Apr. 14, 2015 | By Kira

It’s impossible to think of science fiction or thriller films without acknowledging the technologies and special effects that truly bring the complex, futuristic stories and characters to life. From sleek spaceships to intergalactic warriors, mutant superheroes to epic laser gunfights, it’s clear that CGI, pyrotechnics and various other special effects have changed the way we make and view films. Now, 3D modeling and printing has stepped up to the plate, playing a crucial role in Niell Blomkamp’s latest sci-fi, Chappie.

The South African director seems to have found his niche in creating extremely rich, detailed, and realistic settings for his films, which usually take place in dystopian near-futures and deal with the moral issues surrounding artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and the abuse of power by government or authoritarian figures. His two latest hits, District 9 and more recently, Elysium, were entertaining, challenging, and visually stunning, earning him much critical acclaim. This year, he’s back at it with Chappie. Set in the slums of Johannesburg, the film depicts a future society where crime is patrolled by oppressive, law-enforcing robots. During a citizen revolt, one of these droids, known as Chappie, is captured and re-programmed, becoming the first robot capable of thinking and feeling for itself, which leads to an epic standoff between human revolutionists and the destructive forces that want to see Chappie destroyed.

As with Blomkamp’s other films, Chappie is notable for its extremely photo-realistic settings, landscapes, props, and—of course—the robots themselves. In order to achieve this level of realism and detail, Blomkamp once again worked with visual effects house Image Engine and concept/practical effects studio Weta Workshop not only to create 3D models of the complex droids, but to actually 3D print the robots seen in the film.

New Zealand-based Weta Workshop (known for their outstanding work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Canadian-based Image Engine collaborated on the designs for several of the film’s robots, including Chappie, the Moose, and various police scouts. In total, they 3D printed 19 separate robots that were used during filming. One of the most crucial visions that both companies shared was making use of physical manufacturing rather than computer generated imagery, ensuring that the robots were 100% physically accurate. “We didn’t want to do any of the typical cheats you might do in CG robots, where if you don’t see if it’s OK if things are crashing through,” said Chris Harvey, who was one of the overall project supervisors next to Blomkamp. “We really wanted Chappie to be 100 per cent physically accurate in how it works—and no cheating with ball joints. It had to be more mechanical.”

In terms of the process of getting from concept to physical product, 3D printing was essential to the creation of the movies’ title character. Weta created the initial designs for Chappie, including the bipedal design, rabbit-like ears, and visor. Once the designs were ready, they were went to Image Engine, who worked out the mechanical aspects, such as the range of motion, to make sure it was feasible and as realistic as possible. The two companies then worked together to make sure that the files were practically functional and suitable for 3D printing. In the end, Chappie ended up being almost entirely 3D printed using Weta’s own 3D printers, as well as an Eden and a ProJet printer, which allowed them to achieve super high resolution for small parts.

Chappie also relied on some animated elements—such as gold chains he acquires in one scene—as well as the live-action performance of Sharlto Copley. “There’s no way Chappie would have been successful without Sharlto,” said Harvey. What he brought to the project was absolutely amazing.” The final 3D pipeline included animation in Maya, effects in Houdini, rendering in 3Delight and compositing in NUKE.  For a visual breakdown of Chappie's creation, check out the video below from WIRED and FXGuide.

Weta Workshop also helped design the Moose, a competing robotic project within the film’s narrative. Surprisingly, Blomkamp himself stepped up and provided his own rendered CG model for Weta to work with. “He’s quite an accomplished 3D modeler himself—that was his start in VFX,” said Eta’s Leri Greer. The Moose was designed to be a slicker, more weapons-heavy machine than the humanoid Chappie, so Weta and Image Engine included heavier angles and tank-like elements. In total, over 10,000 individual parts were used to construct the warrior, mainly out of resistant materials such as urethane, steel and aluminum, making the Moose one of Weta’s biggest builds ever.

Chappie stars Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver and Dev Patel, and was theatrically released last March. So far, it has received mixed reviews, and has not been widely received by the public, but that is hardly a reflection of the incredible amount of skill and attention to detail achieved by the visual effects team. For 3D printing enthusiasts, it would be worth going to see it for the production quality alone, and future filmmakers could certainly learn how to bring previously unthought-of of levels of creativity and realism into their projects thanks to 3D printing technology.



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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