Popular South African actor Sharlto Copley, best known as Wikus van de Merwe in the critically acclaimed hit District 9, has had an unusual career arc. As a late-blooming actor he's played otherworldly everymen (Neill Blomkamp's District 9 and Chappie), a villain (Elysium), a howling mad special ops mercenary (The A-Team) and a superhero-turned-LAPD detective in the first original series from Sony PlayStation (Powers). He was hardly waiting tables before that.
An early adopter in every sense of the word, Copley's been experimenting with new technology since he first acted in and cobbled together his own short comic skits and action sequences using two Betamax VCRs as a kid. At 19, he founded South Africa's first private free-to-air (FTA) terrestrial television channel, which paved the way for broader free programming amid the country's notoriously slow adoption of non-state-controlled content, and built a formidable production company, Channel 69 Studios, to develop content for the station. At 24, he became South Africa's youngest television producer to own and control a daily five-hour block of broadcast programming. From there, he founded the visual effects facility Atomic VFX, a talent agency, and the film production company Inspired Minority Pictures.
Sharlto Copley in STX Entertainment's Hardcore Henry.
He also continued making short films, relying on Adobe video applications and Dell computers since the mid-'90s. One of his films premiered at Cannes and others went viral. "We were putting together PC systems that were cost-effective and could edit broadcast-quality footage, so we used Adobe Premiere and In-sync's Speed Razor," remembers Copley. "We were always pushing the boundaries, trying to produce high-quality stuff cheaper. That was especially important here in South Africa, where our industry resources were extremely limited. I'm still doing it today."
Back then, he and his business partner at the now closed Channel 69 Studios and Atomic VFX found PCs were "way easier to configure when it came to building a render farm or swapping out components, like recycling old motherboards replaced by newer technology in our render farm," he says. "You could mix and match, which was especially useful on the kinds of bigger projects I was involved with that required multiple workarounds, larger pipelines and some innovation to mold." (During those early days he also invited a teenage Blomkamp, then a high school student taking a CG art class taught by Copley's friend, to come develop his talent on the same computer systems. They stayed in touch, and Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson eventually nudged Copley out from behind the camera for Blomkamp's District 9 — which he was originally slated to field produce.)
After his acting career took off, Copley found himself in Hollywood nursing his inner video geek. "I had no production connections in America, so I thought, ‘Let me just phone the Adobe guys and see if they can maybe give me some advice or help me set up a system,’" he says. "They put together an edit suite that I borrowed to cut my next project." The result was the short film Wikus and Charlize, a comic sketch created for the South African Music Awards that also ran on Funny or Die.
Copley has since expanded his "own little mini studio" in Los Angeles with a dual-processor Dell Precision Tower 7910 with 128GB RAM and solid-state drives; a curved 34-inch Dell display used as a primary monitor and a 27-inch 4K display used for previews; AJA’s Ki Pro portable file-based HD/SD recorder and player; and a Dell Precision M3800 mobile workstation he carries when on the road. He runs Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Adobe Media Encoder CC and Photoshop CC across the systems.
As an actor who has such a deep understanding of production and post, he's been able to move and converse easily with crew below the line. "I've seen the technology that's out there and I've developed a network of people that I can work with," he says. "When you work with indie filmmakers, as I've been doing more lately, they are always piecing together things on PCs and using off-the-shelf editing and VFX software. And all of it’s now making real in-roads into Hollywood."
A self-described workaholic, Copley is temporarily putting his acting career on pause to develop multiple live-action and animation projects, including a science fiction comedy. "I've been meaning to get back into production for a long time, and I think this is the year that I finally get back behind the camera," he says. "My real love is satirical comedy, though I've ended up in all these projects where I kill lots of people."
He continues on that violent path of destruction in his current film, although this time it's with plenty of exuberant black humor and in a dual role. He stars in and executive produced the video game POV thriller Hardcore Henry, shot almost entirely with a GoPro, edited in Adobe Premiere (finished on Avid) and directed by Russian indie rock front man Ilya Naishuller. A cult classic in the making, Hardcore Henry won the People's Choice Award at TIFF's Midnight Madness program last fall, just premiered to enthusiastic audiences at SXSW and opened everywhere on April 8.
"On one hand you've got these huge, slowly moving television productions making exceptional content, and on the other you've got two kids raking in 12 million dollars in ads on their YouTube channel," says Copley. "Somewhere in the middle of that is what I'm particularly interested in — making films, like Hardcore Henry and District 9, that use technology to let fewer people do more things on and off the set. Tools like my Dell systems and my Adobe video apps let me and others work quicker in realtime, multitask better, and push the boundaries of the level of production. One of my obsessions back at the visual effects company was, ‘How do we put everything in one place?’ It's a fantastic victory for filmmakers of my generation and younger to see where Adobe has gone with Creative Cloud, so you can jump on any machine anywhere, but also to see PC-driven software like this now get the recognition it deserves in the film community."