Sharlto Copley stars — but won’t be seen — in futuristic ‘Chappie’

Jan. 09, 2015 | 5:00 a.m.

South African actor Sharlto Copley has starred in each of Neill Blomkamp’s features, first as a xenophobic bureaucrat in the director’s debut, the sci-fi parable “District 9,” nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, then as a vicious mercenary in another dystopian tale, 2013’s “Elysium.”

For Blomkamp’s latest, the futuristic fable “Chappie,” due March 6, he again takes a lead role, but this time the actor’s face won’t appear in the final film. Copley’s movements, however, give physical life to the title character, a childlike robot bestowed with an unusual kind of artificial intelligence who must find his way in a hostile world.

FULL COVERAGE: Winter Sneaks 2015

Sharlto Copley is photographed in 2009. (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune)

Sharlto Copley is photographed in 2009. (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune)

“The [primary] reason it feels real is Sharlto was there,” Blomkamp said last month. “The actor was physically interacting with other actors. There’s no tennis ball situation where they’re acting off of nothing.”

In the film, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, Chappie is created by a gifted robotics engineer (Dev Patel) but soon falls into the hands of outlaws played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Vi$$er, the provocative South African hip-hop duo known as Die Antwoord.

“I think of it like he has two sets of parents,” Blomkamp said. “He has to learn the difference between the parental influences that come from them. It’s pretty funny.”

Blomkamp hit on the idea during the making of “Elysium,” and he wrote the “Chappie” script in just two weeks. A former visual effects artist, Blomkamp based Chappie’s design on a police robot from a short he’d made in 2003 at age 23, a period when he was particularly interested in manga and anime.

“Masamune Shirow, he has one robot called Briareos that has these rabbit ears. I just love that as a design feature, so I put that on the robot in the short,” Blomkamp said. “When I made ‘Chappie,’ I was like, ‘Obviously, the robot will be based on that robot, and the fictional company that made that robot will make the fictional robots in the full feature film.'”

The ears helped give Chappie a range of expressions, but it was Copley’s physical performance that brought the character to life on the set of the film, which was shot in South Africa.

“We didn’t do traditional motion capture,” Blomkamp said. “He was in a gray Lycra suit that gives us lighting information. … We would just film it like normal, then give those shots to animators to basically trace animate on top of Sharlto.”

FULL COVERAGE: Winter Sneaks 2015

There were, however, physical robots used during the production, and Blomkamp said he kept six Chappies for his own collection of memorabilia that occupies a warehouse in Vancouver, Canada, and much of the home he shares with his wife, Tatchell.

“I love robots,” he said. “My personal office looks like a cave of film stuff — our house is riddled with that stuff too. I have radio-controlled helicopters with real jet turbine engines. One of those is currently on the dining room table because I don’t have another place to put it.”

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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