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Two massive robot fighters, each seven feet tall, faced one another in a dark basement, engrossed in a steely-eyed standoff until one of the opponents, Atom, finally broke the tension by nodding and rotating his head.
“He’s a ham!” laughed Legacy Effect’s John Rosengrant, the animatronic robot supervisor for Real Steel.
Set in a near future where robot fighting has outpaced human boxing in popularity, the DreamWorks drama features enormous mechanical stars whose construction fell to Rosengrant and visual effects supervisor Erik Nash. They walked Spinoff Online and other members of the press through the basics, starting with the practical robots themselves.
“The idea was to focus on the ones Hugh Jackman and Dakota Goyo would interact with, to have practical representations of those,” Rosenbrant explained as a puppeteer made Atom’s head nod in agreement. “The idea was to give them something to really interact with.”
He and his team built all the practical puppets used on the set of director Shawn Levy’s film, creating 21 unique background robots along with Atom, Ambush and Noisy Boy, the other robot in the room. The animatronics supervisor also said it was important for the actors to spend time with the robots, especially in the case of child actor Goyo, who plays Max.
“Because it was a 10-year-old boy playing the role, it became really important to have something he can connect to,” Rosengrant said. “When Dakota came on set and first saw [Atom] moving around, there was a sense of wonder, and I think that’s captured in the performance.”
“In his scenes I think it was much easier for him to relate to this character because he had a real robot there, as opposed to acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick,” Nash added.
Explaining that production designer Tom Meyer and his team designed the robots with Levy’s input, Rosengrant said they paid the most attention to Atom’s face.
“Shawn was very specific about how this was going to read,” he said. Pointing to the tear in Atom’s mesh face that looked almost like a smile, he continued, “The idea was this character got punched in the face at one point and it ripped and was sewn back, but it gave him a little bit of a placid human look to him.”
Rosengrant and his team made sketches and digital sculptures to see how the robots would move they actually began construction of the puppet, which each contained about 350 individual machine parts. Each joint could be loosened to allow puppeteers to move the robots’ limbs with rods.
“There’s a really neat scene after [Atom’s] been fished out of the robot junkyard and he’s completely covered with mud and he’s laying on the table, and we have all the joints loose and he sits up,” Rosengrant said. “It was a magical moment, but it would have been a really hard one for Erik and his team because it was all covered in mud and dust and dirt coming off it. It adds an extra, interesting element.”
With each main “hero” robot weighing in around 250 pounds, Rosengrant said the seven-foot puppets were very light, and the stunt robots used in the fight scenes were 50 pounds lighter. With only four months to construct the robots, Rosengrant confessed they wouldn’t have finished on time if it hadn’t been for digital sculpting and recent breakthroughs in digital technology.
“If we were sculpting it all out old school by hand and then trying to figure out how this big ball would rotate inside here and how it would bend over, we just wouldn’t have able to do it,” he said. “Ten years ago it would have been impossible.”
In addition to building the robot puppets, Rosengrant and his crew added little individual touches, from the mesh smile on Atom to the flashing LED screens on Noisy Boy’s arms that flashed different phrases and Japanese words as he fought.
“When his arm is ripped off when he is knocked out they flash ‘the end,’” Rosengrant revealed, adding that the words painted on Noisy Boy’s armor translate to the “street Japanese” version of his name, “Really Rude Boy.”
Nash, who worked on the digital end animating the robot fight scenes, said that having practical robots actually made his job run more smoothly. “It makes the digital job easier to photograph a real robot and to compare it to the digital robots to make it look real, and [it] made the process faster,” he said.
While Atom, Ambush and Noisy Boy all had animatronic counterparts, Midas, Twin Cities and the main villain robot Zeus existed only in the digital realm. Coached by boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard, actors in motion-capture suits acted out the fight scenes, with Nash and his team applying crude digital renderings of the robots over the performers. Shooting the fight scenes in advance actually helped Levy, as a new technology allowed Nash to load the pre-recorded animated footage into the cameras. With that, Levy and his crew could see in real time where the robots would be boxing as they filmed the live-action scenes.
“It allowed the movie to be photographed in a much more organic, visceral way because the camera operator is in the ring, reacting to the robots, moving the camera in sync with the robots movements as opposed to just shooting empty space and imagining the robots and putting them in after the fact,” Nash said.
After that the animation went back to being more traditional, with Nash’s team polishing the robots by adding detail, shadows and light, and “hardening up” the punches and foot falls, a process that took 18 months. For the design of the fully digital robots, Nash said they took the look of their owners and operators into consideration.
“That part of the design was considered at the very outset, so that we knew Midas was going to fight in this sort of venue using underworld robots and he had a certain kind of attitude, and that played both into the casting of his operator — who, interestingly enough, is our stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, who was terrific as Midas’ handler,” Nash said.
He laughed as the Atom robot nodded his head in agreement, adding, “He wound up getting a lot more screen time than I think anybody imagined because he was so great at it!”
Real Steel opens today nationwide.
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