Building M3GAN: How Animatronics, Puppetry, VFX and a Child Actor Created a New Doll Icon That Slays

There’s something off about M3GAN.

Beneath the Model 3 Generative Android’s icy blue eyes and enviable caramel tresses, she’s got homicide on the brain (or in her rapidly-evolving code, to be precise).

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When the pint-sized murder machine bores into the camera, supervising puppeteer Adrien Morot wants audiences to wriggle in their seats. “There should be that fine line of ‘Uncanny Valley’ where the finish, the eyes, the hair, everything should be looking almost real. It’s not over the top. It’s not cartoony. It should be unsettling.”

To bring M3GAN, featured in Universal’s latest feature of the same name, to life, production utilized a combination of animatronics, puppetry, VFX and a real child actor, Amie Donald. “It was decided early on that almost every medium shot would be done with a puppet,” Morot explains.

“We had six or seven different puppets that were capable of doing different things. We had some of the head moving, eyes moving, the moving torso, and there were a couple that were capable of a full computerized range of movements,” he adds. “For every shot where she would be seen walking in full or dancing in a corridor, that would be Amie wearing a mask that, if need be, would be then animated to have lip movement or the eyes moving.”

Adrien Morot on set of 'M3GAN'
Adrien Morot on the set of ‘M3GAN’

“From the start, we wanted to do something practical that didn’t rely on CG,” director Gerard Johnstone says. “That’s just more fun. And I wanted the actors to have a real thing that they can interact with.”

Finding a performer of the right height to produce M3GAN’s movements proved to be a difficult task, but when COVID forced the production to relocate from Montreal to New Zealand, there was a silver lining. “We had to look for someone here, and I didn’t think we’d find anyone,” Johnstone recalls. “But we found Amie, just down the road. She’s a fun girl who’s a national dance champion, just phenomenally talented.”

That dance training proved valuable for a scene that went instantly viral upon the trailer’s release, in which M3GANcontorts her body while fiendishly brandishing a printer’s paper-cutter. “I had in my mind more of a ‘Soul Train’ thing. A shimmy,” Johnstone says with a laugh, adding that Donald and her dance coach delivered five or six “soft choreography” options for the pivotal scene. “They were all very strange and not what I had in mind at all, but they were all kind of great and weird and disturbing.”

Amie Donald on the set of M3gan, directed by Gerard Johnstone.
Amie Donald as M3GAN

If it were up to Johnstone, that scene wouldn’t have been revealed in the trailer — a wish he’s now grateful wasn’t granted. “I was so happy to be proved wrong by Universal, who didn’t really listen to me when I said that we were giving away too much.”

“It was the gift that kept on giving,” he adds. “At that point, we weren’t sure if the film would be anything. ‘What are people gonna think of that? Are we in our own bubble here?’ The bubble burst in a big way when that trailer dropped.”

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