If the trailer represents its tone accurately, Netflix’ I am Mother, a film about a girl created and raised by a robot in a post-apocalyptic world, is a nerve-tingler. It’s relentlessly sinister, with disquieting twists and turns. It promises to be a hit. The trailer will make you grip the arms of your chair.
That’s partly due to the work of Fin Design + Effects, which was responsible for the VFX.
The film was directed by Grant Sputore and stars Hilary Swank, Rose Byrne, and break-out star, Clara Rugaard. Fin Design’s Sydney office worked with Sputore to build a CG version of the AI robot, Mother, to be used interchangeably with the practical robot suit built by Weta Workshop. Fin was involved from the early stages of the process to help develop the look of Mother, that involved meticulous design work and testing, which then fed back into the practical suit. In total, Fin produced over 220 VFX shots. Its other contributions to the film involved the creation of a menacing droid army as well as general enhancements to the environments and bunker in which the story resides.
Fin Australia’s managing director, Chris Spry, commented, “Grant was keen on creating a homage of sorts to old school science fiction films and embracing practical film making techniques, so we worked with him to formulate the best approach that would still achieve the wow-factor – seamlessly combining CG and practical effects. We created an exact CG copy of the suit, visualising high-action moments such as running, or big stunt scenes that the suit couldn’t perform in real life – which ultimately accounted for around 80 shots.”
Sputore added, “My enormous gratitude for the team at Fin is only matched by the endless lengths they’ve been willing to go to on this project. Their brilliant team has worked tirelessly to make the most of every shot – but more than that, they’ve proven themselves to be invested in making the entire film as good as it can be. They offer suggestions and bust expectations. In particular, they delivered visual effects magic with our CG Mother, one minute having her thunder down bunker corridors and in the next moment speed-folding intricate origami creations. For the most part, the robot at the centre of our film was achieved practically – but in that handful of moments where a practical solution wasn’t possible, it was paramount that the audience was not be bumped from the film by a sudden transition to a VFX version of one of our central characters. In the end, even I can’t tell which shots of Mother are CG and which practical – and crucially, neither can the audience.”
To create the CG replica, the Fin team paid meticulous attention to detail, ensuring the material, shaders, and textures perfectly matched photographs and laser scans of the practical suit. The real challenge, however, was in interpreting the nuances of the movements.
“Precision was key,” commented VFX Supervisor, Jonathan Dearing. “There are many shots cutting rapidly between the real suit and CG suit, so any inconsistencies would be under a spotlight. It wasn’t just about creating a perfect CG replica but also interpreting the limitations of the suit. CG can actually depict a more seamless movement but, to make it truly identical, we needed to mimic the body language and nuances of the actor in the suit [Luke Hawker]. We did a character study of Luke and rigged it to build a CG version of the suit that could mimic him precisely. ‘I Am Mother’ was a real pleasure to work on – the atmosphere was incredibly collaborative, with everyone involved coming together to give it the best outcome.”
Fin finessed its robust automation pipeline for this project. The system, which was built to ensure greater efficiency, allows animators to push their work through lighting and comp at the click of a button. For example, if a shot didn’t have a specific light rig made for it, animators could automatically apply a generic light rig that suits the whole film. The tightly-controlled system meant that Fin could have one lighter and one animator working on 200 shots without compromising on quality.
I Am Mother premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is set for global distribution on Netflix on June 7 2019.