Home Film District 9 – Director Neill Blomkamp, blending CGI with live action

District 9 – Director Neill Blomkamp, blending CGI with live action

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District 9 - Director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley on the set ©2009 TriStar Pictures
Director Neill Blomkamp of the sci-fi thriller District 9 ©2009 TriStar Pictures
Director Neill Blomkamp ©2009 TriStar Pictures

South African-born director Neill Blomkamp moved to Canada when he was 18 to begin his career as a visual effects artist.

At the age of 21 he made the move into directing, and quickly drew attention as a director with a unique talent for seamlessly blending computer generated imagery with live action.

This gift can be appreciated in his latest movie, District 9, about a settlement of aliens herded together in South Africa’s District 9, to keep them away from the humans.

The tension between the aliens and the humans comes to a head when a private company, Multi-National United, headed by field operative Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is brought in to evict them and move them to a new camp.

What was your inspiration for this movie?

David James (left) and Director Neill Blomkamp on the set of the sci-fi thriller District 9 ©2009 TriStar Pictures
David James (left) and Director Neill Blomkamp ©2009 TriStar Pictures

I guess the genesis for the film came from the short film that I did in 2005. At the time I was directing commercials, and between commercials I would do these crazy short films to mess around with different ideas, and I had an idea of putting western science fiction that I’d grown up with into South Africa, and into this African setting.

So when it came time to turn that into a feature film the first thing was to set up the world of District 9, to take the short film further and flesh out the universe of it more, and then from there you could decide what point-of-view you wanted to see the story from.

The action sequences are really unconventional, how did you approach them?

The way I approach the action is the same way I approached the whole film which is right from the beginning it was meant to be the idea of the fantastic and the mundane, the crazy science fiction in a usual every day situation.

It’s also presented with a very every day paint brush, it’s not glossy and over-the-top and Hollywood per se.

So what I wanted the action sequences to be was raw and occurring in front of you, and that’s why I didn’t have a lot of crazy camera angles, and I think if you do that, and you mix it with expensive visual effects, you end up with something that feels grounded as opposed to more of a spectacle.

The aliens are all CGI, but you have such great interaction with the human characters there had to be something practical in there as well. How did you find the balance between them?

Director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley on the set of the sci-fi thriller <B>District 9</B> © TriStar Pictures
Director Neill Blomkamp and Sharlto Copley © TriStar Pictures

Every single alien is digital, so there is nothing that the camera filmed of an alien that is in-camera. The interaction was the key to making it believable, so the way our process worked was one guy played all of the aliens. For 90 percent of the film Jason Cope plays Christopher Johnson, and the rest of the film he’s playing all of the other aliens that get evicted.

He would be in his grey spandex suit that gave the artists a good representation of light; and a few dots on him to identify his motion. He would be there and act against Sharlto.

The way the script was written, we had lines for Sharlto and Jason, but they were thrown out entirely, on purpose. Sharlto was so good at it that he could drive that improv, so now all of a sudden you have a human character interacting with a guy in a grey suit, both are very good at improv and they had the freedom to walk around and do whatever they wanted, as long as they were within the parameters of what I was looking for.

Then in Vancouver, the three-dimensional camera tracked whatever our real life camera did, the computer camera simulated that and then the artists copied the motion of Jason and then they painted Jason out entirely.

So if you look at the intermediate footage it looks like Sharlto’s interacting with nothing, it’s very freaky. Then they just put the alien back in, and it looked like he was really interacting with something.

Will there be a sequel?

Hopefully, if it’s successful, yeah. If the audience wants another film then it would be super cool to go into the back story of the aliens.