fxguide: The practical and digital tech behind Chappie

IAN FAILES | FXGUIDE.COM | MARCH 8, 2015 | Original Article


When director Neill Blomkamp seemingly burst onto the scene in 2009 with District 9, he had already demonstrated his deftness at making raw sci-fi with several short films. Tetra Vaal (2004), for instance, introduced a law enforcement robot amongst the slums of Johannesburg. With Chappie, Blomkamp returns to the style and feel of Tetra Vaal, while feeding into the mix the complications presented by artificial intelligence.

Chappie also sees Blomkamp continue his close association with visual effects house Image Engine and concept/practical effects studio Weta Workshop – which both collaborated on designs for robots seen in the film. And the director worked again with actor Sharlto Copley, who performed the role of Chappie on set for filming in Johannesburg and Vancouver.

fxguide goes in-depth on the film with overall visual effects supervisor Chris Harvey, looking at Image Engine and Weta Workshop’s effects plus contributions made by The Embassy VFX and Ollin VFX.

Concepting Chappie


Chappie’s origins began after the release of District 9, with Weta Workshop contributing a wave of designs of the character in 2009/2010. After Blomkamp’s Elysium, Weta returned to Chappie concepts – basing them in part on robots the director had incorporated into his earlier short films such as Tetra Vaal and Tempbot. A distinguishing feature of the robots in those films was the bipedal design and its ears – which were retained in Chappie.

“Our first designs had ears and for a while Neill went away from them,” says Weta Workshop concept artist Christian Pearce. “They were a definite nod to the Appleseed robot Briareos, too. Originally the idea was that the ears were antennae but also radiators to dissipate heat. During the design process we even did some drawings to show how they could be animated to convey emotion.”

Although the ears remained, an early design feature on Chappie’s face was changed last minute – his face. “Originally his face was just essentially an LCD screen,” states fellow Weta Workshop concept artist Leri Greer. “We thought we might just put up emoticons like a happy face or sad face, but at some point when they thought about the interaction with the actors, so they decided to put a visor on him that would mimic the idea of eyes.”

“We were literally packing Chappie up as a finished mannequin into the boxes to ship,” adds Pearce, “when we got this new note from Neill that we needed something human on Chappie since the actors would be looking directly into Sharlto’s eyes. So really quickly, within a few hours, I did a design for the visor.” The Workshop team then crafted the visor on the project floor in only a day and half before the robot was boxed and shipped.

Oftentimes Weta Workshop will work solely on a character design, all the way through to a physical, practical model that may be used on-set, and then replicated in CG by a visual effects house. But on Chappie, Weta and Image Engine collaborated directly on the robot designs – these being the police Scouts, Chappie and the Moose. Ultimately, Image Engine produced final 3D designs that fed directly into Weta’s pipeline for 3D printing and constructing the live action props.

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