The following article was originally published in the UK "Film Review" magazine, Special #36 dedicated to Steven Spielberg from September 2001. Author: Roald Rynning . Concept art by James Clyne .

We, Robots


From appearing as a short story 30 years ago, from being inside Stanley Kubrick's head for 20 years and finally made into a film by Steven Spielberg, we go behind the scenes of the sci-fi thriller A.I.

Producers Kathleen Kennedy and Bonnie Curtis, who had not yet worked together as producers despite their extensive experience with Spielberg, assembled a top-notch crew that would thrive amid the frenzied production schedule filled with complex special effects and processes as well as the heightened secrecy factor.

A.I. has a massive amount of talent on board. Editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, special effects creators Stan Winston and Michael Lantieri and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have all won Academy Awards for their work with Spielberg. Production designer Rick Carter created sets for Jurassic Park and Amistad, among other films. Wardrobe designer Bob Ringwood had worked with the film-maker on Empire of the Sun, while ILM senior visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren's experience with Spielberg dates back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Noted science fiction author Brian Aldiss wrote his short story, Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, over 30 years ago. Published in Harper's Bazaar in 1969, it concerned a near future in which a robot child struggles to make a connection with his human mother.

After more than a decade, Stanley Kubrick purchased the rights to Aldiss's tale and set out on what would become a 20-year odyssey to convert it into A.I.. Throughout this period, Kubrick consulted often with Spielberg, who had commenced a friendship with the film-maker in 1979 while Spielberg was on location in the UK shooting Raiders of the Lost Ark. Their nearly 20-year friendship involved few face-to-face meetings, but thrived on marathon transatlantic phone calls.

It was Kubrick's elation at the breakthrough visual effects in Jurassic Park that led to Kubrick effects creator Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic with questions about the scope of the emerging computer-generated technology so masterfully displayed within that film.

Muren, long recognized as one of the most accomplished innovators of modern visual film effects, soon found himself on a London-bound jet as well. "In 1993, when we finished Jurassic Park, Stanley called and invited me to England to discuss a new project that became A.I.," says Muren, who has earned Academy Awards for his special effects work in such films as Terminator 2: Judgement Day, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and The Empire Strikes Back among others. "He had called me for years before that to discuss technical questions. But this time he wanted to have us take a close look at something. It was over Thanksgiving, so he had a wonderful turkey dinner set for me. It was a great five hours I'll never forget!"

When the cast was in place, the focus turned to the creation of groundbreaking special effects and technical wizardry inherent in a design of a future that, in many ways, had bever been attempted before in a motion picture. With such a tight production schedule, each proposed day of shooting A.I. would be a challenge of technology meeting artistry - with intricate make-up, elaborate mechanical special effects, and a cutting-edge virtual set. Actors would need to focus on creating something rarely attempted in their craft: embodying or reacting to synthetic life forms.

Though the film's production was limited in preparation and production time, the fact that Spielberg penned the script helped streamline the technical demands. "Steven was enormously helpful in articulating what he needed," says Kennedy. "He spent from four-to-six hours a day with the art department going over storyboards and working with models. Everything, in a sense, had to be designed, fabricated and invented by Steven. Then, communicating that to all departments is really what the challenge of producing is all about."

"Steven showed me over a thousand pieces of art that Stanley had been working with since he began his work on the project," Muren remembers. "Steven had the same sensibility as Stanley visually and he wanted to carry through with his view of the future. Steven felt he should be true to that, because Stanley was so right on in his concept of the future. It became a wonderful marriage of ideas."

Industrial Light and Magic quickly went into production to construct over 100 practical models as well as another 100 computer models to synchronize and bring the worlds of A.I. to life. Conceptual artist Baker relocated to the United States and spent several weeks at ILM's facilities in California collaborating on the realization of his designs.

In LA, Rick Carter broke the film down into three segments in order to create a smooth technical flow. "I thought of this film as a sort of evolution of movies." Carter explains. "It starts as a straight domestic drama, switches to a sort of road picture that incorporates both real and digital images, then expands into an almost entirely digital world. But they are all part of one journey that forms the basis of David's experience in this movie."

"A.I. was probably the most confidential, under-wraps project of my career," says Winston, who had once managed to keep the Jurassic Park creatures top secret during the film's production. "We were designing the world of robots, and I knew very little about the script at the beginning. But I don't need to know any more from Spielberg than that he wants me involved. I'm there with him."

"One great thing about working with Steven," echoes Michael Lantieri, "is that I always feel like all my efforts go on to the screen. In A.I., there is not one effect that isn't cutting edge. It takes someone brave enough like Steven who believes he can make it all work."

One immediate hurdle would be the creation of Teddy, David's supertoy bear who acts as his voice of reason and guide through the many perilous adventures the robot boy faces on his quest. A major character in the film, Teddy's complex combination of puppetry and digitizing presented its own set of problems for the design crew. Accommodating Teddy meant designing practical sets that could house several operating technicians who required moveable flooring and special lighting. In instances where practical operation was impossible, such as seeing Teddy run or jump, ILM's computer division had to find a way to match the real Teddy exactly.

"The combination of the amount of screen time, the range of performance needed, his importance to the story and the time crunch we were under made Teddy one of the most difficult challenges we've ever faced," Winston says. "We wanted to do as much as we could on stage to lessen the CGI burden while attaining a seamless blend of live action and computer imaging."

"Teddy is not only animatronic; he can think," explains producer Curtis. "He's your protector, the ultimate plaything. He's loyal, he's not going to fight with you. For a kid, he's the best kind of sidekick. Teddy is sarcastic, he's funny and he's smart."

But Teddy is just one robot in a film that's populated with many versions of them. From the vision of a near future that integrates robots into our daily lives came endless possibilities from which to create fantastic new robotic forms. This again necessitated several departments working in tandem. Some robots were rendered by human actors with minimal make-up or prosthetics, like the characters played by Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. Others were portrayed by physically challenged actors operating limb attachments and other mechanisms. Finally, a few robots were entirely mechanical.

Many of the film's innovations came from using blue-field masking of some parts of the robots that were later enhanced with computer imagery. With the technique, the audience will experience the sensation of looking inside a living, working being and seeing the whirring mechancisms below the synthetic flesh.

"One of the advantages of this style of working together was being able to create these shocking images," says Dennis Muren. "You see what looks like a perfect face, but as it turns you see it's hollow and full machinery. Some are translucent, with some form of life force within them. We used our computer imagery to augment the fine work the Stan Winston crew had designed with Steven."

Many of the robots were created to perform specific functions: as nannies, gardeners, road workers, welders, butlers, security guards, etc. Like automobiles, many fall into disrepair and are junked. But the film's designers decided that in the world of A.I., each would come with a survival drive built in. Therefore, discarded robots would forever be searching for a new arm to replace a damaged one, much like people pick over a junkyard for old parts for their machines today.

To bring this illusion to life, several actors with missing limbs were employed to play 'damaged' robots. They were then fitted with special prosthetic limbs and armatures, giving them the ability to fully embody their roles for the film.

"It was such a pleasure to work with these actors with special abilities," says Winston. "What some saw as disadvantages physically became advantages for the roles they played. One amputee, Dave Smith, is a friend of mine," he adds. "He played the Welder Robot, where one of his arms can actually become a welding tool. These were some of the most inspiring actors on the set and it was a joy to work with them."

Make-up designer Ve Neill collaborated with Winston on the makeup design for these robots. Once wardrobe and prosthetics were in place, the robot actors would sit in the chairs of Neill's' 'Robot World' make-up area for several hours as makeup technicians added intricate touches to each.

"My relationship with Winston is great," says Ve Neill. "We've done several films together and he's always so much fun. He hires the best people, who are always incredible technicians. This makes my job easier, to say the least. When we filmed the scenes with all the robots working, we would have as many as 30 make-up technicians working at once to prepare them and keep them touched up. Some of the robots took as long as three hours to make up."

Spielberg, Winston and Neill wanted much subtler make-up designs for Gigolo Joe and David. "We did several tests on Gigolo Joe, some with full-face prosthetic devices," Neill explains. "But it looked too surrealistic. It didn't reflect Jude's warmth and friendliness, which Steven felt was very important to the role. We came up with a simple prosthetic jaw piece and a plasticized facial makeup flexible enough so that it wouldn't crack or melt during filming."

For production designer Carter, the film's three distinct segments offered different complexities in the set building process. The first third of the film takes place in the subtly futuristic Swinton home. The second phase involves David and Gigolo Joe's odyssey that brings them through dark forests and shantytowns to the brutal carnival atmosphere of Flesh Fair and, finally, to the decadent brilliance of Rouge City. In the film's final third, many digital enhancements were employed to create the underwater and ice sequences in a world drowning in sea water thanks to melted ice caps due to global warming.

Among the many challenges faced by Carter and his crew, Rouge City proved to be one of the most complex sets to design and build. Some of the City's buildings were built to scale. Others were created digitally and filmed on a special virtual blue screen stage. The main set was constructed to hide a pulley system that Michael Lantieri's special mechanical effects crew utilized to create the chaos of an 'amphibicopter' gone amok in one crucial scene.

"Originally we had a bigger stage," Carter reveals. "We were going to spend a million dollars more to create Rouge City. But it became clear that this money would be better used by Industrial Light and Magic to digitally create a more expansive city than we could ever build. We would re-dress the set often, so that you really never knew where you would be in it. ILM came up with a vertual digital space on a blue screen stage to further the illusion of a vast city, which was quite ground breaking technically."

The blue-screen set was a unique in that it was designed as a virtual digital environment in which actors could walk through a set and be seen 360 degrees on a monitor which housed all the surrounding scenery in sync. This was achieved by mounting a series of hundreds of unique bar-coded targets on the ceiling of the soundstage that acted as monitors of points in space. When a camera moved about the set, the monitor showed the entire 'dressed' set on special software that integrated the actors with their programmed environment.

"We had about 800 targets on the ceiling," says Muren. "Each one had its own separate identity. A video camera scanned them while its software identified them. This way, we could generate the buildings around the actors digitally, giving Steven more choices for shooting. It's really never been done this way. The technology was there, but we just needed a reason to use it!"

 

 

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