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How Weta brought Mortal Engines’ best character, the undead soldier Shrike, to life

We love a good robot dad

Mortal Engines - close-up of Shrike’s face Universal Pictures

Of all the colorful characters in Mortal Engines, Shrike (Stephen Lang) may just be the most striking. The last of a breed of soldiers known as “Stalkers,” Shrike is essentially a mechanically animated corpse, more than a little Terminator-like in appearance, but still a father figure to heroine Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar). He’s also director Christian Rivers’ favorite character in the film.

“I’m a dad,” Rivers explains, as to his kinship with the character. “I’ve got two kids, a son and a daughter. [Shrike’s] story is such a sad, human one. It’s in the books, and it was one of those challenges, too — how do you make someone who’s terrifying one moment, and then suddenly give him this humanity?”

[Ed. note: The rest of this article contains spoilers for Mortal Engines.]

That humanity made the decision to change and expand Shrike’s storyline, which is not as central in Philip Reeve’s book, an easy one. “He’s so pivotal to who Hester Shaw is,” says Philippa Boyens, who wrote the script with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. “You actually have a girl who, at some stage, didn’t want to remember anymore. She didn’t want to live with her past anymore; she was prepared to just become a cipher, to become literally like him, ‘to wipe her mind clean.’ She would almost prefer that existence. And you can’t tell that side of her story without understanding who [Shrike] is, but also understanding that in this bizarre, crazy kind of way, there was love in her life, even in her upbringing, even though it was bizarre and weird, and in some respects, she was raised by a monster.”

Mortal Engines - Shrike Universal Pictures

With that in mind, it fell to the design team at Weta Digital to make sure that Shrike, despite being a robot, could properly emote and get that side of Hester’s story across. Weta’s Dennis Yu explains: “It was going to be hard for a being with a helmet-head to connect with somebody. We decided to put a full facial rig onto Shrike so that we could actually do these emotive performances with Hester.”

Though the studio may be best known for its work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy — specifically on Gollum, whose creation was a pivotal moment both for Weta and visual effects as a field — that facial rig, in addition to Shrike himself, required a different approach. “We knew from the beginning that the final version of Shrike on screen would be all digital,” Yu says. Rivers wanted Shrike to move in a way that no normal human being could (Shrike is meant to weigh over a thousand pounds, which can’t easily be conveyed by a human, let alone being a robotic, undead soldier), which, though Weta looked into motion capture options, had to be done through animation.

“When we did [use] motion capture on Shrike, it had that feeling like there was just a man in a suit. [With motion capture,] you’re getting a performer to act and move a certain way that’s believable because they can move that way, but [Rivers] wants to push this non-belief, so we need to push that with key framing,” Yu explains, referring to the stop motion-like practice of posing and taking snapshots of a puppet for motion reference.

A maquette of Shrike’s head, however, still popped up on set to serve as a lighting reference, and actors would come in to help with eye lines and to create a sense of space. For stunts, the actor “Big Mike” Homick would be present on set; for scenes with other actors, Lang (who, according to Rivers, was cast on the back of his work as the villain in Avatar, and what he proved he could do with just his voice in Don’t Breathe) would step in; and both would be sporting what the Weta team refers to fondly as “funny hats,” or head extension devices with little Shrike eyes attached for the sake of creating an eye line. (“It looked like Bender from Futurama,” Yu says.)

The funny hats, however, wouldn’t always do the trick. “There were times where the performance is really critical between Shrike and another actor, usually Hester, so it had to be Stephen Lang’s eyes that she was looking at,” says Ken McGaugh, who served as visual effects supervisor on the film. “It couldn’t be some artificial eyes on a funny hat. [...] With the performances against each other, it’d be really hard to pretend you’re sad when you’re just looking at someone’s chest. One thing we always try is to get our animation to nail those eyelines. If we don’t, you get a disconnect between the CG character and the actual live action performance.”

shrike in mortal engines as played by stephen lang Universal Pictures

In other words, Shrike had to seem as real as possible. Speaking to the overall aesthetic of the world, Rivers explains, “It needs to feel like it comes from London. It needs to feel like it comes from the physical world that feels real to us. [This movie] is not in outer space, it’s not in a fantasy universe. It’s on Earth, and it needs to have this sense that it’s touching on us now, our future and our past.”

The same principle held true for Shrike, whose design also incorporated the actor playing him (Shrike’s facial features were changed to more closely resemble Lang’s), bits of mummified skin, and an adjustment from something “too big and bulky and powerful” to “the physique of a wiry kind of war veteran.”

The only exception to that realist rule is the way that Shrike’s eyes emanate a blinding green light when he’s in “stalker mode.”

“I always knew that every decision we made about Shrike on screen was working backwards from the moment that he dies,” Rivers says. “That’s the only time you see his eyes just as solely human, where they don’t have any green behind them. Even in the flashbacks with young Hester, they’ve still got the slight green illumination to his irises. [His death] was the moment where the green was going to be gone, and you’re going to be looking at human eyes.”

The decision pays off, as the storytelling device arguably packs the biggest emotional punch in the movie. Though the lives of Mortal Engines’ humans are compelling, it’s the undead soldier who proves the most fun — and the most fascinating.

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