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Real Steel: ‘Rocky’ for robots

Real Steel, starring Hugh Jackman, is a gritty action movie set in the near-future where boxing has gone high-tech and steel robots take over the ring. In an exclusive interview, ‚robot maker‚ JOHN ROSENGRANT lifts the lid on the making of the movie.

Real Steel is A gritty, white-knuckle, action ride set in the near-future where the sport of boxing has gone high-tech. it stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring.

Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback. Rocky for Robots?

Not quite, says John Rosengrant, the movie’s Animatronic Supervisor.

Rosengrant has played a pivotal role in the creation of groundbreaking effects and iconic characters for some of Hollywood’s biggest productions, including ‚Aliens,‚ ‚Predator,‚ the ‚Terminator‚ films and the ‚Jurassic Park‚ films. In 2008, along with colleagues Alan Scott, Shane Mahan and Lindsay Macgowan, he founded Legacy Effects, where the team of artists could continue to innovate.

He answered our questions on the making of the movie:

Q: What was your role in the production of ‚Real Steel‚ ?

A: Legacy Effects built the live action animatronic, stunt and background robots for the film.

Early on, I had meetings with Shawn Levy, Erik Nash from Digital Domain and the team that was going to create all the robots. We decided that we should build the robots that Hugh [Jackman] trains in the film and Dakota’s robot, Atom. That way, they’d have something to really interact and perform with as actors. We also had to make them available for Erik Nash and his team to photograph in the shot so that they could start creating their special effects. For instance, we thought it was important to have the robot Ambush‚Äîhe fights the bull in the ring at the beginning of the movie‚Äîthere in the scene to function and react. It gave great photographic reference.

We started working with production designer Tom Meyer and his team and then got Shawn’s input. After we had those designs we started sculpting robot parts and designing in the computer. We were creating a 3D model that needed to function but also go to Erik and the guys at Digital Domain afterwards. When we were building, we were building in all of the mechanical functions, like hands and all of the various joints. The robots had to bend and move, so they were designed with a mechanical structure in mind. It was also important for them to be fluid and move. For instance, Dakota was a 10-year-old actor and he had to do lot of scenes with Atom. I think it helped him to have something to play off of.

Q: Can you describe the process of creating the robots?

A: All of the robots are lightweight and hollow. Because we’ve worked on the ‚Iron Man‚ movies and ‚Terminator Salvation,‚ we’re very dialed in to working with these lightweight urethanes that simulate the look of metal. With ‚Real Steel,‚ we really had our work cut out for us. It took us about six weeks to model these main characters and four months to actually build them. We were working with rapid prototypes, which means we milled them out and then finished them by hand. That’s a pretty quick build.

Each robot has about 350 parts, with an additional 100-something machined parts. Some of the parts in them are real metal. Usually we try to hide the interior of a model, but you can really show off the mechanics in these. Atom is 7’6‚ and he weighs about 250 pounds, so he’s actually pretty lightweight considering how big he is. Ambush is 8’3‚ , so he’s enormous too. We also built a stunt counterpart to each one of the heroes. Ambush is in the ring with the bull, so we were actually throwing him around. Then he gets slammed up against the wall to simulate the bull knocking him around and gets thrown up in the air and lands very hard. He had to be built strong and light to do all of that.

In the story, Atom is fished out of a junkyard and brought back to Bailey’s workshop. He’s completely covered in mud. That would have been a very hard shot to pull off in CG, so we loosened all of his joints and puppeteered him with the aid of some cables and rods. He sits up on the table for the first time and his eyes flicker back to life. Later, when Dakota hoses him off and cleans him up, that’s also a very difficult shot to get in CG. It was very helpful to have Atom on set to work with. On the other hand, it would have been be very difficult for us to have Atom do any boxing, so we handed him off to Digital Domain and CG. That was planned from the start.

We realized that we were working in a bit of an old-fashioned, throwback way with planning. Coordinating the work between the models and the CG was very precise but the movie came in on time and on budget and we got all the shots we needed. Everyone was so pleased that they actually added more shots later. It’s a testament to being organized and understanding how to use the assets, which is something that doesn’t always happen on films today. It really should, especially on big effects films like this.

Q: Did Shawn Levy have any special instructions or requirements for the robot design?

A: Shawn was heavily involved with production designer Tom Meyer in the beginning of the process. They were doing sketches and he was very involved with Atom’s face, trying to get real soul and humanity to come through. The original Atom design had a harsher weld across his face. The idea was that his face screen had taken a punch and gotten damaged and then been stitched up.

A lot of very careful thought went into how Atom’s face was going to read. We had various caps that we could put on his eyes that would block some of the LED lights that were his eyes. That way, sometimes he could look a little mean and sometimes he looked really bright-eyed and innocent. There were subtle little things we designed into his face to make him more of an interesting character. Shawn was instrumental in all of that. He wanted Atom to have a lot of heart and soul, which really comes across in the film.

Q: What kind of mobility do the robots actually have?

A: Quite a bit. There’s a neat shot where you see Atom step into frame and he’s completely ambulatory. He’s being rod-puppeted and every one of his joints work. He can bend at the waist. His flexibility and the puppeteering are really used for a lot of the quieter moments, too, when we’re establishing a connection between him and Dakota. There are times in the movie when Dakota is working on Atom and having hands-on interaction. You feel a really heartfelt connection between them.

Q: Is there any fun trivia you’d like to share about the robots?

A: We used over a 1,200 LED bulbs to make the different Japanese characters in Noisy Boy’s arm. There were 70 people at Legacy working on him, from machinists to artists to mold-makers. It was a very talented group and we’re very fortunate to have them.

Q: Do the Japanese characters written on Noisy Boy have any meaning?

A: Some of the Japanese people who work for me told me that the writing on Noisy Boy is the street language version of ‚Really Rude Boy or Ultra Bad Boy.‚

* ‚Real Steel‚ opens in theaters on December 2, 2011.

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @gadgetza

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