Artificial intelligence—and sentient machines that are both heroic and villainous—has long fascinated A-list filmmakers as varied as Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator series) and Steven Spielberg (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). Now South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp has breathed life into a swaggering, bling-wearing robot in his new film Chappie, which stars Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley (who plays Chappie via performance capture).
"It’s a strange coming-of-age story and totally different from my other films although it’s in the same genre, mostly sci-fi," explains the director, who charged onto the international scene with his 2009 directorial debut District 9, the indie sci-fi thriller and thinly disguised social commentary about apartheid.
Made for just $30 million, it became a monster global hit, grossing over $210 million and earning four Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing. Blomkamp followed that up in 2013 with another sci-fi parable, Elysium, which featured enough VFX to keep an army of artists and technicians busy for more than a year.
"Chappie also has a lot of VFX, but the mental load compared to Elysium is child’s play," notes Blomkamp. "It’s about sentience and a machine that’s as human as people are, with all that that entails. I wrote Elysium by myself, but I re-teamed with Terri Tatchell [his screenwriter wife] who wrote District 9 with me. I’m good at ideas, but bad at writing them, so Terri and I wrote Chappie in two weeks, in the middle of doing Elysium, as the idea was so fully formed. And it’s a smaller film."
The $50 million production reunites Blomkamp with his District 9 and Elysium DP Trent Opaloch, and may be a "smaller film" than the big-budget Captain America: Winter Soldier, which the DP shot right before Chappie, "but when I’m shooting, I don’t perceive any differences," notes Opaloch. "There are restrictions on aerial days, or you may not have a Technocrane 50 standing by all the time, but if you’ve budgeted correctly, it shouldn’t affect the actual filmmaking process. And we had a lot more location work on this than Captain America, as we went to Johannesburg again for that great South African flavor."
Director and DP also reunited with a lot of the crew from District 9, "and we got to see a whole different side of the city this time round," reports Opaloch. "Instead of being based in Soweto, we used a lot more areas of the city for locations."