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A.X.L.

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 a less 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. "But instead of experimenting with a camera and actors, I used a computer to create 3D animations. That became a passion of mine, and I started doing freelance work, not in the entertainment 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 humanity and 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 world."

The result was a seven-minute short film called Miles, about a teenage motocross rider 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 sometimes the 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, known as 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 juxtapositions. You have neon and dirt. You have incredible mountains and landscapes. Plus, it's a very family-oriented 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 Goyer and Kevin Turen of Phantom Four Films optioned the project and helped Daly develop a feature-length 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 along to Oscar-winning producer and Lakeshore Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Tom Rosenberg, who saw how special the material was. "Oliver's short was extremely well made, and when I read the script I knew we had a movie," says Rosenberg. "Also, David Goyer's 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 saw the short while working in Prague. "I received an email from Lakeshore back in California that 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 imagery. "It 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 doing with 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 coproduce the film after "witnessing first-hand the enthusiasm and creative thinking that Oliver and the rest of the filmmaking team had for AXL" says Kassee Whiting, Director of Global Road Acquisitions and an executive producer on the project. The Global Road team has put countless 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 see," says Rosenberg. "I brought my oldest son out to the set when we were shooting the motocross scenes and he thought it was very cool. This is definitely a young person's film."

According to Lucchesi, branching out into new genres makes good business sense for Lakeshore. "We decided to make it for a younger audience because the marketplace needs more family movies."

For Daly, partnering with Lakeshore Entertainment and Global Road Entertainment has 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 a preexisting 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 professional 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 situation that Miles and his dad are in."

Thomas Jane, who costars as Miles' father, was equally taken with the film's unique 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 assure authenticity, the production called on the expertise of motocross expert Philip Hodges, the 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 was invaluable."

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 this 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. First and 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 bit of 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 passionate 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 it's awesome to work with someone like that."

Actress, pop star and model Becky G. (a.k.a. Rebbeca Marie Gomez) was cast as Sara, 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. "It 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 wanted 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 young 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 enough to convince actor Thomas Jane to sign on to play Miles' blue collar dad. "I thought Oliver's short 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 relationships on screen."

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 vision."

AXL Comes to Life

With the human cast assembled, Daly and his team turned their attention to creating the film's mechanized title character, which is described in the script as, a "quadruped robot, 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 practical animatronic one would work best for the feature version. "I wanted the actors to have the 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 team, 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. "Should it 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 really helpful. They have an enormous amount of experience with creating characters like this."

For Legacy co-owner Rosengrant, the chance to bring a character as complex as AXL to 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 Legacy."

To give AXL a more lifelike appearance, Rosengrant decided early on to put a live actor 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. "I've worked 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 cavity." Made of a variety of composite materials, including urethanes, resins, fiberglass, and 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 bringing the body language and we were on the outside controlling various movements and operating 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 when they 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 walk 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 time, I placed my hand inside AXL's jaws," says Neustaedter. "I was probably messing around or something, and one of the puppeteers was closing the jaw at the exact same time and it 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 MacNicoll, who 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 most appealing things about the job!"

It was the first time that MacNicoll had worked with a life-size puppet and the experience 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. It literally 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 was a movie star."

For Daly, working with the AXL suit was a creative joy. "I truly believe the puppetry we 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 felt great reverence while working with that puppet on set and over the course of the shoot."

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 was 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 and the resources to go on this journey with me."

According to McQuaide, the key challenge was capturing the title character's emotion. "The question we kept coming back to was how to get empathy out of a robot. You have to 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 created the character's high-tech visual programming, which is seen during POV shots. "We used 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 allows the 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 some important real-life issues, namely the dangers of unchecked technological advancement. "We 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 these 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 intelligence called 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 than its human creator. Most scientists believe that's inevitable."

Alex MacNicoll sees AXL as a cautionary tale in some respects. "We create miraculous 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 can be 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, it's an 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 authoritarianism." According to Jane, the sci-fi concepts in AXL are quickly becoming a reality. "We're 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."

Top Dog

Having worked firsthand with their remarkable robotic co-star, the cast of AXL believes 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 left 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 AXL." For Daly, AXL represents the culmination of a cinematic dream that began many years 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 involved."

Asked what he hopes audiences will take away from seeing his film, Daly pauses and 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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