interesting how practical effects can make digital effects seem more realistic. That seems like that was a big part of what you were trying to do with "Chappie" as well.

If you can film it for real, I always try to film for real. As good as our tools and as good as the digital effects artists are, there's something to be said for real life. So if you can shoot something for real, even just a piece of it, it will really help sell the shot and make it feel more grounded.

On Chappie, we didn't shy away from having people touching him or from the robot interacting with things. The more practical, physical interaction, the better. We always obviously had Sharlto or a stunt performer on set performing Chappie, so there was really someone there doing what he was doing in every shot. All of those things really, really help make it look real. Nothing in Chappie was shot on green screen. All of it was actual, real locations.

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When you were doing the research to put together a robot like this, did you think about how far we are from having robots who can perform these tasks? And are we anywhere close to having artificial intelligence that can function like what we see in the movie?

Well, in terms of just the mechanics of it, I actually don’t think we're probably that far away from being able to use robots. We spent eight months in developing Chappie before we went to camera, and that was a huge amount of time spent in locomotion and the way he could move and the articulation of the joints and how the joints setup would work and sort of map Sharlto's performance.

There was really no cheating in his design. Everything that we designed had to be there for a functional reason and it had to actually, theoretically really function. You know there's no cheating where a joint couldn’t really move like it does onscreen. Everything is based on real world mechanical components from other places in the world, whether that be the manufacturing assembly line world or something like high-end research that Boston Dynamics was doing. Fundamentally, in terms of how he could move, I think you could build a robot right now that did that.

In terms of the artificial intelligence side of it, that’s a whole other question. You know he is portrayed the film as truly conscious. I don’t know that I could answer how close we are to that. It's an interesting question. Part of what the film does is question what consciousness is. You even have to question yourself as a human. What does it mean to be human?

Film Review Chappie

How much of what you accomplished in this film with visual effects could you have done five years ago or ten years ago or twenty years ago? How quickly is the technology changing in your business?

The technology is changing ridiculously fast in visual effects. There's new technologies, new research happening all of the time, and it's something that you really do have to stay abreast of.

In this industry is we really do like our toys and our gadgets and we like to play with the latest things, but sometimes it's easy to overlook to the tried and true. In this film, we actually moved away from some of the latest technology, especially in terms of motion capture.

This isn't a motion capture film, like everyone thinks it is. Yes, Sharlto did wear a grey suit and he did perform Chappie and does perform Chappie, but that footage wasn’t automatically acquired and then remapped under a digital skeleton. Rather, we just took his performance as one to one reference and the animators hand-keyframed on top of it to match and mimic his performance. So the performance is still true to Sharlto's performance, but it wasn’t an automatic process. We chose to do it by hand for the movie.

On other side of the coin, some of the latest technology was necessary to make this movie. You know it's a thousand shots of an elite actor in a film that are all digital. You know just the amount of data that that required, the data management was phenomenal. That’s not something we could have done even a couple of years ago. The shading and lighting algorithms are very much the latest and the greatest that is out there. All of those things help to really sell it as being real.

How does somebody go about getting your job, what kind of training do you need, and what's your advice for somebody looking to get into your business?

Obviously look around and see what local schools are out there. There's also some really, really good online schools that have just some phenomenal training. The other thing that I’d really encourage them to do is to check out the software out there. Most of it has free educational properties that are available to everyone. Get different CGI software, start playing with it, and really get active on the forums. You know it's actually a pretty small community and it's a community that’s pretty remarkable in terms of how giving and sharing it is. People really like to help each other out.

You'll go onto a forum and, you never know, you might be talking to the guy that’s one of the main guys developing the new Star Wars. They're just as happy to help you out as the next guy. So really get involved in those online communities. People are out there and they're happy to answer questions and really help if they see that you’ve got that self-drive and motivation.

That guy might then say, “Hey, why don’t you come work with me at wherever I'm working?” It’s a pretty small world, so it's just a matter of really getting out there and getting involved.

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