Meet the Shiny Fu­ture of Law En­force­ment

VFX su­per­vi­sor Jamie Price and pro­duc­tion de­signer Martin Whist re­veal some of the de­tails be­hind Sony’s Robo­cop re­boot. by Thomas J. Mclean

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VFX su­per­vi­sor Jamie Price and pro­duc­tion de­signer Martin Whist re­veal some of the de­tails be­hind Sony’s Robo­Cop re­boot. by Thomas J. McLean

Robo­Cop is back, now en­hanced via the magic of the lat­est and great­est vis­ual ef­fects to be a true 21st-cen­tury vi­sion of the fu­ture of law en­force­ment. The re­make of Paul Ver­ho­even’s 1987 clas­sic Robo­Cop, which spawned two se­quels, a pair of live-ac­tion TV se­ries and two an­i­mated se­ries, hits the­aters Feb. 12 from Sony/Columbia with a whole new look for the iconic char­ac­ter.

Star­ring Joel Kin­na­man as Alex Mur­phy and Robo­Cop, the new movie also fea­tures Gary Old­man, Michael Keaton, Ab­bie Cor­nish, Jackie Earle Ha­ley, Jen­nifer Ehle, Jay Baruchel and Sa­muel L. Jack­son. Di­rect­ing is Jose Padilha, mak­ing his Hol­ly­wood helm­ing de­but af­ter get­ting his start mak­ing doc­u­men­tary and nar­ra­tive fea­tures in his na­tive Brazil.

Padilha’s vi­sion for the film had an im­pact on the vis­ual ef­fects right from the start, ac­cord­ing to Jamie Price, the vis­ual ef­fects su­per­vi­sor on Robo­Cop. “[Padilha] re­ally brought a lot of that doc­u­men­tary en­ergy into the mak­ing of his nar­ra­tive films,” says Price, who su­per­vised 1,070 ef­fects shots pro­duced for the fea­ture by Frame­store, Method, Ci­ne­site, Mis­ter X, Soho and Modus. “What that meant for us in vis­ual ef­fects is he liked to use a hand-held cam­era, he liked to keep things loose, he wasn’t too con­cerned if ac­tors didn’t al­ways hit their marks ex­actly or if the cam­era fram­ing was a lit­tle off.”

That loose­ness had to carry over to vis­ual ef­fects, where artists are used to know­ing early on the ex­act length of shots and how they are go­ing to fit to­gether. “Not so on Robo­Cop,” says Price. “That was one of the re­ally in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges of it — how to de­sign vis­ual ef­fects that re­ally worked with this spon­ta­neous style.”

As in the orig­i­nal, the story fol­lows Alex Mur- phy, a Detroit po­lice of­fi­cer who is se­verely in­jured in the line of duty and turned into a cy­borg law-en­force­ment drone by the pri­vate tech­nol­ogy cor­po­ra­tion Om­niCorp. But de­spite his pro­gram­ming, Mur­phy’s emo­tions can­not be su­pressed per­ma­nently.

One of the chal­lenges in de­sign­ing an up­date for the movie is that ro­bots and tech­nol­ogy have be­come much more ubiq­ui­tous in the years since 1987. Pro­duc­tion de­signer Martin Whist says the film takes in­spi­ra­tion from the orig­i­nal film and then brings it up to date in the near fu­ture when cur­rent tech­nol­ogy like drones has ad­vanced be­yond today’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“In the case of Robo­Cop him­self, we def­i­nitely started with the orig­i­nal sil­ver suit,” says Whist. “I very much wanted to cue off of the de­sign fea­tures of that suit, even go­ing so far as to mimic the paint style on it. They used a kind of ground­break­ing — at the time — tech­nique, which in­volved mul­ti­ple colors so that in dif­fer­ent light, ma­gen­tas would come out and in other lights it would come out sort of a blue-gray. I thought that was re­ally in­ter­est­ing, so we did do that on our suit.”

The film has the char­ac­ter evolve his look, go­ing from a sil­ver theme in­spired by the orig­i­nal to a sleek, mod­ern black suit that takes its cues from such di­verse in­flu­ences as For­mula One

“The main thing we knew we were go­ing to have to be do­ing was what we called ‘slim­ming.’ … We wanted Robo­Cop to have pro­por­tions so that when you looked at him you knew ob­vi­ously there’s no way any­one — no mat­ter how skinny they

were — could fit into that.”

cars, the de­sign of the 1979 film B-1 Stealth Bomber, Whist says.

Though Padilha sought to do as much in-cam­era as pos­si­ble, Price says ev­ery shot fea­tur­ing Robo­Cop’s suit is touched by vis­ual ef­fects in some way. “The main thing we knew we were go­ing to have to be do­ing was what we called ‘slim­ming,’” says Price. “We wanted Robo­Cop to have pro­por­tions so that when you looked at him you knew ob­vi­ously there’s no way any­one — no mat­ter how skinny they were — could fit into that.”

Slim­ming in­volved ta­per­ing the body, typ­i­cally from the chest down to the knees; the thighs and the hips would be ta­pered down so Robo­Cop’s sil­hou­ette was some­thing that looked clearly not hu­man, Price says. Ef­fects also were used on all all the ma­jor joints to show a me­chan­i­cal in­te­rior for the char­ac­ter. There also were times when the vis­ual-ef­fects crew took over the char­ac­ter en­tirely, digitally re­plac­ing the en­tire body save for Kin­na­man’s ex­posed face and hands, Price says.

Ad­di­tion­ally, ef­fects were used on the char­ac­ter to con­vey the in­stances where he was us­ing his ro­botic, su­per­hu­man abil­i­ties. There are scenes in which the char­ac­ter jumps higher, moves more quickly or uses more strength than is pos­si­ble for a reg­u­lar hu­man, which re­quired com­plete digitally re­place­ment.

The brief for an­i­mat­ing Robo­Cop was to bring the char­ac­ter into the present by giv­ing him tech­no­log­i­cal at­tributes that are ex­trap­o­lated from today’s tech­nol­ogy, Price says. “That meant he had to be a fast-mov­ing, pre­cise, me­chan­i­cal, con­trolled ma­chine,” he says. “Whereas there is kind of a rougher me­chan­i­cal qual­ity to the 1987 Robo­Cop, peo­ple today are used to what ro­bots can do.”


The Re­turn of the ED-209

One of the most pop­u­lar el­e­ments of the 1987 Robo­Cop was the ED-209, a walk­ing mil­i­tary-style war ro­bot that was cre­ated with stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion ex­e­cuted by in­dus­try le­gend Phil Tip­pett. For the new movie, a dig­i­tal ap­proach was used, though Price says it was done in a way that worked both for his an­i­ma­tors and for Padilha’s loose style of shoot­ing.

“For the ED-209, we fash­ioned an alu­minum kind of wire frame stand-in that was the right size and shape of the ED-209,” Price says. “And that re­ally gave the ac­tors some­thing to act against, it gave the cam­era team some­thing to frame and fo­cus on, and I think it re­ally en­abled us to have that kind of spon­ta­neous style.”

Ad­di­tion­ally, the wire-frame con­struc­tion was eas­ier for artists to paint out of each frame than if the stand-in had been a solid ob­ject. “We had a cou­ple peo­ple who pushed it down the street, and as silly as it looked when we were do­ing it, it re­ally did give us the op­por­tu­nity to frame and fo­cus on some­thing and have the ac­tors play against some­thing.”

An­i­mat­ing the ro­bots re­quired some de­sign tweaks, Price says. “We ended up mod­i­fy­ing the orig­i­nal art depart­ment de­sign a lit­tle bit in chang­ing the way the legs work in or­der to make [the walk cy­cle] feel nat­u­ral,” he says.

The new movie also in­tro­duces a new model batch from Om­niCorp, the hu­manoid EM-208s, which Price de­scribes as a se­cu­rity force akin to a “fu­tur­is­tic, ro­botic ver­sion of boots on the ground.” Since the EM-208s are hu­manoid, ac­tors were used on-set to play those roles, work­ing with a mo­tion chore­og­ra­pher to get a ro­botic per­for­mance. They were then painted out and re­placed with dig­i­tal EM-208s.

The new movie is set in fu­tur­is­tic Detroit, as was the orig­i­nal — though Price says there was min­i­mal mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the city’s sky­line save for

— Robo­Cop vfx su­per­vi­sor James Price

adding the Om­niCorp head­quar­ters. Sug­gest­ing the fu­tur­is­tic set­ting came down largely to the uses of tech­nol­ogy, adding high-tech com­puter de­signs and HUDs to blank on-set Plex­i­glas mon­i­tors.

Among the en­vi­ron­ment work was cre­at­ing a look at the China coun­try­side in a scene in which Robo­Cop es­capes from a fac­tory in that coun­try. “We shot a very small rice-paddy set, about 15 feet by about 20 feet, and then ex­tended the back­ground with CG,” says Price.

Ad­di­tion­ally, the open­ing se­quence takes place in Tehran, Iran, and was cre­ated by ex­tend­ing a 200-foot long set to give the city depth. “We ex­tended some of the build­ings up to three and four sto­ries, and then for a cou­ple aerial shots, where we shot back­grounds with ca­ble-cam rigs, we ex­tended the city mul­ti­ple blocks,” says Price.

An­other vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment was cre­ated for the tele­vi­sion set used by Jack­son’s char­ac­ter, Pat No­vak, a bom­bas­tic tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity with a po­lit­i­cal agenda. “His TV show takes place on a vir­tual an­i­mated set, so we set up a 270-de­gree green-screen be­hind Sam and he stood on ba­si­cally a shiny floor … and then the en­tire back­ground around him was en­tirely an­i­mated,” he says.

Sony/Columbia will re­lease Robo­Cop in the­aters Feb. 12.

Vis­ual ef­fects touched ev­ery ap­pear­ance of ac­tor Joel Kin­na­man in the Robo­cop suit.

The first of two looks for the new Robo­cop pays trib­ute to the 1987 orig­i­nal.

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