Puppets, fake tears, a young dance phenom: How ‘M3GAN’s’ killer doll came to life

A man works a creepy killer doll on a movie set.
Morot FX Studios’ Adrien Morot on the set of “M3GAN.” “One of the most unsettling things about this movie is M3GAN, and she’s onscreen all the time,” said director Gerard Johnstone. “You’re like, is she alive? Is she not? What’s going on inside her brain?”
(Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

She’s your new best friend and humanity’s worst nightmare, a high-tech AI doll with a homicidal streak. But what do animatronics, competitive dance and eyelid lubrication have to do with “M3GAN?” They’re a few of the secret ingredients that helped bring the titular doll to life in Hollywood’s next horror hit.

A titanium terror in Mary Janes, M3GAN leaps off the screen right into the uncanny valley in the Universal film, now in theaters, in which roboticist Gemma (Allison Williams) programs her eerily lifelike invention M3GAN to watch over her orphaned niece Cady (Violet McGraw) — until the self-learning companion bot goes rogue and starts killing anyone who gets in her way.

Ask Amie Donald, the New Zealand actor who makes her film debut as M3GAN, why the sentient doll sends shivers of fright down moviegoers’ spines, and she grins. It’s those bone-chilling eyes, she says over videochat, and they’re even scarier if you fix them on your prey while dancing toward them down a hallway.


“Looking at the person makes it so much more creepy than if you’re just doing a dance,” said Donald, who performed her own stunts and co-choreographed the killer dance sequence from the film that went viral on TikTok. “When you look at them, it makes them feel unsettled.”

A girl in a dress and holding a long knife stands in a hallway in "M3GAN."
Amie Donald on the set of “M3GAN,” directed by Gerard Johnstone.
(Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

From the start, says director Gerard Johnstone (“Housebound”), the challenge of “M3GAN” was finding the creepiest way to capture M3GAN on camera — and do so differently than other evil doll films, like “Child’s Play,” have in the past. “The idea of making M3GAN look more realistic was very exciting, because we hadn’t seen anything like it,” said Johnstone. The trick? “She’s got to look almost real.”

In the age of Siri and Alexa, with AI art everywhere and who knows what on the horizon, a M3GAN-esque device isn’t so far-fetched, says Blumhouse Productions’ Jason Blum, who produced the film with Atomic Monster’s James Wan.

“It’s a terrifying thought, but I’m not sure we think about this as an over-the-top concept,” said Blum via email. “Technology makes life so convenient but there are concepts that scare the crap out of me. I think our audience is savvy enough to embrace the concept that the benefits tech offers don’t always work entirely in our favor.”

With ‘Malignant,’ ‘M3GAN’ and ‘The Nun 2,’ writer Akela Cooper is the ‘merciless’ new voice of studio horror — and the genre is better for it.

Jan. 5, 2023

‘Let’s trust that she’s alive’


The first step to portraying M3GAN on screen was to prove that she could actually be made, a task entrusted to Oscar-nominated Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse of Montreal-based Morot FX Studios. WETA Workshop contributed additional designs to the film, which reportedly cost $12 million to produce. “[Morot] built a real doll, but everyone thinks that it’s CGI,” said Johnstone. “That would have quadrupled the budget!”

Working on different continents due to the pandemic, which forced production to move from Canada to New Zealand, they developed 2-D designs, 3-D renderings and molded full-sized M3GANs. The character evolved from a “Tim Burton-y” brunette to the icy blond and blue-eyed “Barbie come to life” seen in the film.

“We didn’t get a chance to R&D with her, so we were figuring it all out on set,” said Johnstone, who switched between multiple life-sized M3GANs during the shoot, including animatronic, puppet, posable and stunt M3GANs as well as Donald, who performed her scenes while wearing a prosthetic M3GAN mask. “It was freaky. It was like a crazy train that I was strapped to the front of.”

People work behind the scenes on and near a life-size doll in 'M3GAN.'
Kathy Tse, left, director Gerard Johnstone and Adrien Morot prepare M3GAN for murder with a combination of puppets and animatronics.
(Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

They quickly realized that too much puppeteering of M3GAN’s limbs made her look less human. So they adopted a minimal approach, inspired by a martial arts legend. “I’m a big Bruce Lee fan and he always talked about economy of movement,” said Johnstone. “So M3GAN moves in the most economical way. She’ll never move unless she needs to. Muppets are constantly moving to show that they’re alive. We know she’s alive. Let’s trust that she’s alive. She can do a lot with a look.”

Working with half a dozen versions of the character using different methods, however, meant they’d need VFX to match their various M3GANs.

“We figured out a day before we started shooting that these things don’t quite marry up,” said Johnstone, who turned to FIN Design and Effects of Australia to blend his M3GANs together. “It was hard work, a lot of painstaking hours. But full credit to the team, it’s pretty seamless. You can’t really tell what you’re looking at, which is a testament to them.”

From a ‘new horror icon’ to a ‘yassified Chucky,’ Blumhouse’s film ‘M3GAN’ has left an impression with fans and critics. Here’s what they have to say.

Jan. 6, 2023

‘It was like she was a jungle predator’

Casting local performer and international competitive dancer Donald, now 12, to physically embody M3GAN turned out to be fortuitous. Although it was her first film role, the actor, who has also since appeared on “Sweet Tooth,” was off book within a week and loved doing her own stunts. “She was just extraordinary,” says Johnstone.

Working with movement coaches Jed Brophy (“The Lord of the Rings”) and Luke Hawker (“Thor: Love and Thunder”) and stunt coordinator Isaac “Ike” Hamon (“Black Adam”), she developed M3GAN’s physicality, which becomes more humanlike the longer she’s around humans. She adopted barely perceptible movements — a slight cock of the head, a step a bit too close for comfort — to maximize the unsettling effect M3GAN has on people.

“They really helped me make M3GAN come to life because they taught me how to be robotic and how to get into character. They taught me everything,” says Donald, who sometimes performed with limited vision due to fogging inside her M3GAN mask.

With her gymnastic abilities, the actor surprised her director by proving she could perform the eye-catching stunts showcased in the film’s biggest set pieces on her own: a gravity-defying “cobra rise” where she lifts herself unnaturally from the ground, and an animalistic quad run, in which M3GAN drops to all fours and chases a bully through the woods.

Amie Donald on the set of "M3GAN"
Amie Donald’s silicon prosthetic face mask fogged up during filming, so eye and mouth holes were cut out on set and the scenes digitally augmented in post-production. “She looked like Leatherface from ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’” said director Johnstone, “and that was how we did the last third of the movie.”
(Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

“All of a sudden we get this video from her mother, where Amie had just figured out how to do this on the carpet at home,” said Johnstone. “And she could run on all fours! Even more than that, she got into it through a little sideways walk which we incorporated into the movie because it was so creepy and unexpected — it was like she was a jungle predator sizing up her prey.”

But Donald’s most viral contribution to “M3GAN” came out of her first love: dancing.

Not initially in the script written by Akela Cooper, Johnstone had the idea to integrate a dance moment in the film, tapping into the young actor’s skills. He gave Donald and her dance teacher Kylie Norris a set of guiding concepts for a scene in which she hunts Ronny Chieng’s David down the hallway of his own toy company, and the duo choreographed the moves that later made “M3GAN” go viral on TikTok.

“Gerard wanted it to be creepy but also kind of distracting, so Ronny wouldn’t know what she was doing,” said Donald, who included her favorite move, a no-hands aerial cartwheel, and filmed four takes set to “Walk the Night” by the Skatt Bros. “It was my favorite scene because I got to do what I love most.”

The delightfully bonkers ‘M3GAN,’ from James Wan and Akela Cooper — the minds behind ‘Malignant’ — is sure to become your newest horror movie obsession.

Jan. 4, 2023

‘Like a CG character that shouldn’t actually exist’

Shooting M3GAN’s close-ups practically involved a painstaking technical process for the film’s team of puppeteers, says Johnstone.

While voice actor Jenna Davis was later cast as the voice of M3GAN, pre-recorded lines performed by actor Kimberley Crossman were programmed into the animatronics for on-set playback and opposite her human castmates, as Morot and Tse operated different halves of M3GAN’s face via remote control.

“There was also a puppeteer behind the animatronic who would manipulate her neck to look around,” said executive producer Adam Hendricks of Divide/Conquer. “It also meant that on the day, if we had a note like, ‘Can we slow this down or change this line?’ the programmer would have to go off to the side and reprogram her phrases.”

When M3GAN had to come alive for the cameras in scenes capturing her nuanced facial expressions and dialogue, her eyes were once again the windows to her soul — or lack thereof.

Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse are near several people and a camera on set.
Adrien Morot and Kathy Tse of Morot FX bring M3GAN to life with remote controlled animatronics on the set of “M3GAN.”
(Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

“She looked like the real life version of a ‘Polar Express’ character — like a CG character that shouldn’t actually exist,” said Hendricks, adding that certain design qualities were modeled on human features: “Unlike a normal puppet where the eyelids are far from the surface of the eyeball, [Morot] made it just like a human being’s — the eyelid slides right against the eyeball when it opens and closes.”

The subtle feature helps to further blur the audience’s perception of M3GAN’s sentience — but it required fake tears to be administered to ensure her smooth, human-like remote controlled blinking while the cameras were rolling.

“Between every take they were constantly lubricating the eyes, and every now and then her eyelid would get stuck during a take which would be frustrating,” he said. “At the same time, we knew that was the trade-off for having something so lifelike.”