Fin Design + Effects, an Australian-based post production house with studios in Melbourne and Sydney, brings its VFX and visual storytelling expertise to the upcoming Netflix film I Am Mother. Directed by Grant Sputore, the post-apocalyptic film stars Hilary Swank, Rose Byrne and Clara Rugaard.
In I Am Mother, a teenage girl (Rugaard) is raised underground by the 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 the director, 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 New Zealand’s 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 then fed back into the practical suit.
In total, Fin produced over 220 VFX shots, including the creation of a menacing droid army as well as general enhancements to the environments and bunker where this post-apocalyptic story takes place.
According to Fin Australia’s managing director, Chris Spry, “Grant was keen on creating an homage of sorts to old-school science-fiction films and embracing practical filmmaking 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, visualizing 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.”
Director Sputore on working with Fin: “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 center 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 are 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.
“Precision was key,” explains VFX supervisor Jonathan Dearing. “There are many shots cutting rapidly between the real suit and CG suit, so any inconsistencies would be under a spotlight. 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.”
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 studio used Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Houdini, Foundry Nuke and Redshift on this project.
I Am Mother premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and is set to stream on Netflix on June 7.