The tech behind the all-robot world in Surrogates

Director Jonathan Mostow with a surrogate used in the film to show buyers the mechanics of their potential proxies.
Date:31 October 2009 Tags:, ,

Director Jonathan Mostow enjoys his latest assignment: building the population of an all-robot world.
By Erin McCarthy

When robot stand-ins populate the world in a movie – as they do in Disney’s (watch the movie trailer) – every character in the frame has to look perfect. And that turned into a headache for director Jonathan Mostow. “Usually you hire background actors off the street,” he says. “We were flying in models.”

In the near future, humans never leave their homes. Instead, they send sophisticated robot surrogates into the world. Piloting these proxies from a special chair that plugs into their brain, operators experience everything their surrogates do, but incur none of the risks. That is, until someone starts destroying the robots in a way that kills their operators, too. Agent Harvey Greer (Bruce Willis) must stop the rampage.

Mostow’s team created the film’s various surrogate forms using a combination of computer graphics, animatronics and prosthetics. Effects-house KNB built 70 machines – from FBI watcher drones to the display models used to sell surrogates to customers.

The team also layered silicon skin over robotic frames, then digitally added details such as circuit boards in postproduction. And for scenes where Greer’s surrogate is mangled, Willis wore prosthetics to gain a more realistic visual result than CGI. “It’s just more fun to build stuff and film it,” Mostow says. “We’re all little kids with our electric train sets. Our electric train set just happens to be a big Hollywood movie with all the bells and whistles on it.”

Creating the illusion of robotic perfection also required some subtle alterations. For example, when actors were portraying surrogates, visual-effects artists digitally cleaned their skin of flaws in post-production. “Before I started this movie, I (thought Hollywood was full of fabulous-looking people,” Mostow says. “But the number of people who look like ideal prototypes is actually not that many.”

Related material:
* Watch the movie trailer
* The real-life science behind sci-fi flick

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