About The Production
Not all young filmmakers learn the craft of moviemaking the same way. While most
attend film schools or gain experience by apprenticing on movie sets, some take
traditional approach. For Oliver Daly, the journey to writing and directing his
debut feature AXL
began in the unlikely world of high-tech medical science.
"I always wanted to get into movies, and I started when I was a kid," says Daly.
instead of experimenting with a camera and actors, I used a computer to create
That became a passion of mine, and I started doing freelance work, not in the
industry, but in the biomedical and scientific world."
Utilizing cutting-edge 3D graphics, Daly animated advanced medical technologies,
including implantable devices like heart pacemakers. "Before long, however, I
started to get an
itch to create my own original stories on film."
A lifelong fan of the science-fiction genre, Daly took his knowledge of computer
animation and began to develop a short film dealing with themes relating to
technology. "In a roundabout way, those early 3D animations informed my
narrative film work,
since they're the closest you can get to science fiction in a non-fiction
The result was a seven-minute short film called Miles, about a teenage motocross
who encounters a sophisticated dog-like robot in the California desert. "When I
conceived of the
story," Daly recalls, "I was thinking about early sci-fi monster movies, like
Frankenstein and The
Island of Lost Souls, where a creature is created by a scientist as a power
grab, or by the
military as a way to control other people. Those films show us that humans are
real monsters, and the monster is just a reflection of our own fears and greed."
Setting the film in the rough and tumble world of off-road motorcycle racing,
motocross, was a way for Daly to inject even more excitement into the material.
"I knew I
wanted to make something that moved fast and could keep up with the concepts I
had in mind,"
he says. "I decided on motocross because it combines so many different
have neon and dirt. You have incredible mountains and landscapes. Plus, it's a
sport, though it can be dangerous as well."
Combining live-action footage and impressive CG effects, Miles debuted online on
January 10, 2015, and quickly generated interest from Hollywood. Producers David
Kevin Turen of Phantom Four Films optioned the project and helped Daly develop a
script that expanded the story and the action.
Lakeshore and Global Road Step Up
Both the short film and the feature-adaptation script were eventually passed
Oscar-winning producer and Lakeshore Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Tom
Rosenberg, who saw how special the material was. "Oliver's short was extremely
and when I read the script I knew we had a movie," says Rosenberg. "Also, David
involvement was very important because he's such a well-respected writer and
producer and we
liked him very much. He's quite an asset."
Gary Lucchesi, President of Lakeshore Entertainment and a producer on AXL, first
the short while working in Prague. "I received an email from Lakeshore back in
said there was a short I should take a look at. So I sat in my Czech hotel room
looking at it and
thinking, 'God, that's really cool! It's like Iron Man as a dog!'"
Lakeshore's Head of Production Richard Wright, also a producer on AXL, was
especially impressed with Daly's use of sophisticated visual effects and digital
was an incredibly ambitious short," says Wright. "And it answered several
critical questions that
a filmmaker needs to answer: Can they direct actors? Do they know what they're
special effects? Do they know how to edit in a way that feels cinematic? Do they
know how to
market themselves? And in this case, the answers were all yes."
Global Road Entertainment, a preeminent worldwide content studio, was eager to
the film after "witnessing first-hand the enthusiasm and creative thinking that
the rest of the filmmaking team had for AXL" says Kassee Whiting, Director of
Acquisitions and an executive producer on the project. The Global Road team has
hours of manpower into developing and executing the optimal marketing
activations and release
strategies for the film.
The producers at Lakeshore, a company primarily known for producing hard-hitting
thrillers, action films and adult-oriented dramas, acknowledge that the
family-friendly nature of
AXL represents a change of pace. "It's nice to make a movie my kids can actually
Rosenberg. "I brought my oldest son out to the set when we were shooting the
scenes and he thought it was very cool. This is definitely a young person's
According to Lucchesi, branching out into new genres makes good business sense
Lakeshore. "We decided to make it for a younger audience because the marketplace
more family movies."
For Daly, partnering with Lakeshore Entertainment and Global Road Entertainment
been a dream come true. "It's amazing to get the kind of support they've offered
me as a first-time
filmmaker with an original story," says the writer-director. "AXL isn't based on
novel or a comic book. It's not a sequel to anything, and it's not my fifth
movie. So for Lakeshore
and Global Road to give me these resources is wonderful."
Start Your Engines!
Like the short it's based on, AXL takes place in the thrilling world of
motocross. "The more I reached out to people in the motocross community and
explored it as a
filmmaker, the more I realized what an incredibly rich setting it was for a
film," says Daly.
Actor Alex Neustaedter, who plays the protagonist, Miles, found the motocross
environment particularly exciting. "I didn't know much about the sport before
this project, but I
was always kind of intrigued by it. It's a fascinating world, and we portray it
accurately in the
film. You go to a motocross race and the majority of contestants are in the same
Miles and his dad are in."
Thomas Jane, who costars as Miles' father, was equally taken with the film's
milieu. "The motocross world is a really strong community of good people who
are, for lack of a
better term, adrenaline junkies," says Jane. "You might think of them as dirt
surfers. Many of
these kids have been racing since they were four years old, and they're just
fantastic at it."
Producer Wright believes the motocross element adds a tremendous sense of
exhilaration to the film. "When you get 20 riders all ready to go at the
starting line, there's this
incredible tension that happens. You don't realize just how fast these guys go,
or how loud it is,
until you see them for real. The speeds they get up to are astounding."
Staging race scenes that were both exciting and believable was a challenge. To
authenticity, the production called on the expertise of motocross expert Philip
patriarch of a motocross family. "He's the father of Axell Hodges, a top
freestyle rider," says
Wright, "and he was able to connect us with a lot of the insiders in the
motocross world, which
Since motocross can be a dangerous sport, an expert stunt team was assembled to
minimize the risks. "Todd Schneider, our stunt coordinator, was a huge asset on
production," says Wright. "Dirt bikes can go 70 miles per hour, and they get
from zero to 70 in
about four seconds, so people can get seriously hurt if something goes wrong.
foremost, you need to have a very strong sense of safety. And that's Todd."
A Youth-Driven Cast
To bring the non-robotic characters in AXL to life, the filmmakers gathered an
accomplished group of actors from both film and television.
Alex Neustaedter was Daly's top choice to portray Miles, whom he describes as "a
a Luke Skywalker character, but with a James Dean quality as well."
Neustaedter jumped at the chance to take on the role. "I love working with
people, and I was impressed with how passionate Oliver was about this film when
I met him. It
was such a collaborative process. He was always open to hearing new ideas, and
to work with someone like that."
Actress, pop star and model Becky G. (a.k.a. Rebbeca Marie Gomez) was cast as
a character that Daly calls "the true hero of the story."
Gomez was on the set of another film when she first saw Daly's original short.
captured my full attention right away," she says. "It was filled with these
beautiful montages of
two kids and this amazing robot, and I knew I wanted to meet Oliver and see
where his head
was at. I couldn't wait to learn more about the story."
After reading the script, Gomez met with Daly to flesh out the role of Sara. "I
more layers to her, and Oliver said, 'Then let's make her together.' That was
such an amazing
thing to hear, because it was the first time I got to collaborate with a
director on making
important decisions about a character."
The actress refers to AXL as "a passion project," and hopes that her millions of
fans will embrace Sara's spirit, strength and independence. "She's a unique
character and very
close to my heart," Gomez says. "There's something about her that's real and
relatable, and I
wish there were more roles like her."
The visual style and emotional honesty of Daly's original short was more than
convince actor Thomas Jane to sign on to play Miles' blue collar dad. "I thought
film was fascinating because it had a cinema verite style to it," he says. "It
was very naturalistic,
with real teenagers in realistic situations. He was searching for the truth of
who these kids were.
I could tell that he was interested in their lives, and was creating authentic
For the role of Sam, the cocky young motocross star whose wealth and entitlement
threatens to destroy Miles' chances of success, Daly turned to actor Alex
MacNicoll. "He's the
best," says Daly of the young actor known to fans of the series "Transparent"
for his role as
Colton, the teenage son of Jay Duplass' character. "His inherent likability is
what makes the
antagonist he plays so interesting and threatening."
Like his fellow cast members, MacNicoll was surprised by the creative input Daly
allowed him in developing his part. "Oliver really let each of us bring whatever
we wanted to the
role, and then he molded it by offering great suggestions to make it fit his
AXL Comes to Life
With the human cast assembled, Daly and his team turned their attention to
film's mechanized title character, which is described in the script as, a
instantly recognizable as a dog in appearance, but closer in size to a bear."
Though Daly's original film starred a computer-generated robot, he believed a
animatronic one would work best for the feature version. "I wanted the actors to
experience of working with something that's actually on set, and not get lost in
a CGI experience
that doesn't feel fully grounded in a natural environment."
The look of the robot was the subject of many discussions among the production
according to Wright. "Which is funny because when Oliver brought the project to
us, he already
had a design for the character, and it's largely what we ended up with."
The debate centered on what AXL's head would look like, says the producer.
look mean and nasty, the way a military robot would probably look? Or should it
be more like an
actual dog? That was where working with John Rosengrant and Legacy Effects was
helpful. They have an enormous amount of experience with creating characters
For Legacy co-owner Rosengrant, the chance to bring a character as complex as
life was a challenge he couldn't resist. "After seeing Oliver's short and
talking with him about the
script, I realized that AXL could become a really iconic character. And that's
what we do at
To give AXL a more lifelike appearance, Rosengrant decided early on to put a
inside an elaborate robot suit. "By incorporating a suit performer inside, we
could give AXL a
sense of genuine body language."
Having worked with stuntman and creature performer Dorian Kingi on several other
projects, Rosengrant knew he would be perfect for the job. "Dorian puts up with
the rigors of
being in a suit like this, which is not easy. It requires a Zen mindset that you
have to get in to
work through the discomfort."
Selling the illusion that AXL is alive was a group effort, according to Kingi.
with Legacy in the past, but this was the most collaborative suit I've ever been
involved with. It
took four additional people to puppeteer AXL when I was inside the suit's body
Made of a variety of composite materials, including urethanes, resins,
aluminum, the AXL suit weighs approximately 150 pounds and features various
added rigs that
handle specific functions.
"We all had to come together to control it," says Rosengrant. "Dorian was inside
the body language and we were on the outside controlling various movements and
the ears, mouth, and eyes. But it all came together like a little band, really.
After a while it
becomes very intuitive. You feed off each other and know how to do it."
While Rosengrant and his team did a remarkable job making AXL into a believable
character, the Oscar-nominated effects artist credits the human actors with much
of its success.
"Working with this cast has been fantastic," says Rosengrant. "They really
respond to having
AXL on set, which makes our job much easier. The believability you get from them
interact with the suit helps raise him up a notch."
Neustaedter was stunned when he saw the AXL suit for the first time. "Seeing him
on set was crazy!" recalls the young actor. "Even though he's mechanical,
there's a fluidity to his
movement and an expressiveness to his face. His ears go up. His eyes follow you.
You can get
up close, touch him, and feel his response."
That type of physical interaction created some funny surprises on set. "One
placed my hand inside AXL's jaws," says Neustaedter. "I was probably messing
something, and one of the puppeteers was closing the jaw at the exact same time
accidentally came straight down on my hand! It didn't hurt or anything, but I
have to admit that it
freaked me out a little bit. It was hilarious."
A dog owner herself, Gomez found herself developing an unexpectedly strong
relationship with the robot puppet. "I joked around with AXL between takes," she
says. "I'd try to
get him to do tricks, because it can be a long day and you want to have fun. He
was like my own
puppy! I'd get him to do things like give me his paw, or give me little nuzzles
and kisses. It was
amazing to be able to actually touch him and look him in the eyes."
Acting alongside a mechanical co-star was part of the initial attraction for
shares several intense scenes with AXL. "Having grown up with movies like E.T.
and The Iron
Giant, I'd have to say that getting to act with a giant robot dog was one of the
things about the job!"
It was the first time that MacNicoll had worked with a life-size puppet and the
is one he won't soon forget. "You've got Dorian Kingi acting inside of AXL,
which is awesome
because he really brings it to life. There are rods attached to its head to do
all the detailed
movements, and a team of puppeteers controlling the eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.
seems to be alive in that moment."
Or as producer Tom Rosenberg puts it: "The first time I saw AXL on set I knew he
For Daly, working with the AXL suit was a creative joy. "I truly believe the
have in this film is some of the best that's ever been done," he says. "I was
able to direct AXL as
I'd direct any other human actor. We could improvise and experiment together. I
reverence while working with that puppet on set and over the course of the
To create the action sequences that required AXL to jump and run, the filmmakers
turned to James McQuaide, visual effects supervisor and senior vice president of
postproduction at Lakeshore. Coming from an animation background himself, Daly
particularly excited to work with the veteran digital FX wizard.
"Collaborating with James McQuaide was great," says Daly. "I'm used to doing
everything myself, so it's amazing to work with somebody who has the experience
resources to go on this journey with me."
According to McQuaide, the key challenge was capturing the title character's
"The question we kept coming back to was how to get empathy out of a robot. You
really work the animation to get that level of realism. But that's what makes it
fun. Every time we
had an opportunity to get some emotion out of AXL, and hopefully out of the
audience as well,
we took it."
In addition to animating the robot during the action scenes, McQuaide also
character's high-tech visual programming, which is seen during POV shots. "We
computer-generated imagery to illustrate what AXL is thinking. That's how we are
able to learn
visually what his mission is, and how he sees and interprets the world, which
audience to better understand what he's all about."
Fact meets Science Fiction
Although AXL is a family-friendly adventure film, it nevertheless deals with
important real-life issues, namely the dangers of unchecked technological
are a very self-destructive species unfortunately," says Daly. "And new
technologies are often
developed as weapons. As I see it, the biggest danger is that the people with
technologies have a lot of power, and that power can corrupt us very quickly."
Daly based AXL's creation on a real theory in the field of artificial
recursive self-improvement. "The idea is that when you create an artificial
intelligence that's able
to improve itself, it does so not in small increments, but exponentially. It
grows in multiples,
getting smarter and more capable, until it becomes more technologically advanced
human creator. Most scientists believe that's inevitable."
Alex MacNicoll sees AXL as a cautionary tale in some respects. "We create
things like smart phones and robots, all these amazing tools that we use every
day. But there's
a chance that, in the wrong hands or for the wrong purposes, these technologies
incredibly harmful. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it's a real
danger. This movie is a
thrill. It's got dirt bikes, explosions, and all kinds of amazing stuff. But on
a deeper level it
reflects some important issues that our society deals with."
Thomas Jane agrees. "I think this movie is important right now. I mean, sure,
entertaining family film, and it's got motocross and robots in it. But, on a
deeper level, it's an
expression of the angst and fear that we all feel about military-industrial
According to Jane, the sci-fi concepts in AXL are quickly becoming a reality.
approaching the age of A.I., or the singularity, as it's sometimes called.
Machine intelligence is
growing exponentially every year, and technology is moving so fast that what we
used to think
of as science fiction is happening today. This film shows that A.I. isn't
necessarily the problem.
It's the people who control the A.I. that are the problem."
Having worked firsthand with their remarkable robotic co-star, the cast of AXL
that audiences will be every bit as impressed with him as they were on set.
"People are going to
be intrigued by the uniqueness of the relationship between Miles and AXL, which
is like a boy
and his dog," says Neustaedter. "They're going to be blown away by how real and
lifelike he is."
Gomez praises the film's dynamic action sequences, and expects viewers will be
breathless by the end of the movie. "It's just so cool. I mean, come on, the
booms, the bangs,
and the robot dog! Audiences are going to be very entertained when they see
For Daly, AXL represents the culmination of a cinematic dream that began many
ago. "I'm humbled when I see the incredible work, talent, and art that has gone
into realizing this
idea I had," he says. "I just feel a profound sense of gratitude for all
Asked what he hopes audiences will take away from seeing his film, Daly pauses
offers a thoughtful response: "First, I hope they have an emotional experience
they can share
with one another. And second, I hope they go home and give their dog a kiss. I
actually do want
people think about their dogs a bit differently after seeing AXL, because
they're such an
incredible part of our human culture. Dogs really do love us, and we love them
with a very pure
kind of love. They remind us of what's truly important."
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