In our previous reports from the Detroit set of DreamWorks’ sci-fi drama Real Steel, director Shawn Levy and star Hugh Jackman emphasized their aim is to tell a story that’s “humanistic and emotional.” Still, there’s no denying that this is a movie about enormous robot boxers pummeling each other in the ring, and as such, a lot of creative energy was devoted to creating the mechanical players.
Levy stressed that the robots of Real Steel aren't autonomous or sentient – their every move is controlled by humans.
"They're robots and they're given personality by their aesthetic,” Jackman said. “They're also given personality by their owners and handlers, the way they fight 'em and the place where they fight.”
Production designer Tom Meyer met with us on the set to discuss the process of developing the film’s robots. "They are characters. I think that was what Shawn Levy and I talked about as a core idea," Meyer said, adding that there was freedom in working from a fresh slate, rather than a comic book or toy design. However, that didn't mean he could just crank out designs that he though looked cool.
"I approached it as I would approach any design for any aspect of a film,” he said. “It's driven by the story and it's driven by the characters in that story. If you identify those characters, and you understand the plot and the driving arc of that storyline, the characters will fill out your world and your world will become self-evident."
Although Real Steel is a science fiction movie, Levy, Jackman and Meyer refer to it as a fable. For Meyer, that meant incorporating future tech sparingly while keeping a sense of timelessness. "A blade of grass is a blade of grass. It was the same a million years ago, it's gonna be the same a million years from now,” he said. “So if I put a robot in a field, who’s to say that's the future, the past or the present, or any time?"
Meyer's task was to make the robot fighters seem plausible without being obsessive about creating the future technology that made them work. "One of the things we wanted to do is give them arms, legs, a kind of humanoid, because it’s an extension of a human sport,” he said. “But then I wanted them to not be overly complicated. I used big pistons and big, recognizable mechanical structures so that we, again, do not feel like they're magic."
The designer also had to create a boxing ring that could withstand the fury of these mechanical powerhouses.
"We looked at boxing matches, and the physicality of boxing is about energy and energy displacement,” Meyer explained. “It's two guys beating each other up, but when you think about what the ring is designed to do, you have a sprung floor that bounces with the boxers, you have ropes that absorb. It's all about energy absorption. So, I thought, if I have robots that are 1,200 or 1,500 pounds, I need a floor with seismic shocks underneath it, which is what you see underneath the floor. I got huge steel cables with lots of spring and lots of tension."
In addition to building the robots up from recognizable pieces of current tech, Meyer utilized negative space, "punching holes through the robots so that they very clearly do not look like a man in a suit.”
“You need to see that they are clearly machines," he said.
From there it was up to the team at Legacy Effects, successor to Stan Winston Studios, to convert those designs into practical, functioning 3D models that could work both as CGI creations and as practical animatronic creations.
During our set visit we saw the film's robotic protagonist Atom at work in the ring. While the practical bot doesn’t handle the fight scenes, it’s capable of some gestures and motions to allow it to act in real time with its human counterparts. Legacy’s Jason Matthews was on hand to talk about the practical effects that appear in the movie.
"We have 26-and-a-half total live-action robots that were made for this film," he said. "The all have hydraulic neck controls. Atom has RC hands as well."
Those consist of ones like the model we were standing next to, which are there to give the actors something more to act against. Matthews also talked about stunt models, as well as stand-in models, which were mostly there to occupy the backgrounds in certain scenes.
"We have a half robot for a scene where Zeus tears a robot in half," Meyer said. "It's on a cart being driven away after a fight. It's a live-action with a bit electric motor inside, flailing its arms and legs, rigged with sparks and smoke."
Zeus represents the most advanced model robot fighter ever created. Meyer explained that, in the sanctioned, professional setting of the World Robot Boxing league, there are limitations in how a robot can be constructed.
"The height limitation is 8 feet, 6 inches, and anywhere down from there. The idea is that there are three generations, and we're on our third generation of robot. Zeus is a G-3 and Atom is more of a G-2. They started with Generation 1, the first part of humanoid robots," Meyer said.
He likened the sport to NASCAR, where cars are built along the same spec lines. The challenge in WRB, as in NASCAR, is to engineer a better fighter within the limitations of the specs
"A moving robot has different limitations. For instance, when they talk about Atom having the shadow mode, there is a reference to, 'Oh, that has shadow mode. That takes up a lot of memory. What a rare thing to have,'" Meyer explained.
Atom's shadow boxing mode is an important aspect of the story. Atom was never designed for matches: He was a sparring dummy and his shadow mode allowed him to emulate the moves and techniques of other robots, so that true prizefighters could practice for upcoming bouts.
Jackman explained that this this provides his character Charlie, a former boxer himself, with a unique way to interact with Atom as his corner man.
"You'll see me early on, with some of my robots, using a remote control. You'll see me with a headset on, I'm giving voice commands, which is what I do most of the time," Jackman told us. "Then this robot has a shadow function, which I use to load punch sequences."
Still, Atom is only considered a Generation 2 robot, whereas he'll eventually have to face Zeus, a G-3.
"What makes [Zeus' designer] Tak Mashido so special is he's the guy who can pack the most into his robots, and that's why they're so dominant,” Meyer said. “Tak Mashido is sort of revered because he is this boy genius and can pack a lot into his robots.”
Real Steel arrives in theaters on Oct. 7.