Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Neill Blomkamp Explains the Origin of District 9's Aliens

District 9 imagines a world where aliens came to earth quite some time ago—in the 1980s. Their mothership hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. Stripped of their leadership by a mysterious disease, the remaining aliens—nicknamed "prawns"—are violent, destructive, directionless worker drones. The government places them in District 9, a refugee camp on the outskirts of Johannesburg. But escalating alien-on-human violence causes the government to send private corporation Multinational United (MNU) to evict the aliens and send them to District 10, 200 kilometers away from the city. MNU places geeky employee Wickus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) in charge, and when he comes in contact with alien matter, he becomes the key to unlocking advanced alien technology—and the most wanted man in the world.

When director Neill Blomkamp designed the aliens for District 9, out August 14, he conceptualized and scrapped as many as 300 versions of the creepy critters. "The first iterations were just pure sci-fi," Blomkamp tells PM's Digital Hollywood. "We were messing around with different ideas, and the artists were throwing around stuff. And I had my own preconceived notion of what they were, so we had a totally different design."

But the turning point came when it clicked for Blomkamp that his aliens were like a hive of insects that had lost their queen. "Presumably, in the spaceship the elites of their hive had been killed through some bacteria or virus or something," he says. "So, it left this vast majority of directionless drones, like termites. I hadn't made the mental connection that they were essentially insects. And then when I made the connection it was like, 'Oh, okay, hang on. Let's start again.'"

Rather than drawing from one particular insect for the creatures' design, Blomkamp looked at a wide variety of bugs and cherry-picked elements he liked. "In certain cases, they really remind me of crickets," he says. "But the finish [on the exoskeleton] was taken from different types of insects. So some of them look like a wasp or a bee, and some have a dung beetle surface. It's not totally biologically accurate, but we mixed and matched insects to just have a general feel of an insect-like creature."

The basics were out of the way, but Blomkamp still had to make the aliens somewhat sympathetic, since the audience needs to empathize with their plight. And prawns that looked completely like insects were not going to do the trick. "Because of how the human psychology and human emotion work, it's not going to be a winning scenario unless they have some kind of structural face [with] similar geometry to the human face," Blomkamp says. "That really drove me f---ing mental when we were designing them, because it felt like the most ridiculous Hollywood cliché that I had to give it a face and eyes, you know, if I was trying to make everything else feel real. But once I overcame that, the design worked and I felt okay with it."

District 9 is shot documentary-style, on location in Johannesburg, so the aliens had to look like they were actually there during shooting; initially, Blomkamp planned to have them on set. He thought he'd shoot actors on set in partial prosthetics—because of the alien's body structure, a full suit wouldn't work—which would increase realism and keep costs down. But the suits, which consisted of a prosthetic upper body with an exposed face Blomkamp planned to replace with a digital alien visage, weren't up to snuff. "We shot tons of footage in the beginning of the suit," he says. "But that just looked like a high school film project, so we got rid of it."

So the prawns had to be all-digital—another challenge, since Blomkamp intended to shoot on location, and motion-capture cameras won't work in daylight and dusk. The director put actor Jason Cope, who plays the aliens, in the suit and sent him to set to film with Sharlto Copley, who plays the hapless Wikus Van De Merwe. Animators later hand-traced, or rotomoted, Cope's movements and applied them to the animated prawns, then painted the actor out of the shots and inserted the digital aliens. (This is the case with the adult aliens, but one prawn was created with key-frame animation and some motion-capture input.) "With his performance on that creature, it means that Sharls' awesome improv craziness and Jason's improv would feel organic and real," Blomkamp says.

It was particularly helpful for Copley, who had virtually no acting experience prior to District 9. "Whenever there was emotion and intensity, I was always wanting to have Jason there, and they were able to put him there for me in the suit," Copley says. During some action sequences—when Copley would have to act against nothing after the cameras started rolling—"we'd do a pause just with Jason in, just to work out what the block was going to be," Copley says. "They would create a situation where Neil would watch it and be able to put the guys in around the action. You didn't have this restrictive feeling that I imagine actors would have in digital effects normally, where it's a terrible green screen situation and you've got a very limited window of movement."

Cope wasn't the only one who wore prosthetics: When the alien biotechnology begins to mess with Van De Merwe's DNA, Copley wore a prosthetic prawn hand that took anywhere from an hour to six hours for makeup artists to put on. "I'm grateful that was real," he says. "That made such a difference to where that character went for me." The prosthetic, which was on Copley's left arm, was awkward for the right-handed actor. "I preferred to have my right hand free so that I can do stuff in the film. If I had to jump on things, climb on things, I wanted to have my right hand, my human hand, available to help me."

While Copley doesn't know what's next for him—"I would love to do more characters," he says, "so, if I get that opportunity from this, I'll be very pleased and very grateful"—Blomkamp is writing a new sci-fl flick that he hopes to direct. And if District 9 is successful, he says, a sequel is a real possibility. "I'm so keen to go back into the world of District 9," he says. Here's to more aliens in his future.

District 9 Photo Gallery


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