Atlas director says Jennifer Lopez’s dancing skills were key to mech battles

A lifetime of trashing sci-fi, video games, and comic books brought director Brad Peyton to the task of a lifetime: directing Jennifer Lopez in a damn mech-suit movie. To apply for Atlasnow streaming on Netflix, was an easy yes: with two expensive Dwayne Johnson vehicles under his belt, Disaster And San AndreasPeyton was no stranger to A-list 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 terribly aware of what was coming out for me,” Peyton tells Polygon. The director quotes James Cameron’s Aliens And Avatar as obvious but undeniable milestones in the art of on-screen mechs. He knew that the Titanfall games would put a damper on any new live-action attempt because they had created a complete immersion in the mech combat experience. 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 RobotJox.

Peyton can’t quite explain why RobotJox was his holy grail, but when you talk to him it becomes clear: just like Gordon’s fast-paced vision of the future, in which Earth’s conflicts are settled through colorful mech duels, Atlas needed a clear, well-defined logic that would support the world-building but also let him push into the action department in a way that would delight his inner child. And ultimately it had to be original.

“My biggest thing was, I knew I had to separate myself from everything,” Peyton says. “I didn’t feel like repeating it. I said: Pac Rim‘s (mechs) are this big. In Avatarthey are this big. In Fall of the Titans, they are this big. So it will be mine this big. This one might be square and angular, so mine will be round. I come from animation. So a big part of it started with me sketching the silhouette and figuring out how to make it unique and different.

Atlas is set 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 to an alien planet with the intention of returning one day to wreak havoc on humanity. When scientists discover Harlan’s whereabouts, Terran forces launch a mission to bring the battle to the robot army’s doorstep. In charge: Atlas Shepherd (Lopez), a data analyst recruited to put Jack Ryan on Harlan’s ass. Of course, the attack doesn’t go as smoothly as the Earthlings would hope, and Atlas must reluctantly click into an AI-powered mech suit to survive an alien planet populated by androids who want her dead.

The grounded futurism of AtlasEarth led Peyton and his creative team to extrapolate current military technology for the mech design. Rounded edges and exhaust pipes are lifted from F-18 aircraft. The internal control panels are built for theoretical functionality.

“I had to understand all the technology inside out,” says Peyton. “Because of my experience on San Andreas, where I had to understand how a helicopter worked closely to tell Dwayne which buttons to press and which buttons not to press – that is, if he listened to me! — I took that experience and wanted to create a similar experience for (Lopez). I explained with the art department why there are screens in certain places, why there are holograms in other places. And on that day I give her little wires so she can say, ‘That’s this screen. That’s where the screen is.’ So after I went through the block, I pulled them away, and she had to remember where they were.

Image: Netflix

Drawings and diagrams were only half the story. After drafting a design, Peyton set out to bring his vision to life. Coming from an animation background, this meant animating several walking cycles to see if the bipedal machine could move in the right direction.

“The first few designs we had when we animated them to see how they would work – very simple animations, walk, run, walk, jog, run – looked so clunky and terrible,” says Peyton. The animation team found a groove as they clarified the dynamics between humans and machines. “(The mechs) are intuitive devices. The concept 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 must be as fluent as someone who has been trained in it.”

As Atlas traverses the biomes of Harlan’s base planet – from snowy tundra to swamps, inspired by Peyton’s love for Return of the Jedi – the film’s hero loosens up from her “no AI” stance and forms a cognitive link with her mech’s digital interface. In a twist on the buddy cop movie, the two bond for survival, which presents itself as more fluid mech movements. At first, Atlas might be bumbling around a rocky cliff. By the end, she’s running, rolling, and swatting at robot attackers with mech-fu. The early walk cycle tests came in handy for the dramatic evolution, which Peyton was able to program into a massive gimbal sound system that took the place of the mech suit. Lopez was surprisingly well suited to the demands of the mech choreography.

“Her background as a dancer meant that she could quickly assess this,” says Peyton. “As much as she looks like she’s walking, (the mech) is walking with her, and she has to react like she’s walking. Thanks to her training as a dancer, she was able to get into it right away.”

    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 alone on a stadium stage in front of thousands of people. says Peyton Atlas proved to be one of the most demanding shoots of his career, simply because Lopez performed solo for six to seven weeks 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 call in to perform dialogue from Smith, her AI companion.

All the prep work that went into realizing a mech with the capacity for real action, and clicking on a star that could control it, was meant to shock the audience, Peyton says. The first time we see the mechs in action is not an act of bravery; They are ambushed mid-flight. The transport ship goes down – and so does Atlas, in her rigging. Peyton’s imagination swirled with possibilities, as evidenced by the finished sequence. “(The mech) would tumble, it would spin, it would get hit by debris. What would it be like to be trapped in that can? What would it sound like? How would it feel? And once I’m through that experience, how can I raise the bar? Well, what if I fall through black clouds and basically end up in a World War II dogfight, but with mechs and drones? (…) That’s just the first, I don’t know, twenty 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 won’t see anywhere else.”

Atlas now streaming on Netflix.