Weta Workshop Crafts Specialty Robot Suit for Netflix’s I Am Mother

She’ll keep you safe. Or will she? Following its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, sci-fi thriller I Am Mother has come to Netflix. Directed by Grant Sputore, with screenplay by Michael Lloyd Green, the film tells the story of a robot (“Mother”) designed to repopulate the earth after the extinction of humankind. Mother is performed by an actor wearing a complex specialty suit, designed and built by the award-winning concept design and manufacturing facility, New Zealand’s Weta Workshop.

The project represented an incredible opportunity for the Workshop crew. Rather than a static prop, dummy, or CGI creation, Sputore’s robot was to function as a fully articulating and emotive character. With the actor driving, Grant’s robot needed to perform. Senior concept artist Christian Pearce was tasked with imagining what such a robot might look like. The designer experimented with Mother’s form through 2D design, playing with the extremes of proportion and silhouette.

“Grant (Sputore) was open to us being experimental and trying some really original shapes and forms, so the first dozen designs were quite out there. Quite quickly we realised that we wanted the Mother character to be relatable and stick relatively close to the human form.”

-Christian Pearce, Senior Concept Designer, Weta Workshop.

As Christian’s design neared its final form, Project Supervisor Luke Hawker and Production Manager Kathryn Jackson joined the project to prepare the robot for manufacture.

The challenge lay in hiding a human of flesh and blood inside a rigid robotic structure.  From the length of limbs to the choice of materials, every decision would depend on the person inside the suit. Encouraged by the production and casting agent to audition, Luke – a Weta Workshop crew member of 18 years who is also an experienced actor – landed the role. This, says Kathryn, was “a luxury.” Not only was the performer present for every step; he was leading the project, too.

With Luke cast, the design was modified to match his proportions and the manufacture of Mother began in earnest. Costume technician Bryce Curtis developed a physical prototype from black foam. Sculpted around the performer, this fully articulating prototype was a crucial step towards helping the team marry form, fit, and function.

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The physical prototype was 3D scanned and modelled by the Workshop’s 3D team, led by 3D technicians Joel Savage and Ryan Serrano, and the elements sent to the workshop floor to be fabricated.

“We had to lose the human silhouette as much as possible; but Mother still had to move and emote. The challenge was trying to work out how a person performs inside something that is meant to hide his limbs and joints.”

-Kathryn Jackson, Production Manager, Weta Workshop.

The crew approached the build by combining traditional craftsmanship techniques with innovative 3D printing technology. Components were molded and cast, model-made, or 3D printed. From semi-flexible urethane and sintered nylon to cold cast resins and laser-cut plastics, each material was chosen for its balance between durability, comfort, movement, and aesthetic.  Elements such as the robot’s aluminium frame were laser-cut and shaped around the body like a roll cage; others were 3D printed and built directly into the suit. Worn like gloves but designed like exoskeletons, Mother’s hands were 3D printed in sintered titanium, complete with sliding elements and grooves to allow movement.

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As the build progressed, animatronics supervisor Zoilo Abad worked with technician Rod Sheehy to install more than 700 LED lights and animatronics into the suit. Technician Tim Domett operated the componentry during the shoot, stepping into the role of On Set Specialty Costume Supervisor so that Luke could perform. While Luke was in front of the camera, Tim was behind it, puppeteering Mother’s facial expressions; a complex choreography designed in collaboration with the director. With Luke and Tim working together, and Zoilo on hand for his technical expertise, the robot’s features came alive. “You could see there was a character in there,” says Luke.

With nearly 300 components designed to Luke’s precise measurements, fabricating Mother was like crafting, constructing, and assembling an elaborate puzzle. Says Christian: “Mother is a pretty technologically dense character – there’s a lot happening in her, lots of new techniques that we hadn’t done before.” The result was a unique specialty costume that was unlike anything the Weta Workshop crew had made before. Based under one roof on Wellington’s Miramar Peninsula, design and manufacture combined their creative thinking to realise the filmmakers’ vision.

“We could feel Grant was making something special, so we were able to push ourselves. The whole team worked together to make it something really amazing.”

-Luke Hawker, Project Supervisor, Weta Workshop.

Prior to filming, the crew got the chance to see Mother brought to life at the Workshop. There to witness the moment was co-founder and creative director, Richard Taylor.

“It’s terrific to see that physical effects are alive and well in filmmaking! It was a wonderful thing for Weta Workshop to be granted the opportunity to craft an iconic robot for this extraordinary science fiction film. By combining artistry with technology, our crew were able to push the limits of their capabilities to design and build this incredible specialty costume. My heartfelt congratulations to the crew and to Grant and the I Am Mother team for what they have achieved.”

-Richard Taylor, Co-founder & Creative Director, Weta Workshop.

Starring Hilary Swank and Clara Ruugard, with Rose Byrne voicing the title role, I Am Mother is streaming on Netflix now. 

Zoilo Abad (Animatronics Supervisor) and Tim Domett (On-Set Specialty Costume Supervisor) dress performer and project lead Luke Hawker into the Mother suit.

Christian Pearce's final design (left) and the finished robot (right).

Zoilo Abad installs animatronics into the head of Mother.

Copyright 2019 Weta Workshop