A.I. Meets An­i­ma­tion

Im­age En­gine in­no­vates mul­ti­ple tech­niques to cre­ate the in­tel­li­gent ro­botic star of di­rec­tor Neill Blomkamp’s Chap­pie. By Bill De­sowitz.

Animation Magazine - - Visual Effects -

In his most-re­cent sci-fi ac­tioner, Chap­pie, South African di­rec­tor Neill Blomkamp re­turns to his Dis­trict 9 roots in Johannesburg to fo­cus on a bro­ken po­lice ro­bot who be­comes sen­tient thanks to an am­bi­tious in­ven­tor, played by Dev Pa­tel.

As al­ways with Blomkamp, there’s a po­lit­i­cal sub­text. In this case, it’s about hu­man­iz­ing hu­man­ity, which has be­come too vi­o­lent and op­pres­sive.

The movie was adapted from the di­rec­tor’s 2003 short about an au­ton­o­mous ro­bot­ics com­pany that has re­placed law en­force­ment in South Africa. Blomkamp thought it would be cool to link the de­sign of Chap­pie back to the short. And be­cause he wanted the ro­bot to be an­thro­po­mor­phic, he en­vi­sioned it de­signed in a cost-ef­fec­tive way for law en­force­ment so it could fire weapons, go through doors and drive cars. How­ever, the ’ bots — or “scouts,” as they are called — have to be taken se­ri­ously by crim­i­nals and at the same time be em­pa­thetic to view­ers.

Thus, Chap­pie posed an in­ter­est­ing an­i­ma­tion chal­lenge for Im­age En­gine.

Although they con­sid­ered per­for­mance­cap­ture on Blomkamp’s fa­vorite ac­tor, Sharlto Co­p­ley, who voices Chap­pie, they de­cided that it was too ex­pen­sive and time con­sum­ing to suit the di­rec­tor’s film­mak­ing needs. In­stead, the ac­tor donned a gray suit on set and the an­i­ma­tors hand-an­i­mated on top of him, in what Im­age En­gine VFX su­per­vi­sor Chris Har­vey calls “the poor man’s” mo-cap.

“He is in all the plate pho­tog­ra­phy with the other ac­tors, then we re­moved him and re­placed him with the dig­i­tal Chap­pie,” Har­vey says. “It was his be­ing on set and act­ing like any ac­tor would, in a gray suit, and then we took that back to Im­age En­gine and the an­i­ma­tors ba­si­cally just had him in the back­ground and fully hand key-framed on top of it to match his per­for­mance. The other thing we did was we were able to use it as an in­cred­i­bly ac­cu­rate light­ing ref­er­ence by stick­ing the same gray ma­te­rial in the com­puter as a cal­i­bra­tion to make sure that the light­ing we put on our dig­i­tal Chap­pie re­ally matched what was on set.”

An Early Start Im­age En­gine got in­volved in the build of Chap­pie in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Weta Work­shop six to eight months be­fore the shoot, which is pretty un­usual be­cause the prac­ti­cal build usu­ally drives the dig­i­tal build.

“In this case, it was a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent,” Har­vey says. “Neill had some con­cept art for Chap­pie, but then he gave that to us and we fleshed that out in three di­men­sions, well be­fore Weta had to build the prac­ti­cal model. The rea­son we did this was it al­lowed Neill to play with it dig­i­tally and to make quick changes, but also one of the im­por­tant things was that the move­ment felt like Sharlto’s per­for­mance. We needed to make sure that Chap­pie’s ‘phys­i­ol­ogy’ could line up very well to Sharlto’s. So body pro­por­tions, joint place­ment made it a lot eas­ier to mimic his per­for­mance and trans­late well onto the ro­bot.

“In ad­di­tion, we spent a lot of time work­ing out the phys­i­cal me­chan­ics of Chap­pie. He’s built with­out any cheats be­cause we wor­ried about pulling the au­di­ence out of his be­liev­abil­ity. And so Neill didn’t want to use ball joints. He wanted to use known, me­chan­i­cal sys­tems that were all very fa­mil­iar, so all of his joints are com­plex, sin­gle axis, ro­ta­tional; and so we built a com­pli­cated hi­er­ar­chy of joint­ing and rig­ging for his body. That was some­what au­to­mated so that ev­ery­thing would prop­erly move and bend by the an­i­ma­tors. When we did fi­nally get Sharlto’s per­for­mance, we would prop­erly match that.”

Ap­par­ently, if you look at Chap­pie closely and study Co­p­ley, he moves like the ac­tor, but it’s still a nat­u­ral, me­chan­i­cal move­ment. It be­came a cre­ative bal­anc­ing act. On the other hand, the oth- er scout ’bots and the gi­gan­tic Moose ’bot have much more rigid move­ments be­cause they are not A. I.-driven like Chap­pie.

In terms of the toolset, Im­age En­gine used Maya for an­i­ma­tion, ZBrush for mod­el­ing, Nuke for com­posit­ing and Hou­dini for VFX along with a lot of pro­pri­etary look-de­vel­op­ment and rig­ging soft­ware.

Go­ing Gang­ster A key mo­ment is called the “real gang­ster” scene, in which Chap­pie mim­ics the cool strut of a thug ( Ninja Visser from the South African rap group Die Antwo­ord), who takes pos­ses­sion of Chap­pie and uses him to com­mit heists. “It was a re­ally fun scene to do be­cause Chap­pie goes through quite a large evo­lu­tion in the film,” Har­vey says. “He starts out as a po­lice ro­bot, but then he wakes up like a tod­dler and be­comes alive. He’s young, he’s cu­ri­ous and he doesn’t un­der­stand the world yet. He’s jumpy about things. But as he pro­gresses, he learns. By the time we get to the gang­ster scene, he wants to fit in with his fam­ily. He wants to be one of the gang. And Ninja teaches him how to be cool, and so this be­comes a tran­si­tional scene, where Chap­pie starts to pick up his gang­ster walk and some of the arm move­ments and head twitches.

“We also got a great body per­for­mance from Sharlto. He did a num­ber of things to help and asked to put on these shorts and we stitched them on so he could get that gang­ster gait. He re­ally un­der­stood it was go­ing to be a team ef­fort and even vis­ited the fa­cil­ity and talked with the an­i­ma­tors, so he was very aware of the work that didn’t come un­til af­ter­ward. He was also ask­ing if his per­for­mance was too much or too lit­tle. We also en­hanced some of Sharlto’s head per­for­mance, ex­ag­ger­at­ing twitches and other move­ments to get a bet­ter emo­tional read.” Bill De­sowitz is owner of Im­mersed in Movies (www.billdes­owitz.com), a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to An­i­ma­tion Scoop at Indiewire and au­thor of James Bond Un­masked (www.james­bon­dun­masked.com).

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.