“When is a robot considered human?”
That’s a complex question without a clear answer, but it’s something director Neill Blomkamp attempts to address in the new sci-fi thriller Chappie.
In the film, viewers are presented with a dystopian South African future where citizens are “protected” by autonomous, robotic police droids known as Scouts. These robots are unemotional, existing only to serve in accordance to the law. They can’t be reasoned with, influenced, or tempted. In that respect, they’re exactly like Chuck Norris.
So when Chappie is created, it throws the whole balance out of whack. Chappie is different because its (his) artificial intelligence is more human-like than ever, giving it the ability to learn, think, and, more importantly, feel; a very important distinction. From the moment Chappie powers on, the audience is taken on an emotional journey toward the robot’s remarkable consciousness.
“The idea was to take something as unhuman as a robot—especially a police robot—and give him complete human characteristics, to the point that he becomes more emotional than the human characters,” explained Blomkamp in production notes provided to TechnoBuffalo.
A big part of what makes Chappie so believable is how his performance was filmed. Similar in execution to Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Chappie is played by a human actor (Sharlto Copley), giving the character more believable mannerisms and emotions.
“The most important thing in the film is that the audience falls in love with Chappie, that their hearts break when Chappie is hurt and are excited when he is victorious,” explained Simon Kinberg, producer of the film.
The benefit of having a real live actor play a digital role is two-fold. Not only does it make Chappie more authentic to the audience, and even the actors on screen, but it’s easier in post-production when VFX need to be applied. TechnoBuffalo spoke with the film’s Visual Effects Supervisor, Chris Harvey, about the process of creating Chappie, and the challenges of making a robot feel more alive.
Harvey explained that having someone play the role of Chappie is indispensable to the filmmaking process, and makes for a more fully-realized character once the visuals are applied. It’s much easier for the animators to create a moving character, Harvey explained, since the base performance is already there.
After footage is handed over to the animators and the VFX team, they’re able to calibrate and replicate as if Chappie was actually the one standing there on set, not Copley. What audiences see is a young, impressionable robot, trying to make it in this crazy world—but it’s a completely different picture behind-the-scenes. Harvey noted that even for Copley, who was there acting on set, it was a surreal experience to see a human performance translated into a robot character.
Harvey credits the entire team—filmmakers, actors, animators, visual effects and even props effects—for creating such a convincing on screen robot. It ultimately feels like the character you’re watching is just as human as everyone else. You believe that Chappie is “alive,” even though you know he’s just a hunk of metal; he’s emotional, vulnerable, curious. Chappie is a sum of his parts, to the point where you find yourself sympathizing with a robot that was originally created to enforce the law.
Beyond using Copley’s performance as the backbone, Harvey also talked about how important it was to give Chappie an expressive face, which is a big part when conveying emotion.
“We didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of [Chappie’s] face,” Harvey explained. “But after extensive testing, we were able to achieve a believable character through a pair of expressive “ears,” a brow bar, chin bar and a series of LEDs, creating a more nuanced character.” They’re all very small, very subtle touches, but they combine to create an evocative, emotional performance that you swear is real.
Hollywood has blessed us with some truly memorable robots: C3PO, R2D2, Wall-E, and, my personal favorite, Johnny 5, just to name a few. But it’s the latest creation from director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) that might wind up topping them all. Remember the name Chappie, because you’ll be hearing it a lot over the next several months—and beyond.
“I am consciousness. I am alive. I am Chappie.”