Detroit's Cobo Arena has been host to many spectacles in its more than 50-year history. It was the home to the Detroit Pistons during the team’s early years. It's a historic concert facility that has seen the likes of The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix and Kiss. It's where Tonya Harding's husband notoriously tried to end the career of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.
But this time last year, Cobo Arena was the site of the 2020 World Robot Boxing (WRB) Championship bout pitting Zeus against Atom, mechanical star of DreamWorks Pictures’ Real Steel.
During our visit to the set, we were reminded of Cobo's boxing roots as we were led past a statue of heavyweight champion Joe Louis and into the arena proper, where director Shawn Levy was working with star Hugh Jackman, newcomer Dakota Goyo and Atom himself on a pivotal.
Reporters settled into a row of seats in the stands, seats that didn’t provide the best angle on the massive WRB ring situated off-center of the arena. Still we could easily see the massive steel cables that provide the ropes for the oversized ring where the robots brawl.
We could also view the small crowd of extras in the stands opposite us, posing as spectators, all in black tie and dresses. This was a WRB title bout, after all, so the city's high rollers were here, parked in front of a green screen so they only had to pack four or five rows at a time, with the remaining seats to be filled digitally.
Of course, we could see Atom, towering over 6-foot-2-inch Jackman. And if our sideline view wasn’t good enough, there was also a flat-panel monitor positioned in front of us, so we could see what Levy saw as he directed his players.
While a technician readied Atom's movements for the next shot, Levy noticed us and bounded across the arena and up the stairs to where we sat. He was energetic and clearly excited about what he said is his biggest movie yet. And while the prospect of a live-action Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots may be appealing, Levy insisted he's aiming higher.
Part of that is employing new technology to wow the audience. Levy was particularly excited about the effects work at his disposal to depict the fight scenes like the one we were about to see. While there was a practical version of Atom in the arena that could move and gesture, the fighting was, of course, handled by CGI stunt doubles.
It won't surprise anyone that motion capture is utilized with real trained fighters standing in for the bots. To add an element of realism, Levy employed boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard to work with the fighters in choreographing the battles. And when the bots go at it, it's bigger, more brutal and more spectacular than human fights, which is the appeal of the new sport in the world of Real Steel.
During a video presentation, we watched the real fighters go through the fights, followed by their CG-rendered robot counterparts performing the same moves. We've all seen motion-capture technology before, but what Levy showed us next was something new.
"The way we're approaching the movie technologically has not been done before,” Levy explained. “A massive part of our tech team are the team that invented the technology for Avatar. We go to real fight venues [like the one we were in] and re-insert the robot avatars into a live-action environment in real time.
"When Ben [Stiller] and I did Night at the Museum, you're lining up a dinosaur shot with nothing. Same thing, Hugh was saying, on Wolverine. You're constantly acting to nothing," he continued. "Here, when we line up a shot, I see Hugh and I see my robot already, and I'm operating my camera to that. And that's called Simulcam B."
A short time later Levy continued filming and we were able to see Simulcam B in action. To our left was the practical WRB arena, with crowds in the stands and a camera crew on the opposite side. Jackman was in his corner of the ring, as Charlie would be for his boxer Atom. Levy began whipping up the crowd with a ring-announcer description of the robot battle unfolding.
On the monitors we could see CG-rendered robots going at it in the ring with the live-action elements all around them. As the cameras moved, tracked, zoomed and dollied around the arena, Simulcam B adjusted the angles and positions of the robots accordingly. What we were seeing -- what Levy and director of photography Mauro Fiore were seeing – was an accurate representation of what the audience will experience when those shots are edited and the CG rendering is completed.
No tennis balls. No florescent paint on sticks. Robots fighting robots perfectly integrated with their human actors who are in the middle of their performances.
But for Levy, the chance to stretch new technology wasn't the main allure of Real Steel.
"When [Steven] Spielberg called me up and said, 'Would you do this movie?' I said, 'Yes, but I don't just want to do another robot fetish movie,'" Levy explained, adding that it's hard to outdo the work done by Michael Bay, James Cameron or even McG in the Transformers and Terminator movies. "Doing a robot movie in 2011 is never going to be inherently fresh. But what is fresh, I think ... is to do a movie that has robots in it, that is unabashedly humanistic and emotional."
The movie is based on, or at least inspired by, Richard Matheson's short story Steel, which was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode starring Lee Marvin. The story contains strong themes of redemption for its leading human.
Levy told us he looked to Raging Bull, the Rocky movies and The Champ for inspiration. However, he also said he sees kinship between his movie and Spielberg's E.T.
"It's about a boy whose personal life is broken, who makes a connection with another, and it's a redemptive connection," Levy said and. He also looked to 1973's Paper Moon. "That's a father/daughter road movie, frankly, where father and daughter didn't particularly like each other or want to be with each other."
Jackman plays Charlie Kenton, a down-and-out former boxer who has been replaced by machines. Kenton is also a deadbeat dad suddenly forced to care for his young son Max (Goyo). The actor also cited Paper Moon as his reference point, and described Charlie as a huckster, driven by desperation.
"It's a bit like Rocky," Jackman said, emphasizing that same emotional factor that drew him to the project. "It's not wall-to-wall robot boxing. There are a few key fights, but really it's relationships. When I read this script I thought, 'This is like those great Spielberg movies where they really genuinely use complexity of character and magic.’ I will be surprised if it doesn't bring a tear to your eye and make you jump out of your seat."
Below Spinoff Online debuts four billboard images for Real Steel, which opens Oct. 7.