Weta Digital just might be the biggest name in visual effects right now. With Peter Jackson as one of its founding members, Weta has won five Oscars so far for work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and Avatar - and the latter film featured Weta's pioneering motion-capture technology that allowed them to capture the real-time facial expressions of actors and translate them onto digital characters.
Despite the name, however, Weta isn't all about digital effects. For Neill Blomkamp's (District 9) politically-charged new sci-fi film Elysium, the special effects team built hundreds of physical props, including not only futuristic weapons but also the powered exoskeleton that Max de Costa (Matt Damon) uses in his quest to reach the idyllic space station called Elysium in an attempt to cure himself of radiation sickness obtained during an industrial accident.
A new featurette posted over at Yahoo gives an overview of some of the technology used in Weta and how it was designed for practical use by the actors. There's not too much in the way of new footage from the film, but the feature does contain quite a few behind-the-scenes clips of Damon putting his new gadgets to good use against an onslaught of droids and soldiers, as well as some footage shot inside the Weta workshop when the special effects team were still putting everything together.
The exoskeleton gives Max massively boosted strength and stamina, putting him on the same level as the droids who patrol Earth and keep the underclass in line. This element of the film is actually no longer science fiction - as Blomkamp mentions, it is based on the real-life HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier) battery-powered exoskeletons designed for use by the military, which give the wearer greater strength, mobility and endurance and enable them to carry weights of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time. Max's HULC suit appears to have a little more power, but the downside is that he has to have it screwed directly into his bones and nervous system.
In reality, wearing the HULC suit wasn't quite as traumatic, though obviously the version used in the making of Elysium wasn't functional. Damon says that the lightweight suit designed by Weta weighed only 25lbs and that he was able to wear it all day with full freedom of movement. The structure of the suit meant that it moved with his body, and the thing also looks pretty durable.
BONUS: We didn't cover it previously, so here is a second Elysium featurette, focusing on the world of the film:
Between the HULC exoskeleton and the Martin Jetpack, it won't be too long before we're all flipping cars, leaping over buildings and flying through the air (probably).
Elysium is out in theaters on August 9, 2013.