Chris Harvey | CHAPPiE

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Neill Blomkamp’s latest movie CHAPPiE returns to the Johannesburg stamping ground which he brought so memorably to the screen in his acclaimed debut feature District 9 in 2009. Set in the near-future, the film tells of a city where Law and Order are maintained by robot Police scouts – and what happens when one robot, nicknamed Chappie, falls into the wrong hands and is reprogrammed with an inquisitive, sometimes petulant human personality. STARBURST spoke to Chris Harvey, the film’s Visual effects Supervisor, about the challenges in bringing sci-fi’s latest mechanical man to the screen...

STARBURST: What did your job as CHAPPiE’s visual effects supervisor actually entail? Were you in charge of the film’s digital and practical effects requirements?

Chris Harvey: No, primarily for me it was to do with digital. I was the overall supervisor and also running the main team over at Image Engine, which had the main FX tender on the movie. In pre-production you’re often very involved in planning the builds, but in CHAPPiE we were very involved in terms of his actual design which was exciting. Neill knew how much he was going to rely on VFX in the end, so he got us in very early, earlier than you often get a chance to so we were actually part of the design phase. We were also involved in the pre-production, planning the shoot in terms of ‘How are we gonna shoot this?’ so that later on it’ll come together in post-production, so there was a lot of pre-production planning, working together with all the different teams whether it was lighting, photography, working with special effects because we often work hand-in-hand. Then there’s the shoot itself; you’re on set every day, making sure people are doing what you’d previously told them you were going to need them to do and just dealing with surprises that come up on the day, and collecting all the data we need to have back and then we get into post and we’re just executing the shots for however long the production cycle might be. You’re basically creatively looking at everything that’s coming in from the VFX side of it.

What were your first reactions when you saw what must have been a very ambitious script for CHAPPiE?

When I first read the script and first talked to Neill about it – I saw some early designs at the same time – it was really exciting, because I loved the script, I thought it was gonna be a lot of fun but that there was definitively a big challenge ahead! You know there are going to be a lot of shots, he’s going to be a fully-CG character and as he’s the title character of the movie he’s going to have to be real, people can’t question his physicality or that he’s actually there, because he has to be there. On top of that, people are going to have to connect with him as a robot which is tough because he doesn’t have a lot of physical features, he doesn’t have a lot to work with for emotions, apart from the ears and a couple of eye bars - mainly it’s just body language. So that was the real challenge; step one: he’s got to look real, step two: people have to relate to him somehow in a large range of shots and in any kind of environment. Just in those terms it was going to be a big task.

Most people might assume that CHAPPiE was realised through Motion Capture, but apparently that wasn’t the case. Can you explain a little about how you actually created him and brought him to life?

The design process started really early on. Neill did a lot of concept designs over at Weta Workshops; hundreds of drawings went back and forth between them and once he got pretty much locked into a design he was happy with, he sent them over to us and we fleshed out the design in three dimensions so Neill could look all around it, and we printed out just on paper a life-sized one so he could stand there and look at it. We really went into detail, thinking ‘Well, what are all the pieces that make him up?’ It’s one thing to have a sketch of it but then you start thinking ‘How does this joint work, what does this gear do and where does this hose go?’ Everything had to be built out of real-world mechanics, so we did a lot of research into robotics, everything was based on that. We sent all our 3D files to Weta Workshop and they 3D-printed a whole bunch of ‘practical’ CHAPPiEs, which were used for any robots which were ‘off’ in the film, or just being dragged around so we could use them as lighting reference and then also for texturing. But because they were ‘built’ as a real robot, we were able to go in and take hundreds of thousands of photographs of these things and use all of those photographs to create our digital textures and shades to put on our digital asset. Then Sharlto [Copley] performed it; he wore a grey suit which a lot of people think was Motion Capture, but it really wasn’t, it was just a grey bodysuit. Weta Workshop built a chest-piece made out of old motocross armour that had the same dimensions as CHAPPiE so that Sharlto could interact with people and lean against things, and we used his grey suit for lighting reference. Then the animators hand key-framed a performance to match his performance. So while he literally did the performance, it wasn’t Motion Capture, it was all hand key-framed on top of him. Some people call it rotomation or poor man’s Motion Capture, but ultimately it was a huge team effort between Sharlto - a very good actor - giving a great performance and then the animators with their very detailed eye matching that performance by hand, copying it and adding subtleties on top of it.

Presumably the biggest challenges were in the sequences where he’s closely and physically interacting with other characters and scenes where he’s in chains or rain is falling on him?

Those scenes were a huge challenge. It was something I actually encouraged. A lot of the artists on the team were like: ‘Stop telling them to do this!” jokingly but I was saying, ‘This is gonna help us later, guys, this is gonna make it look real’. I would encourage Neill and the other actors to interact with CHAPPiE as much as possible, because typically you’ll tend to shy away from that in VFX because those are hard shots when someone has to touch a digital character and they hug or they’re on top of them or stepping on them or even if it’s just getting Sharlto to pick things up. I was saying ‘Walk around, touch stuff, move stuff, interact’. Even in the scenes with the chains, originally there were just a few chains and then Neill said, ‘Would you mind if I put some more on him?’ and we said to put a whole bunch on, because everyone knows how a chain moves and if he moves around the chains might bump into something or bump onto him and all those interactive things make him seem more believable. But for the artists when we get it back, it’s very challenging because first of all we’ve got to paint Sharlto out of the shot – he was literally hand-painted out – and then we had to create our digital version so he fits into the environment in the same way. It was a lot of effort from the team to make those shots work, but I think they help to make his physicality work.

It seems that without Sharlto Copley’s input, CHAPPiE could have turned out quite differently...

Absolutely. Sharlto was CHAPPiE, there’s no question! He was the heart and soul of that character in terms of his performance and his emotion and everything else. Neill and Sharlto would come up with ideas about what CHAPPiE would do in a given situation and the way people would interact with him. The animators layered some subtlety on top, they had to animate his ears and his eyebrows, but the performance is 100% Sharlto.

Neill Blomkamp came onto the movie with a very clear vision about the film’s visual aesthetic, especially in terms of the realisation of CHAPPiE. As a VFX specialist, is there a risk that this could restrict your own creative input or is it helpful to have a director who’s so well-prepared?

It’s incredibly helpful because it’s really important to have a clear decision-maker, not someone who’s saying: ‘oh, maybe we’ll have this or maybe that, can you show me five options and maybe I’ll pick one of them?’ Neill’s very clear with what he wants to do; the nice thing about him is that he doesn’t prevent the creativity. He was still very open to new ideas. For example, on set I’d come up to him and say, ‘Hey, we can do such-and-such here’ and because he knew what he wanted in his story, it was easy for him to say, ‘That’s a great idea, it works, let’s do it’ or ‘No, don’t do it’. If it was an idea he liked, he was quick to grab it and say, ‘Let’s go with it.’ So it really fostered creativity because it allowed him to trust us to do our job because we knew the framework we were working inside.

What were the other difficulties you encountered in bringing CHAPPiE to life?

Beyond the problems of getting his physical presence right, there was the question of making him emote. That was a big question. We figured out fairly early on through a bunch of tests that we could solve that one and make him emote. The other challenge was in the sheer scope of work because there are 1000 shots of him, a huge volume of shots of a CGI character. And maybe people take it for granted because they think there’s just one CGI CHAPPiE, but in reality we had over 22 CHAPPiE because CHAPPiE had to progress through the film. He had to pick up dirt when he walked through something, if he got burnt by fire it had to leave burn marks, if he got hit in the face he’d be scratched. There were all these little variations and things which would build up through the course of the film that we had to track and make sure were consistent. A big story point is his battery level, which is going down throughout the film, and we had to track the percentage on it on every single shot and we sometimes had to go back in and change the battery level on shots which had changed slightly in the edit as now the percentage levels were off. There was just a massive amount of data tracking of making sure sequentially all those things hook up properly.

Digital effects appear to improving in leaps and bounds every year. Do you think there’s ever going to be a limit to what can be achieved digitally?

It’s an interesting question. Digitally, given enough time and money, you can kind of more or less do anything (time and money being very significant factors). I mean, could you create a 100% authentic digital human?  Maybe, but that’s very expensive and it’ll take a huge amount of time. Would it really be worth it? In some ways the question is less about ‘could we’ but more ‘should we’. I think sometimes movies are getting so bloated with VFX these days just because they can do them; no-one’s stopping to say, ‘Yeah, but do we need to do this?’

Do you think digital effects and practical effects can work side-by-side, or do you foresee a time when practical effects will become obsolete?

I hope practical effects never go away because there’s an authenticity to them that. I don’t care how good digital FX are, there’s just something about something that’s real and tangible and it’s not even just about what’s on screen at the end; it helps the cast. If you’re on set and you’ve got a guy laying a bunch of squib hits on the ground so there’s explosions going off around an actor who’s running along, the performance is going to be much better than if he’s just running in front of a green screen, because stuff’s happening around him. I think that if people are smart, we should certainly be able to work together between practical FX and digital FX, it’s really about finding the best way for the two to work hand-in-hand rather than saying, ‘Oh, it’s just practical’ or ‘Oh, it’s just digital.’ There’s a lot of people who say movie-making should go back to practical, but it shouldn’t because there’s some stuff we can do better digitally and likewise everything shouldn’t be just digital either; it’s about finding the proper balance.

CHAPPiE is available now on Digital HD, on Blu-ray July 6th, and DVD July 13th.

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