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Chappie
Still from "Chappie"Courtesy of Sony Pictures UK

How to create a gangsta robot

The head designer behind Die Antwoord’s robo-child Chappie explains how it all evolved from Elysium’s droids

The year was 2009 when New Zealand's Weta Workshop – most famous for its special FX work on Lord of the Rings – sharpened its pencils for Chappie. The drawing board soon filled up as designs for Chappie's police droids were adapted from similar bots in director Neill Blomkamp's superfuture Elysium. Chappie is an endearing, reject police force robot molly-coddled by adoptive parents Die Antwoord. They gangstify him and give him humanist characteristics that separate Chappie from the other bad copper bots. Christian Pearce, Weta concept artist and head designer on Chappie (the protagonist robot) and Moose (the evil, gun-fitted destroyer bot powered by a mulleted Hugh Jackman), describes the up-til-the-last-minute process of designing this one-off robot for such an exacting director.

PICK UP WHERE YOU LEFT OFF

“When we were working on (Blomkamp's second film) Elysium, we were going through a big process with the robots. We had done all the groundwork helping Neill find his aesthetic and how it would be done technically. We used motion tracking on ElysiumChappie was done the same way, so we’d solved a lot of those problems. A lot of the visual style did carry across but I think that’s simply Neill’s aesthetic.”

MAKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER DISTINCTIVE

“Most of Chappie was unused designs. We did a couple thousand images and there are only four or five robots in the film, so there were a lot of options for Neill (Blomkamp). Chappie is Scout number 22 and we realised we needed to do something to make him more obviously different. His motion is a defining characteristic as it’s very human-like motion, whereas the other robots are more robotic. He’s got a big REJECT sticker slapped on him as well.

Chappie was getting his design tweaked right up to the last minute. We had boxed up the physical dummies ready to go and Neill realised that he needed something to help give the viewer more eye contact with Chappie for the actors and that’s where we really quickly did a visor design and attached it to the final dummy as it was going out the door. Before his eyes were more like a cell phone.”

PUT PENCIL TO PAPER

“We usually start with pencil drawings that will scan and get painted up in Photoshop, all in 2D. We’ll have a lot of back and forth with Neill and do lots of variations. From there, sometimes we’ll go into a physical sculpt with clay but with Chappie the 3D work was done by Image Engine in Canada. It was quite different for us to have to ship our designs off! Then we’ll get their 3D files back here in Wellington, New Zealand, and a 3D team will start prototyping and putting up the parts and moulding them.

We did a number of versions of Chappie: the hero version (the fully detailed model to be used right in front of the camera for close-ups), the stunt version (built for movement and the scenes in the film where our dummy is getting hit or dragged behind cars) and there were two or three highly detailed Chappies, probably a dozen more background and production model Chappies, couple of the orange prototype ones, a damaged version of the full size one and two small robots called Rory and Dexter which were Deon’s (Dev Patel) little AI robots.”

GO BIG OR GO BIG

“We did a full size Moose (Hugh Jackman's bipedal walking tank), which was the most amazing film part I’ve ever seen. It was about 16 feet tall, fully detailed – you can see it in the trailer. It has rotating guns and lights and it’s the most impressive thing we’ve built. It took a month and a half to fully assemble. It had a real presence too, it dominates the room. I loved seeing it come together.”

LET THE BOSS TEACH YOU A LESSON

“We had to make changes all the time! Neill's often said that the concept design part of the film process is his favourite part. He’s a really big fan of sci-fi films and how they’re made. He gets to make them now but I think he’s still as much of a fan as he ever was.

We did a few designs of a large bipedal walking tank and then he needed it to fly as well so we did quite a few designs on that and none of them were quite working for Neil and so he ended up giving me a 3D model that he had made himself. He wanted all these weapon options so I covered it to a ludicrous degree. I almost did it as a joke to make him laugh. It had guns all over it, a missile launcher, a laser… I thought he’d just pick a few of the weapons but he said he’d use all of them! He’s pretty beastly armoured in the film.”

Chappie is out in cinemas today