Through the eyes of a robot
The most unique aspect of how the film portrays this self-aware autonomous system is showing Chappie’s development through a series of point-of-view interface shots.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Chris Harvey, the visual effects supervisor for “Chappie,” talked about the differences in depicting the software interfaces of three different types of machines: the standard police robots (or “scouts”); the hulking, human brain-controlled “Moose,” mentally piloted by Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman); and the point of view of Chappie, which evolves and becomes more complex as the film progresses.

“We tried to tell part of Chappie’s story through POV shots,” said Harvey. “We have three classes of POVs. The scouts’ POVs and Moose’s POV are similar in their designs, with static menu bars and tracking markers. Chappie’s POV evolves over the course of the film.”

Chappie’s POV shots begin with an almost empty interface. It has the root software elements of the scouts—a tracking box for its line of sight, a general readout of its internal systems and surroundings—but nothing dynamic. Over the course of about 30 POV shots throughout the film, Chappie fills up its interface with more and more code representing its expanding knowledge of the world.

“There’s a window on the right [of the interface] that’s constantly growing,” Harvey said. “It’s like he’s writing new code, writing memories, writing thoughts as he’s seeing and interpreting the world. He’s constantly writing his own new code, and then on the left of the interface we integrated a text cloud. Throughout the film, he keeps adding words to it, filling up his text cloud with the things that are important to him. The words that become most important to him, like ‘Mom,’ become quite large.”

“Chappie” director Blomkamp and actor Sharlto Copley, who inhabited the motion capture performance behind the titular robot, also worked to imbue Chappie with a certain degree of humanity. For Harvey, his perception of Chappie as a being changed a great deal from the initial concept art and models to Copley’s performance and the finished character.

When the special effects team first got the script and did the design work, they felt they had an idea of who Chappie was. Ultimately, the combination of the design, Copley’s performance and the subsequent animation changed the perception of who Chappie was supposed to be. Harvey and the special effects team focused in post-production on conveying a range of Chappie’s emotions through Copley’s mannerisms while staying true to robotics.

“We used Chappie’s ears, his brow bar, his chin bar and even down to the LEDs on his face to blink or move to convey Chappie’s emotions,” Harvey said. “Sometimes on quieter scenes, we would take things like Sharlto’s eye motions and put those movements onto Chappie’s head for those subtle refocusing and twitching movements. We tried to take every nuance we could out of Sharlto’s performance and find a place to put it on Chappie to help read that emotion.”