Fin Design in Sydney provided the digital visual effects in concert with Weta Workshop to bring Mother to life in the Netflix film, I Am Mother, directed by Grant Sputore. The film tells the story of a post-apocalyptic mother and daughter relationship, except Mother is an incredibly advanced AI Robot. The film was shot in Australia and stars Hilary Swank, Rose Byrne, and break-out talent Clara Rugaard.
In the film, the teenage heroine (Rugaard) is raised underground by a robot ‘Mother’ (voiced by Byrne), designed to repopulate the earth following an extinction event. But their unique bond is threatened when an inexplicable stranger (Swank) arrives with alarming news.
Working closely with director Grant Sputore, Fin Design’s Sydney office built 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’, completing extensive design work and testing, which was then fed back into the practical suit.
In total, Fin produced over 80 shots involving Mother from a total of 220 VFX shots. They worked closely with Weta Workshop, who produced an incredible live action suit, both in pre-production and on set. Other contributions to the film included Blockhead VFX, who also contributed VFX work, especially environment work in the portion of the film that was set outside the bunker. Last Pixel Studios in Perth did 260 shots for the film, including creating a VR previz and storyboarding tool during pre-production, and working on the surgery heads up display rig.
Chris Spry, Managing Director of Fin Australia, 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.”
Fin Design did most of the Mother CG work, including Hilary Swank’s fight with Mother. Weta Workshop’s Luke Hawker played Mother in the Weta Workshop suit, which was thought to have cost over $600,000. While everyone, including Fin, were very impressed with the Weta Workshop suit, whenever there was concern about either the suit or Hawker being damaged or hurt, Fin handled the work digitally. “Luke had poor visibility in the suit,” explained Spry. “Inside he basically had like a kind of an iPhone screen in front of his eyes and a camera that was built into the face of the actual suit. He also had two ear pieces in to hear the director and his crew. He wasn’t flying blind, but it was claustrophobic in there”. In addition to Hawker, there were two or three additional Weta Workshop crew operating parts of the suit such as the facial ‘camera’ which imparted Mothers facial expressions.
Fin did quite a bit of work with the Director before the suit went into manufacturing. “We worked up some versions of the suit and explored whether or not to embrace the feeling that Mother was like C3PO (and could have a person inside the suit) or did we want to like knock holes though Mother and make it appear that there was no way a person could fit inside,” explained Spry. Fin also did a lot of conceptual work exploring how the face could show a range of emotions. “We did a range of things such as a Wall-e style graphic within the face mask and at one point there was a completely flat face all the way around with a graphical display to allow interaction with humans”
Says Sputore: “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 those 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.
Spry bid the project and then transitioned to more of an Executive Producer role, being on set in Adelaide for only about 10% of the shoot and instead managing the team in Fin’s Sydney office. He transitioned the role of VFX supervisor to Jonathan Dearing. Dearing was on set for almost all of the shoot. “Precision was key. There are many shots cutting rapidly between the real suit and CG suit, so any inconsistencies would be under a spotlight,” commented Dearing. “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.”
Fin finessed its robust automation pipeline for this project. Built to ensure greater efficiency, the system 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. This tightly-controlled system meant that Fin could have one lighter and one animator working on 200 shots without compromising on quality.
The company used Maya and Houdini and rendered in Redshift. “We’ve been only using Redshift for about nearly three years now,” explains Spry. “Everyone is looking at GPU rendering now but it was not like that three years ago. There were not a lot of good options that were fully featured in the way Redshift is.” The company shifted to Substance for all their shading and texturing work and that made the move to Redshift simple as Substance is render agnostic. The company is also now very Nuke heavy. Fin Design has had a very strong compositing team since it first started over 18 years ago. Overall the company has about 70+ staff in Sydney with another 23+ in Shanghai with more in Melbourne & LA. The Chinese office is not a low cost option to farm out work to, but rather has been a strong link into the growing Chinese market. Fin Design now has a long list of major Chinese productions with some extremely complex and advanced visual effects sequences.