Humans: how Gemma Chan perfected the synth body language

Channel 4's Humans choreographer Dan O'Neill and star Gemma Chan talk about creating artificial movements, "synth school" - and why robots are great at disco

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“I tried not to look at anyone else’s versions,” Humans choreographer Dan O’Neil tells me when I ask him how he came up with the series’ unique robot movements. “I didn’t go back to A.I or Blade Runner or those films that have synthetics or robots.

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“I thought to find our own version – even if it ended up being similar to someone else’s – we had to go right back to ‘how do we make an ideal human?’ as a premise really: who’s completely efficient, who conserves energy, who doesn’t demonstrate emotional conditions or moods or politics or any of those things.”

The result is what you see on screen in Humans – smooth, graceful movements from every actor playing a robot (or “synth”), to the point where you can almost forget they’re played by real people, and aren’t just some pretty impressive special effects.

The uncanny feat wasn’t easy though – every actor playing a synth had to go to “synth school”, where they learned the basic movements they needed to portray the robotic types in the series as well as techniques for not slipping back into normal body language.

“Any of the actors who have to play a synth, including the supporting actors, would go through it,” says series star Gemma Chan, who plays enigmatic automaton Anita in the series. “There’s a physical language that we wanted to have so people weren’t just doing their own thing.

“These things are ultimately machines and they run on battery power so every movement has to have an economy and a grace to it,” Chan continues. “Things like putting down a glass – we put down and just take the shortest route – but one of these things putting down a glass would take the direct route and it would have to land exactly perfectly as these things have perfect eyesight and there’d be no wobbling of the glass.

“So all the natural human errors we’re physically making all the time, like I’m constantly bumping into things, trying to eliminate all those things and act on top of that was a challenge but it was good fun.”

But according to Dan, it wasn’t just the synths who were challenged by the choreography, with many of the “human” actors unconsciously mimicking their synth co-stars.

“They’re suddenly talking to someone who’s very well placed and they feel all these aches in their shoulders and start trying to straighten up and organising their body shapes,” Dan explains. “And I say ‘no, no, no, you have to keep the counterpoint – you have to stay as human and messy and as instinctive as you can’.”

Then, of course, the synths began to mimic the humans. “The synthetic actors start trying to do the instinctive acting back, so they start raising eyebrows, doing head angles or breaking up body lines because they’re trying to empathise with their fellow actor, but there’s got to be that physical separation,” Dan explains. “That’s been a real challenge and that’s why I’ve remained with the project the whole way through.”

Sounds tough – but Dan says his robotic choreography wasn’t all hard graft. In fact, it turns out some mechanical movements can be rather groovy…

“We had synth disco, that was great fun,” he says. “I desperately want to get it into this show somehow. I tasked some of the synthetics to come up with a kind of Beyonce Knowles–type routine. Then they codified it and made up a routine and I told them you can break it up and do it in any order you want in a club, but you can only do those moves, you have no other vocabulary.

“We had punters coming in – human beings who were at the club – chatting up synths and dancing with them. It was hysterical. The signals you expect to get back when we dance together, how we echo each other’s movements; they just weren’t doing that.”

One thing’s for sure – they would have absolutely aced doing the robot.

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Humans is on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9.00pm