How They Did It: Designing the Amputee Protagonist of Ana Lily Amirpour’s Dystopian Desert Trip, The Bad Batch

There were quite a few visual effects challenges I had to tackle in making my second feature, The Bad Batch: multiple matte paintings, a massive wall made out of shipping containers, a simulated LSD trip, sand storms, trained crows.

Once I’d written the script, though, it was clear that the first, most important question was: “How am I going to have my main character, Arlen—played by Suki Waterhouse and in pretty much every scene of the movie—lose an arm and a leg in the first 10 minutes of the film?”

Given the CG tools available, creating the effect isn’t actually that difficult—but I’m a practical-FX girl. A lot of the big-budget, FX-driven studio films we get right now have this chemical synthetic look—they’re two-hour long video games. I like the real world to be mixed organically with CG. I’m excited by filmmakers who use a mix of practical and digital FX, like Guillermo Del Toro, Darren Aronofsky, J. J. Abrams, Ridley Scott. They harness the beauty of the real world first and foremost, and then use the CG to amplify that beauty. I wanted that living, organic feeling in the frame. I wanted the tactile, tangible sense of light hitting the sets and objects and flesh. I want it to feel real. I’m a magician, after all.

The first person I talked to about the challenge of getting rid of limbs was Tony Gardner, who with his company, Alterian, Inc., is the mastermind behind things like the Chucky doll from Child’s Play, the iconic Daft Punk helmets, Darkman and the Oscar-nominated makeup (including the old-man balls) of Bad Grandpa. He is one of the greats in practical FX. Spike Jonze mentioned my film to him (they had worked together on Adaptation) and suggested we meet. Normally, Tony would be out of my reach, given my budget of only approximate $5 million, but he loved the story and world I was building, and he vibed on the fact that I was trying to get the effect without digital tools—not an approach most people take nowadays.

Ana Lily Amirpour on the set of The Bad Batch, which won the special jury prize at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. Photograph by Merrick Morton

The film that Tony had worked on that was most relevant to what I wanted to do was Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours. I was really impressed with how natural the arm prosthetics on James Franco, trapped under that rock, were. With hardly any digital FX, Tony created a prosthetic arm which Franco wore (his own arm was tucked behind him). That seemed like a strategy that could work for us. Tony would design a prosthetic shoulder nub for Arlen, molded from Suki’s body, that she would wear throughout the shoot, so that there would always be a real-life element on her of what she was supposed to look like. That meant that nothing was 100-percent created in CG; it was always a mix of practical and visual FX.

Which is not to say we didn’t still require extensive digital VFX work to sell that effect. We would still need to remove Suki’s actual arm from every single shot. No matter how I approached it, there would be a considerable amount of CG work. Anything we built would then need to be cleaned up and accentuated. So the next critical partner I had to find was a VFX supervisor who would come in and bring to life whatever Tony had started with his prosthetics. He would help me come up with a shooting strategy on set, for every scene, to make sure we were shooting to facilitate the ideal results in post-production.

One of the great resources for moviemakers is DVD bonus features of other films. I was checking out other directors who had removed limbs in movies. Two films in particular were my references: Rust and Bone and Soul Surfer. The bonus features of Rust and Bone—a film about a girl missing her legs—revealed what director Jacques Audiard had done with handheld camera work, elaborate CG work and a much bigger budget. In Soul Surfer, director Sean McNamara got rid of AnnaSophia Robb’s arm by creating a prosthetic nub that she wore for most of the movie—the way we wanted to go. Dan Schmit was one of the VFX supervisors on that film, so we got in touch with him and his company Engine Room. Since he’d already done the arm-removal effect before, hiring him made us ahead of the curve.

Keep in mind, Soul Surfer too was made on a bigger budget, with more than 700 VFX shots. I had to get the same effect with around 150 shots on my budget. Dan pointed out that we would also need Tony to build one complete prosthetic arm and bust of Arlen, just for shooting photos for 3-D rebuilding. This would serve as a model of what she was supposed to look like and Dan’s team could use this to recreate her body from side angles, when the viewer would see everything.

The Bad Batch was shot around Bombay Beach and the Salton Sea in California. Photograph by Merrick Morton

So we began, building one prosthetic nub for Suki’s front-facing shots and a different one when I was shooting her from the back, and sometimes a “double nub” with prosthetics on both sides. Her own arm was always somewhere behind or in front of her, painted green. Dan would remove that real arm for all of the shots, and sometimes animate the nub to give it life. And when there was not enough information for Dan to recreate the CG, he could use the bust of her body to fill in those gaps.

With just 150 shots, I had to figure out when it was essential for you to see Arlen as an amputee. I had to decide when I wanted to put the camera wider, in angles that really showed her body, and create shots that would require more elaborate CG work to sell the effect. Dan and I went through the script and figured out the scenes where we really wanted to do some fancier CG work, like animate the nub, really show it, and see it interacting with her and her environment. In the story of The Bad Batch, the fact that Arlen’s an amputee is almost a side-note—I just needed to show her physicality a few key times and get you to believe in who this character is, and then move on to so many other things. Any time we shot her nub, we were creating a CG shot, and even if it was an easy one, it costs money. My rule: Don’t shoot the nub if the scene doesn’t benefit from showing it. Most scenes in movies are anchored on close-ups of actors’ faces, so that’s where you invest your emotion. I’m not selling a freak show; I’m telling a story about human emotion. And that lives in the actor’s eyes.

That said, a big part of Suki’s job were the physical challenges all the FX required. This role wasn’t just hard on her as an actress; it was hard on her as a stunt person. She would have to wear heavy plastic prosthetics in a hot desert for the entire shoot and learn how to move and react with them in a way that felt natural. It was an exhausting role for an actress. She jumped right into the technical work, over many weeks of prep, casting molds of her body and testing them for camera. The tests were critical—you always wish you had more time, but any time you get is incredibly valuable. I spent many afternoons with Suki, her crawling around on the floor using only one arm and leg, trying to understand how to use her body the way this character would. I take my hat off to her and the gladiator work she put in, because she makes it look easy, and that’s why she’s remarkable.

Jason Momoa and Suki Waterhouse enter an unconventional romance as part of The Bad Batch’s wasteland community. Courtesy of Neon

The next important element for me was storyboards. I like to do them myself because I have specific ideas for framing and camera angles, and I like to over-prepare, especially for scenes that require elaborate camera movements, lighting or stunts. I often deviate from the storyboards, but with prosthetics and CG, you need everyone to have a clear plan. These blueprints were also important for my costume designer, Natalie O’Brien, who was working closely with Tony on designing Arlen’s outfits to work with the prosthetics.

I went through those storyboards with my camera team—a trifecta made up of me, my DP Lyle Vincent (who also shot my first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and our Steadicam operator, Scotty Dropkin, who also did a few scenes on Girl Walks. We three already have a shorthand, and we found a way to stay efficient and avoid creating more post work than I could afford. We also shot camera tests in all the locations so they knew the lay of the land in the extreme desert conditions. All of this preparation is so useful for showing up relaxed and ready.

Suddenly it was the first day of production, and we showed up on set. Even as prepared as you might be, your true approach reveals itself when you start shooting. We had the rare privilege of shooting this film almost in chronological order, and that helped enormously. Shooting was insane, the schedule was impossibly tight, with lots of surprises, changes, action sequences and fight scenes every other day. We had a kid and animals on set, and the desert is wild and unpredictable. All of the tricks we had devised played out in different ways depending on the scene: Sometimes we buried Suki’s leg in the sand, sometimes we cut a hole in a mattress, sometimes her real arm was in the back, sometimes in the front, and sometimes we just shot it not knowing how we were going to get rid of an arm or leg but we had to finish the scene so we had no choice. During her escape scene in the beginning, she’s in bandages, so that was an easier time in some ways. But bandages turned out to be more difficult to recreate and modify realistically in CG. That’s something we discovered months later when I was in post—cloth, it turns out, is trickier to animate. Things change on the day, the sun is hot, the latex is melting, the clock is ticking, and that’s the nature of this beast.

A few weeks in, we found our rhythm. It was a wonderful feeling: when everyone knew exactly how we were making this movie; everyone was suddenly an expert at how to shoot a girl missing an arm and leg. At the end of finishing any movie you become an expert at that particular movie. I’m now an expert on limb removal.

Amirpour with her crew on the set of The Bad Batch. Photograph by Merrick Morton

I like creating fairy tales. I like fantasy, and surrealism, and world-building, which always involved technical craftsmanship. For me, making a movie is creating a world of problems I then have to solve. And each project is a set of completely new problems, mediums, tricks, genres and techniques, but I know I’ll find a solution. It’s part of the high for me. I once did a stop-motion film called “A Little Suicide,” about a cockroach who is depressed because everyone hates him and he goes out and decides to kill himself. It was funded by the Berlinale, so I shot it in Berlin. It was six weeks of prep and a 21-day shoot to make a 10-minute-long film that was a mix of live action and stop motion. I had no actual stop motion experience before that (though I did have an arts background in sculpture and illustration). So I had to figure out how to animate. And I did.

What matters is that you have smart, solution-oriented collaborators and problem-solvers sitting next to you, helping you get where you’re going. It’s a lot like Apollo 13: that scene where they have to figure out how to get the carbon dioxide levels down in the spaceship, and there are only a certain number of tools to do it with. That was Tony and Dan and their teams: Here’s what they have available on the spaceship, and we have to figure out some way to make this happen with just those tools, and get home safely. MM

The Bad Batch opens in theaters June 23, 2017, courtesy of Neon.

1 Comment

  1. logomito

    September 22, 2017 at 4:52 pm

    Interested story, thanka

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *