I, Robot: Making Will Smith Sci-Fi Picture

A year and a half prior to the start of principal photography, director Alex Proyas began working with his core group of collaborators, including Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos, on concept designs for a future where robots are part of the everyday world. Proyas and Tatopoulos previously collaborated on Dark City.

I described I, ROBOT early on having an almost documentary feel of the future, because I really wanted to steer away from the usual Hollywood theatrical approaches to the future, explains Proyas. I wanted to create a strong sense of reality so that you believe that youre in this world populated by robots. Weve gone with a believable and realistic view of the future. I didnt want to have flying cars and stuff that other people have had in their cinematic visions of the future. I wanted it to feel like it was a real and natural 30-year progression from our world.

Im more interested in the characters and the story than gadgets, Proyas continues. Robots are such intriguing forms of technology that I didnt want to have other forms of technology getting in the way of that. That said, we do have some cool cars with spherical wheels that can go in any direction. But, at the end of the day, I wanted the robots to be the main technological focus in this world of 2035.
In fact, Patrick Tatopoulos most important assignment was designing the robots, including Sonny, one of the films principal characters. Tatopoulos, who was both Production Designer and Creature Designer on the Twentieth Century Fox blockbuster Independence Day, serves in those same capacities on I, ROBOT.

Having a chance to do the sets and create Sonny the robot, from the beginning, was very important, says Tatopoulos. Ive always believed that the beings that live in a world should feel very much like that world, and that they should really fit together well.Working with Proyas, Tatopoulos developed the design of Sonny over a two-year period by trying to forget everything wed seen before. Sonnys look went through approximately 50 different designs before its final incarnation as a slender and elegant figure.

For Proyas, Sonnys look was a key to the storys credibility. We tried to put ourselves in the mindset of the people designing the robots and we figured that they would be making creatures that we would feel comfortable having in our homes, around our kids. So the robots had to feel familiar.

Again, it feeds right back into Asimovs stories, which are about safety and feeling secure in the knowledge that the robots cant turn on you or hurt you in any way. It all makes sense from a human and corporate perspective. So weve tried to be truthful to those original ideas that Asimov created.
The turning point in Sonnys design came when Proyas began to picture Sonny as a saintly, innocent figure. Sonny, at his core, is innocent, says Proyas. He is like a young boy on the brink of manhood. Sonny is highly intelligent, but his emotions that distinguish him from the rest of the robots are as highly attenuated as those of a child.

Ultimately, the design of the NS-5s, including Sonny, came down to three defining characteristics: transparency, a human-like form with a unique muscle structure, and a perfectly symmetrical face. These traits led to some formidable design challenges. Sonny and the NS-5s dont morph, so I had to find a way for them to suddenly become scary, without changing the design, says Tatopoulos.

Transparency reinforces the idea of safety. If something is transparent, it cannot hide anything, explains Tatopoulos. For example, public buildings have more glass so visitors feel welcome. If the robots cant hide anything, then they are safe. Or so you would think
Yet another benefit of making Sonny transparent was the way he reacted to light. Sonny appears angelic when one sees only the outside of the face and the body. But when placed underneath the light, permitting a view of his insides, Sonny becomes what Tatopoulos calls a mechanical, super freaky, scary thing. Being transparent let him change without changing.
Sonnys face has three levels. There are mechanics on the inside, an under-skull similar to human skull bones, and an outer clear layer. On top of the skull is a soft skin. So if you touch him hes soft, but behind that is a clear skeleton, says Tatopoulos.

To distinguish Sonny (and the rest of the NS-5s) from previous cinematic robot incarnations, Tatopoulos created futuristic muscles for Sonnys joint mechanics a feature that lends yet another anthropomorphic touch to the robot. In creating the musculature, Tatopoulos was inspired by recent advances in artificial limbs, including new materials that respond to electrical impulses and react like real muscles.
In the end, the filmmakers learned the human factor was the essential to making Sonny work.

A year before starting production, we were sitting in an office trying to figure out how to do the robot CGI, guy in a suit, whatever we never would have figured out the emotional impact and that it has real value, because we were looking at it as if we were solving a technical problem, says Producer Wyck Godfrey. Though we wont see Alan Tudyk on the screen, you will certainly know the persona and humanness that he brings to that role.
Tatopoulos was also charged with designing the other robots that populate the story. The previous generation of robots, the NS-4s, are also anthropomorphic, but they have much less detail than the NS-5s, says Tatapoulos. They are bouncy and not as smooth. They do the same tasks, more or less they just dont do them as well. So, theres an interesting contrast between the two generations.

As Production Designer, Tatopoulos had to create, envision, and design the future physical world of 2035. Every element had to be thought out early in the process, so decisions could be made about what parts of sets to physically create, find on location in Vancouver or build in the computer.

There are two design flavors in the movies Chicago. The downtown area is filled with beautiful metropolitan landscapes. The plazas are large, white and pristine. Shiny glass buildings house the citys wealthy citizens. In surprising contrast, the suburbs have a grungy feel; they are the older, poorer parts of the city.

One of the signature elements of Proyas visual style is the absence of greenery. Achieving the no trees look while shooting on location in lush Vancouver was challenging. The production even hired a greens staff to keep bushes and trees out of the frame.
The filmmakers chose Chicago for the storys setting because its skyline resembles Proyas original concept of mixing classic and modern looks where, for example, tall brand new buildings are situated next to the projects that are half a century old.

To achieve the enormous scope that Proyas desired, most shots in the movie utilize some combination of constructed sets, practical locations, and visual effects.
Located in downtown Chicago, the glass and metal headquarters for U.S. Robotics is a character in its own right. Much of the action driving the story takes place in the lobby, plaza, labs, boardrooms, and offices as well as the catwalks, tunnels and innards of the USR Building.
Explains Tatopoulos, The USR Building has an interesting shape; it looks like a knife blade, giving the visitor a sense of vertigo. One edge of the building is a blade of clear glass, so when you go to the edges of the catwalks inside, you see yourself, the city beyond, and all the way down to the lobby at the bottom of the building. The design of the building allows the audience to really see what the world is, not just grab a couple of glimpses.

The plaza outside the USR Building represents power. When you have power, youre not going to make a taller building, youre going to create a bigger plaza around your building, because the ground is what is expensive, says Proyas.

Will Smiths Detective Spooner lives in the outskirts of Chicago. What is thought of as downtown today has become a suburb in 2035. It is a far different place from the pristine world of USR and Dr. Calvin.

A 260-foot long, two-story section of the riverfront in the Vancouver suburb of New Westminster was transformed into a large section of Spooners neighborhood, affectionately dubbed Spoonerville by the crew.

An omnipotent computer named V.I.K.I. controls the USR headquarters. V.I.K.I. is basically the central brain of the USR structure, says Tatopoulos. She has a central brain like your heart in the middle of your body, and she has the veins and the vessels that are going through the building. Strips of light throughout the hallways and rooms represent the veins of V.I.K.I. Her face comes from shards of light that continually reshape themselves from the many veins that run throughout the building.

I, ROBOTs futuristic transportation systems were also critical to its look. As motorists transition from the suburbs, where they drive on the surface, to downtown, all traffic goes underground, into a series of tunnels and underground parking garages shaped like oblong footballs.

Round ball-shaped wheels allow cars to move sideways. The lateral movement facilitated a huge, intricately choreographed chase scene involving packs of cars going two hundred miles per hour forward, while moving sideways at the same time.

All the cars in I, ROBOT were designed and built exclusively for use in the film, with Germany-based Audi working with the filmmakers to build Will Smiths hero car. Audi also provided several existing models that were altered for the film.

Under a veil of secrecy, the films car designer, Jeff Julian, made several trips to Germany to fashion a car for Will Smiths Del Spooner, based on a prototype of a real upcoming Audi model.