One of 2009’s surprise hits, director Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 tells the story of an alien race forced to live in slum-like conditions after being marooned on Earth, who find an unlikely ally in a government agent inadvertently exposed to their bio-technology.
When Weta Workshop was looking for a pair of makeup FX artists to oversee the film’s South Africa shoot, they chose husband and wife team Joe Dunckley and Sarah Rubano, who had recently worked on such high-profile projects as the Narnia films, Tintin and 30 Days of Night.
While Dunckley concentrated on the alien technology and carnage, Rubano’s focus was the character of Wikus [played by Sharlto Copely], who went through many stages of physical transformation, taking anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours. Blomkamp also wanted everything to feel gritty and realistic, so dirt, sweat, slime, bruising, and blood were in constant demand.
The duo recently sat down to discuss their work on District 9, which is released on DVD December 22…
District 9 has a very edgy indy feel, doesn’t it?
Sarah Rubano: I think it’s struck a chord with a lot of people and a lot of filmmakers especially, who say it gets back to the roots of why we do what we do. There’s a lot of stuff to totally geek out about, but it’s also got a lot of heart and a lot of different levels, so it’s really balanced in that way.
It’s so refreshing to see that a movie can be made that we enjoy, that didn’t cost $175 million to make.
Joe Dunckley: I think we were able to get that indy feel because the producers enabled the creative parts of the crew. If Neill had an idea, the people who had to execute that idea had the full support of production.
It’s very refreshing when studios and producers trust the people that they’ve got on board to do what they do best and the result is a really original film.
Because you weren’t going to have the same resources available while shooting on location in South Africa, did that require a lot more planning up front?
Rubano: It really did, and that was scary for us, jumping on a plane and being very far away from the lifeline. But when we got over there, there was a local creature shop in Johannesburg, called The Creature Shop and they were very helpful about helping us sort out different materials that we couldn’t travel with, haz-mat stuff, etc.
They were also very enthusiastic and willing in any way they could help so they were a pleasure to work with.
Dunckley: Part of working in South Africa was going back to our roots a little bit, in terms of getting creative with the way we achieved some of the effects.
There was an alien body in the bio-lab scene for example, that had its shell partly ripped off it that Christopher Johnson is standing over it while bullets fly around everywhere.
That body was carved out of mattress foam and then melted with a heat gun and Saran Wrap was wrapped around it and melted to give it a sinewy effect. And then blood and goo was added to it. I was really happy with how that effect came together and the cost of it was incredibly low. It was almost like working on a school project.
Did you map out the various stages of Wikus’ transformation in advance?
Rubano: Before we started shooting, I sat down with Neill and we went through the entire script very carefully.
We figured out that we had about five different phases of the transformation starting with his fresh straight makeup look.From there, he gets sick and then he has the alien claw with the forearm and so on.
Neill was able to define where those changes were happening in the storyline, so we did our best to pinpoint how many of the various stages we would need.
So if the schedule said it was a ‘Stage 5,’ you knew what that entailed?
Rubano: Exactly. It was just a matter of breaking it down so stage five was our most extreme, fully erupted stage.
So when we were in the fifth stage, we basically had a forearm, which was one piece, we had the alien glove, which was a second piece and we had one large foam appliance which was the shoulder, upper arm and some front and back, with separate pieces added to the front and back, so he had six or seven pieces in that most progressed stage.
Did Neill have a strong sense of what he was looking for in terms of the visuals?
Rubano: It did. Neill basically has a visual effects background, so he understands and loves visual effects, but he’s also a fan of Cronenberg and really wanted us to do as much as we could within the world of practical effects.
It was a very comfortable working environment for us, because he was very specific and wasn’t just settling for things. He would say, ‘This is what I really want!’ but he did it in a way where you didn’t feel he wanted the impossible.
Everyone was striving for the best they could do and it was that way every day.
Dunckley: There were things that we knew we could follow to help him realize what he was trying to get across with the aliens. Everything was as dirty and disgusting as we could possibly make it, and whatever they made for themselves while on Earth was hashed together out of trash.
When it came to gore, Neill wanted things to be shocking and have an impact but he also wanted them to be as realistic as possible within this fantastical science fiction world.
So we had those things to follow but we would also be able to try new things and come up with our own ideas to show to Neill and he would be able to guide us towards the vision that he was trying to realize.
He was a very available director and a very good communicator as well.
How do you both feel about a possible District 9 sequel?
Dunckley: The way the movie finishes actually lines things up perfectly for District 10, so there’s a lot of room for that. We would jump back into that world in a heartbeat. We love South Africa and everybody we worked with and working with Neill was a joy and working with Sharlto was a joy.
I think we both feel really blessed with the jobs we’ve worked on and the people we’ve worked with, but District 9 was really a highlight, in so many different ways.
If they were doing a second one, there would be no stopping us wanting to be involved.
Rubano: The ideas of what a sequel could entail are limitless and if Neill does decide to do it, I’m sure we’re all going to have some interesting and creative surprises!