Respect to the director of Netflix’s Atlas for thinking deeply about mechs

Respect to the director of Netflix’s Atlas for thinking deeply about mechs

A lifetime of scarfing down sci-fi, video games, and comic books brought director Brad Peyton to the job of said lifetime: directing Jennifer Lopez in a frickin’ mech-suit movie. Signing on for Atlas, now streaming on Netflix, was an easy yes: With two big-budget Dwayne Johnson vehicles under his belt, Rampage and San Andreas, Peyton was no stranger to A-list-driven spectacle. Still, the film was an intimidating prospect for someone with a deep appreciation for mech suits, mech tanks, oversized mecha, and all the made-up classifications in between.

“I was very aware of what had come out ahead of me,” Peyton tells Polygon. The director cites James Cameron’s Aliens and Avatar as obvious but undeniable milestones in the art of on-screen mechs. He knew that the Titanfall games put pressure on any new live-action attempt, having created full immersion into the experience of mech fighting. But when he started imagining how to rethink mechs, he returned to the first piece of mecha media that really blew him away: Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox.

Peyton can’t quite explain why Robot Jox was his holy grail, but in talking to him, it’s obvious: Like Gordon’s whiz-bang vision of the future, where Earth’s conflicts are settled by colorful mech duels, Atlas needed clear, well-defined logic that would ground the world-building, but also let him rip in the action department in a way that would delight his inner child. And at the end of the day, he needed to be original.

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“My biggest thing was: I knew I had to separate from everything,” Peyton says. “I had no interest in repeating. I said, Pac Rim’s [mechs] are this big. In Avatar, they’re this big. In Titanfall, they’re this big. So mine is gonna be this big. This one might be square and blocky, so mine is gonna be circular. I come from animation. So a lot of it started with me sketching the silhouette and figuring how to make it unique and different.”

Atlas takes place in a relatively sunny future that still exists in the shadow of an impending apocalypse. Decades earlier, a rogue artificial intelligence named Harlan (Shang-Chi’s Simu Liu) fled Earth for an alien planet with the intent of one day returning to lay waste to humanity. When scientists discover Harlan’s whereabouts, Terran forces launch a mission to take the fight to the robot army’s doorstep. Leading the charge: Atlas Shepherd (Lopez), a data analyst recruited to go full Jack Ryan on Harlan’s ass. Of course, the attack doesn’t go as smoothly as the Earthlings would hope, and Atlas has to begrudgingly click into an AI-powered mech suit in order to survive an alien planet populated with androids who want her dead.

The grounded futurism of Atlas’ Earth led Peyton and his creative team to extrapolate from current military tech for the mech design. Rounded edges and exhaust pipes are lifted from F-18 planes. The interior control panels were built for theoretical functionality.

“I had to understand all the tech from the inside out,” Peyton says. “Because of my experience on San Andreas, where I had to understand how a helicopter worked intimately to tell Dwayne what buttons to press and not to press — at least when he would listen to me! — I took that experience and wanted to make a similar experience for [Lopez]. I laid it out with the art department of why there are screens in certain places, why there are holograms in other places. And then on the day, I’m giving her little wires to be like, ‘That’s what this screen is. That’s where the screen is.’ So after going through the blocking, I pulled those away, and she had to memorize where they were.”

A mech suit traversing a snowy mountain area with fallen spaceship debris and lightning striking in the background Image: Netflix

Drawings and schematics were only half of the equation. After drafting a design, Peyton set out to make his vision come to life. Coming at it from an animation background, that meant animating various walk cycles to see if the bipedal machine could move the right way.

“The first couple of designs we had when we animated them to see how they would work — very basic animation, walk, run, walk, jog, run cycles — looked so clunky and terrible,” Peyton says. The animation team found a groove when they clarified the dynamic between man and machine. “[The mechs] are intuitive devices. The concept that I came up with was, the soldier is the brain. He doesn’t have to be super strong. He’s not like a grunt — the machine is the grunt. He is the emotional cognitive device that syncs with this thing. So it has to be able to be as fluid as a person who’s been trained in it.”

As Atlas traverses the biomes of Harlan’s base planet — from snowy tundras to swamps inspired by Peyton’s love for Return of the Jedi — the film’s hero loosens up on her “no AI” stance and forms a cognitive link with her mech’s digital interface. Like a twist on the buddy-cop movie, the two bond for survival, which presents itself as more fluid mech motions. Early on, Atlas might be bumbling around a rocky cliff. By the end, she’s running, rolling, and slapping the hell out of robot assailants with mech-fu. The early walk cycle tests came in handy for the dramatic evolution, which Peyton was able to program into an enormous soundstage gimbal rig that stood in for the mech suit. Lopez was surprisingly well suited for the demands of the mech choreography.

“Her background as a dancer is what allowed her to really gauge that quickly,” Peyton says. “As much as she looks like she’s walking, [the mech] is walking her, and she has to react like she’s walking. So that training as a dancer allowed her to step right into it.”

 Jennifer Lopez’s Atlas in a mech cockpit as the mech kneels in an attack position Image: Netflix

It also helps that Lopez routinely performs for thousands all by her lonesome on a stadium stage. Peyton says Atlas turned out to be one of the most demanding shoots of his career, simply because for six to seven weeks, it was just Lopez performing solo on a gimbal rig that would be completely painted over with plate shots, VFX environments, and bursts of other action sequences shot elsewhere. Occasionally, voice actor Gregory James Cohan would dial in to perform the dialogue of Smith, her AI companion.

All the prep work required to realize a mech with the capacity for real action, and clicking in a star who was up to control it, was in service of jolting the audience, says Peyton. The first time we see the mechs in action isn’t in an act of valor; they’re caught in an ambush, mid-flight. The carrier ship goes down — and so does Atlas, in her rig. Peyton’s imagination swirled at the possibilities, as evidenced in the finished sequence. “[The mech] would be tumbling, it would be spinning, it would be hit by debris. What would it be like to be trapped in that tin can? What would it sound like? What would it feel like? And once I get through that experience, well then, how can I up the ante? Well, what if I fall through black clouds, and I’m falling into basically a World War II dogfight, but with mechs and drones? […] That’s just the first, I don’t know, 20 seconds of a two-minute sequence.

“That’s how I design,” he says. “I want to surprise you. I want to give you something you can’t see anywhere else.”

Atlas is streaming on Netflix now.