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THE BREAKDOWN
No. of f/x shots: 1,060
F/x shops: Digital Domain, WETA Digital, Rainmaker, Modern Film and Video, Pixel Magic
Why it will be nommed: Large number of complicated effects shots were a seamless part of the film.
Why it won’t: Other huge summer effects films were more memorable.

In a film filled with detailed, futuristic visual effects, “I, Robot’s” f/x supervisor John Nelson says the most important element was to give the movie its heart in the animated performance of robot Sonny.

“We could have gotten everything else right, but if we wouldn’t have gotten that (performance) right we would have been sunk,” says Nelson, who won a visual effects Oscar for “Gladiator.”

Sonny was played on set by actor Alan Tudyk. But rather than use motion capture, Nelson says the crew opted to animate using Tudyk’s perf as a guide. “I think we got Sonny really right,” he says. “Doing digital characters, it’s really important to get their eyes right and their faces to emote correctly and we really had to work a great deal to get that.”

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Nelson cites a scene in a holding cell where Will Smith is interrogating Sonny and director Alex Proyas shot the scene moving slowly closer in on each character. Nelson says effects were used to add tension to Sonny’s robotic muscles, but it was the subtle facial movements that were the toughest.

“We have over 1,000 muscles in our faces and the way we move our faces is a form of communication that everyone knows,” he says. Details in the shot included adding a tearlike gleam to Sonny’s eye and placing pores on his face casing to match those visible on Smith’s. “That is what we were tapping into with Sonny’s performance.”

Animating Sonny came on top of a hefty job of creating several effects-heavy action sequences and digital sets.

Nelson used a new technology called Encodacam that allowed the director, d.p. and f/x team to see how virtual sets would fit with live action on the set. This allows for more precise direction and convincing camera movements in sequences such as the film’s factory floor chase.

The U.S. Robotics building, a 100-story glass and steel skyscraper that is the major location for much of the movie’s action, was almost all visual effect, with only half of one floor and a few catwalks built on a set.

While the story is set in Chicago with several well-known landmarks visible, the only film shot there was some aerial footage. The city at ground level was created from still photos and laser scans of important landmarks such as the Wrigley Building. “Most people get that the robots are CGI but very few people realize that the buildings, plaza and the city behind them are CGI as well,” Nelson says.

Action sequences such as a tunnel chase and a climactic battle in a tower were all digital except for the actors and the interior of Smith’s car.

A house demolition used a set built on air bearings that could realistically shake. Debris was dropped from above and the footage was composited with a model element with large-scale miniatures of the robot and the house it was destroying.

“What you get with reality like that is physics,” Nelson says. “The reality is what you get.”