The desired effect

As computer-generated imagery becomes ever more realistic and sophisticated, Yolanda Zappaterra finds out how film production designers integrate live sets with artificial effects

I, Robot

Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos worked on The Crow and Dark City with director Alex Proyas, before joining him to bring Isaac Asimov’s book, I, Robot, to life, so he knew that working together on a sci-fi classic would be a blast. ‘He’s an incredibly visionary director,’ says Tatopoulos. ‘He wanted to present a vision of the future that would be a documentary, something real and simple.’ Tatopoulos knew that Proyas’ vision was realised through a mix of research, inspiration and imagination, all of which combine to create a fascinating thriller about a near-future world in which robots are everyday helpers – until one of them breaks one of the ‘Three Laws of Robots’ and kills a human being.

Throughout the concept stages, Tatopoulos was aware that ‘the biggest danger was falling into a sci-fi world. We fought against that by doing architectural research, looking at planning department documents for the next 20 years, but also thinking about the way cities develop’, he explains. ‘For example, some areas of a city – such as the suburbs and tenements – may not change much at all, but elements of those areas, such as the design of a public phone booth or a transport system, may be radically different.’

The transport links connect the gleaming, hi-tech, minimalist world of downtown with the backward-looking, earthy 20th century ‘burbs, but it’s the design of the robots that will have everyone talking.

For these, Tatopoulos drew inspiration from the work of architect Santiago Calatrava and Apple Computer’s Jonathan Ive to, as he puts it, ‘reveal the structure of something, show its form, shape and workings, rather than hide it’. The Apple concept goes beyond visual inspiration, as Tatopoulos explains. ‘Thirty years ago, the most important thing in PCs was getting them to work well, but having figured that out we can focus on what people want from them, such as colours and style; in effect, personalisation,’ he says. ‘That’s where I imagined robots would be in 30 years.’ And a final influence? ‘If really forced to, I’d say the robot from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.’

I, Robot is released on 6 August

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