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'Chappie': How to Build a Cooler Robot

Director Neill Blomkamp tells us how he created the multidimensional star of his new movie ‘Chappie’

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Frank Ockenfels III

The action dramedy Chappie is a Pinocchio-esque coming-of-age story about a boy searching for acceptance in a hostile world. He’s a self-identified “black sheep” who thinks and feels—but also happens to be a bulletproof police robot. Co-written and directed by South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp of District 9 fame, the movie showcases a motion-capture performance by Sharlto Copley (Elysium) as the artificial-intelligence-enhanced hero who gets kidnapped by gangsters and reluctantly groomed for a life of crime. But it was an intercontinental collaboration between the Canadian visual-effects house Image Engine and New Zealand’s Oscar-winning Weta Workshop that coaxed maximum humanity—and, ergo, audience identification—out of Blomkamp’s titanium topliner.

“You’re framing close-ups on his face and treating him like he’s Robert De Niro,” says Blomkamp. “He basically is the lead actor of the movie.” Here’s how they did it:

Frank Ockenfels III

1. Turning Japanese: A robotic riot cop suddenly capable of painting and poetry, Chappie expresses emotion two ways: through winglike ears that rise and fall with his feelings, and metal bars on his eyebrows and chin. “A lot of Japanese-animation robots have those ears,” says Blomkamp. “It feels like a piece of Western robotics with a slight Japanese twist.”

2. Lighting the way: Except for a sequence when Chappie gets angry, the windows to his soul remain an impassive bank of light-emitting diodes. “You could do anything with a panel of LEDs, so I never wanted to cheat,” the director says. “The less expressive his face is, the more emotional it could become. The audience will project what they’re feeling onto the creature.”

3. Getting kneecapped: With most movie CGI bots—think Transformers or Terminators—fantasy trumps functionality. Not so with Chappie. Blomkamp spent six months working with F/X techs to create 3-D models that could “mimic human mobility and look extremely realistic.” The director’s marching orders: “Lock the aesthetics in, then let real engineering—function—take over form.” Exhibit A: the robot’s double-jointed knees.

4. Keep it Hyperreal: To help make Chappie look and feel real, the filmmakers designed him as if he came off an assembly line, with mass-produced parts. “A robotic police officer is a ridiculous concept,” Blomkamp says. “If you accept that the root concept is ridiculous, then it’s interesting to try to make that hyperreal. The mundaneness is more appealing than the spectacle.”

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