Two robots slug it out in Real Steel

Visual effects specialist John Rosengrant discusses the real working robots of Real Steel

Every year, when The Academy Awards nominations are announced, the news feeds are innundated with loads of "reaction" pieces from the trade papers, i.e. the nominees reacting to the news. As luck would have it, I ended up doing the same thing yesterday with visual effects guru John Rosengrant, who I was already scheduled to speak with for his work on Real Steel, which debuted on three-disc Blu-ray, two-disc Blu-ray, and DVD January 24. Just hours before we spoke, John Rosengrant was nominated in the Visual Effects category for Real Steel, which is quite well-deserved, in my opinion.

John Rosengrant served as the animatronic supervisor on Real Steel, which means he and his team at Legacy Effects (formerly Stan Winston Studios), literally created the gigantic robots such as Atom and Noisy Boy for director Shawn Levy's futuristic drama. Take a look at what John Rosengrant had to say below.

First off, congratulations on the Oscar nomination. I was up bright and early and saw that.

John Rosengrant: Oh, thank you very much. I was up early too. I usually get up around 5:30 or quarter to six anyway, so I thought maybe I got lucky and took a peek.

I was actually on the set in Detroit, when they were shooting in Cobo Hall. We saw some of the actual robots you guys built, and saw them function. I was curious though, for a project like this, how early do you guys have to come on? Did Shawn come to you, or can you talk about how that process worked?

John Rosengrant: Sometimes we do come on that early, when it's just getting off the ground, but on this one, Shawn had been working with Tom Meyer, who is the production designer, on coming up with the main characters. When they reached a point where they had those designs, and (executive producer) Steven Spielberg had approved them, then we came in and got on board. Our job was to create these things, obviously, in the real world. We took those designs of Tom's, and he had these simple 3D models and some great 2D artwork. Those 3D models served as nice guide, but every part had to be re-modeled. There are about 300 parts to the 'hero' robots. We re-modeled them all digitally, and we had freedom to tweak stuff and make sure it would work in the real world. We had to check the joints and make sure the shells wouldn't crash, and make sure it also functioned.

They talked on the set about the limitations these robots had. They had to be between a certain height, and things like that. How did those limitations figure into your work?

John Rosengrant: Well, part of our first meeting that I had with Shawn, was how they would use these robots. Josh McLaglen and Ron Ames were producers on this movie, Ron being the VFX producer, and Josh having done Titanic and Avatar. The game plan was how to figure out how we would all help each other out. I would take on shots that would be very difficult to do in CG. And, it would be very difficult for me to make these robots jump around and box. We knew, going in, how this would break down, and how we would help each other. For the real touchy-feely sort of shots, where Atom or one of them is being worked on, and the actors are really touching them, or there's tight interaction between, say, Dakota (Goyo) and Atom, we knew all of that was going to be done practically. Things like when Atom sits up for the first time, after he's been reactivated, and all the dirt and mud is crumbling off of him, that was very important for us to do. That's very hard to do in CG. We would pick our spots where we wanted to utilize the practical versus the digital. Something that was really important to Shawn, was the fact that, in real time, there was a robot that could react right in front of Dakota, helping his performance. It was magical to him. He was 10 years old, and I think there was a sparkle in his eye, because here's Atom, in shadow mode, reacting and doing exactly what he's supposed to, live on set.

I was really blown away by the SimulCam B technology that they used. Did you guys help develop that technology as well?

John Rosengrant: No, we did not. SimulCam B, that was from Avatar, which I did work on for about three years. That was used heavily on Avatar, but on this movie, it was used in the same way, but much different, in that SimulCam B was being set up on a live set. On Avatar, it was being set up in virtual, but on this one, they figured out how to do it live.

It was pretty amazing to see these CG characters walk around on the monitors, when there's just a motion-capture actor on the stage.

John Rosengrant: Yeah, when people talk about Avatar, they talk about the 3D, but they don't realize how many other great advances were made.

All of these robots are very distinct and have their unique flair. Can you talk about some of the influences you looked at when building these robots?

John Rosengrant: Each one, luckily, from the start, was very different. The 'hero' ones that we focused on, we also had stunt versions of. Ambush, the big blue one in the beginning of the movie, the best way I can describe him is he's like an old Fairlane or Thunderbird (Laughs). It's sun-baked with that rust and chipping paint. He was a lot of fun, from that aspect, and I think he echoes that Rock-Em-Sock-Em Robots vibe. He was very challenging, paint-wise. It seems kind of simple, but we first painted him in a very metallic finish, and then we put on other layers of paint to chip off. It took a lot to get his look down, but that was cool. Then we had Noisy Boy, who's purple and covered in LED lights and flashing everything. He was like some kind of Japanese street-racing show car. He was challenging in the sense that he needed to be perfect, with this carbon-fiber texture we put into the paint job. Then there's Atom, which we used all these metallic finishes, with an aged look. The biggest challenge with Atom was to give him a heart and soul, even though he doesn't really have a face. A lot of that came through my lead puppeteer and one of my key artists, Jason Matthews, who really brought Atom to life through performance, which is another aspect of what we do. You know, there are all the technical elements and control systems and hydraulics, that's all great, but it comes down to performance in the end. That was something that was very enjoyable about Real Steel.

Is there anything specifically that stands out for you, when you think back on the experience of working on Real Steel?

John Rosengrant: One of my favorite things to do is to create characters, and I think we did that. We brought characters to life, not just doing effects, but I think we truly brought them to life on screen. That always makes me very proud.

Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who didn't get to see Real Steel in theaters about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD?

John Rosengrant: Well, yeah, they should pick up the Blu-ray if they missed it in theaters, or if you saw it in theaters, you still need the Blu-ray! (Laughs}

Great. Well, that's my time, John. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you.

John Rosengrant: OK, thanks Brian.

Real Steel is currently available on three-disc Blu-ray, two-disc Blu-ray, and DVD in retailers nationwide.