Q&A: John Rosengrant On Real Steel -- And Win One Of Five Copies!

Real Steel comes out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, and we've got five copies to give away, as well as an in-depth look at the effects behind the robot boxing film.

Thanks to Dreamworks, we've got five copies of Real Steel on Blu-ray to give away to five lucky readers. Real Steel borrows heavily from classic boxing movies, adding a science fiction twist along the way — when we first looked at it, we described it as "Rocky with Robots". So to win a copy all you've got to do is tell us in the comments below which other film should be remade with robots in the main roles, and why.

The five entries we judge the most interesting and amusing will win. Full terms and conditions are here. Entries close at 5pm on Friday, March 30, so get cracking!


Dreamworks also provided us with this interview with Real Steel's animatronic supervisor, John Rosengrant, which gives an insight into the film's impressive robotic special effects.

What are the challenges of mixing CGI and animatronics? John Rosengrant: I think the challenges are you — want to make it seamless. Shawn Levy, the producers, and the team over at Digital Domain, lead by Erik Nash, we all went into this with a team mentality that we are going to help each other and really make it believable, even in shots where it wasn't going to be practical and was going to be CG. The practical robot gave it great lighting and size reference. In the shots that it was practical, it also helped the performance all around by giving the actors something to react to.

How long do the animatronics for a movie like this take? The process took five months. Six weeks of it was designing and sculpting the robots digitally and breaking down all the pieces to be rapid prototypes. Each hero robot consisted of about 300 parts. The remaining time was the actual building of the robots.

How different is it to work with animatronics than to work with actors? John Rosengrant: The challenge with animatronics is to get a believable performance from something that is a machine. And our background, besides being artists and engineers, is that we are puppeteers and performers too. So we sort of channel that energy to bring the characters to life.

Which robot was your favourite? They are all your babies. You put just as much time and energy into all of them. But I think Atom in this case displayed a lot of heart and soul for a robot. So I guess I lean towards Atom.

Which was the most complex sequence you had to face while making the movie? As with many special effects movies there are many. But one that jumps to mind is when they first power-up Atom when he is pulled from the junk yard. We had to cover the hero robot in mud, and make him sit up. There wasn’t as much prep time as one would like to have had, but I think the scene turned out terrific. And I’m very proud of it.

How did you end up working in your particular field? Ever since I was five years old, I wanted to make monsters. I was an art major in college but I really wanted to do this type of special effects. I moved out to California to pursue that dream and Stan Winston hired me on the first Terminator and gave me that opportunity. I worked for Stan for 25 years until his untimely passing. With my three other partners that ran Stan's shop, we formed Legacy Effects in his honour and to carry on his legacy.

What are the robots constructed from? The panels and shells are made of fiberglass and custom blend of urethane. The mechanical structure inside is a combination of steel and aluminium and there are several of the robots that are machined aluminium parts. The Heroes are a combination of hydraulically powered and rod puppeted.

Did you have to work closely with the actors too for the scenes? Yes, we definitely work closely with the actors. The three hero robots that we made (out of the 27 total) were the ones that Hugh Jackman and Dakota (who played Max) were going to interact with specifically. It was very helpful for Dakota, who was 10 years old at the time, to really have a functioning robot that he could perform with. I think you can see a magical spark on film that you can see between the two of them.

In your opinion, what did Stan Winston bring to the business and the art of cinema? What is the essence of his... legacy? The essence of Stan's legacy is that he taught me what our job is to create characters. It’s not so much special effects, but more so to create a memorable character. Stan was a makeup artist and a fine artist, but he originally came to Hollywood to get into acting, so I think he really stressed the performance aspect. Whether it was the queen alien or the Terminator, or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, they always had an attitude and always seemed to be alive.

How did you work to mix animatronics and CGI in Real Steel? What was the criteria to choose one instead of the other in each shot? The guideline was whether the Robot was really going to interact with the actors in a touchy feely way or other things such as that which would be really difficult to do in CG. For example, when Atom sits up with mud crumbling on him. The other thing was when Dakota needed to interact with Atom, when he's in shadow mode and when he's mirroring his moves, everyone felt that it was very important to give Dakota something to react to.

In what way has your work changed since "The Terminator"? On this movie, we built real robots and on the first Terminator we were pretending to build real robots. Also, the state of the art technology that has allowed us to sculpt robots and their parts digitally and rapid prototype them into the real world has allowed us to do things that were never possible back then.

When you signed up for the project, did you already have a clear vision of the robots' design? Or was it more like a developing process? The design had been worked out between Shawn Levy and Tom Meyer, the production designer. What we did was take Tom and his team’s designs, sculpt all of those parts and work it out so that we had a mechanical armature that would really function and work. We added our own embellishments and flourishes but it was a great starting development from Tom.

Did you come up with anything new for "Real Steel?" Some kind of technology or technique that hadn't been used before? We improved vastly upon techniques that were used in the past. One thing in particular was what we called our stealth control system which entailed a custom made lightweight portable hydraulic pump and intuitive puppeting control system that allowed us to set up these 2.4m tall, 90kg robots and have them camera ready in about 10 minutes. The other innovation is our in-house pipeline that enabled us to go from digital sculpture to rapid prototyping parts in a really short amount of time and allows us to virtually preplan all of the mechanical engineering before we create anything in the real world. This helps us to avoid any sort of retrofitting and stops us from making any structural mistakes ahead of time.

For a person who dreams of wanting to get into your line of work, what advice would you give them? You have to be artistically rounded. Nowadays that includes knowing digital art programs as well as practical, and art techniques. If you’re coming at this more so from a mechanical side, you need machining skills, welding, and a sense of robots and computer control systems.

What do you think is the future of animation and animatronics? It has a place because we figured out on Real Steel that it provides a fantastic reference for the CG robots and gave the actors something to really play off of and react to. Good acting comes from reacting. By having something real there, the actors can connect to something.

Do you think that animatronics and practical effects could add something that digital fx cannot give to a movie? In this movie, they gave something for the actors to react to besides just a tennis ball for an eye line. It was crucial to help with their performance. Having said that, I think that the CG robots are so seamlessly done to match my animatronic robots and that is what’s really successful about the visual effects in the film. It’s a great mix of both CG and practical.

In 1983 you joined Stan Winston and worked in Terminator, so your experience with robots is long. What can you tell us about the challenges posed by 'Real Steel' for you initially? The amount of robots that we needed to build in a relatively short amount of time. There were a total of 27 robots which were each 8 feet (2.4m) tall. Three of which we hydraulically controlled and needed to perform with the actors in a believable fashion.

What’s a specific example of something you do that’s actually much harder than most people realize? In this movie we created 27 robots. Some hero, stunt and background. But there were literally thousands of parts that had to all fit together and look like real metal and had to perform like a real robot. Noisyboy for example, had nearly 2000 LED lights alone that were programmed with random sayings in Japanese which appeared on his forearm. That's an example of one small complicated thing that may go unnoticed when you watch the film.

Is there any fun trivia that happened on set you can tell us about? All of the LED lights used in the Atom animatronic were surplus LED's from a car manufacturer in Detroit. We filmed Real Steel in Detroit so they made their way back home.

With what software tools do you work at Legacy? How is your pipeline set up? We do a lot of work with Z Brush, Maya and a program called Magics, which is all part of our main pipeline.

You've worked on Iron Man, the Jurassic Park films and the Terminator series — can you describe what improvements have been realised through the time until your recent work on Real Steel? Have the mechanics or the hydraulics gotten more faster as a result of a faster filmmaking? Some of the big improvements have been the digital programs we work with to sculpt and create, in this case robots. It allows us to completely visualise what each and every part will look like and we can preview how the mechanical structure will work within the robot, as we can pre- plan and make sure all of those parts already fit within the structure properly. We can test for movement to see if any of the body shells would crash and this avoids any retro fitting or wasted time in the assembly process later. There are more materials at our disposal that are strong and light weight that we have customised to get to the exact properties we need and we've really perfected ways of simulating metallic finishes on plastic parts. On this film in particular, we came up with a light weight, very portable hydraulic pump that allowed us to set up very quickly on set. Today's filmmaking moves very fast and no one has time to wait to set up or fork lift in a huge hydraulic pump and hoses that take hours to set up. We had to be camera ready in about 10 minutes.

You have worked on many major blockbuster films, but I'm curious... which were your favorite films to work on? They all are your babies. You work just as hard on the small budget ones as you do on the large budget ones. Of course, it’s extremely rewarding when the movie-going public really responds to a character that you helped create. There’s no better feeling than sitting in a movie theater that’s cheering and/or frightened for your work when they see it on screen.

How many people are involved in Atom's creation? There was a couple from my team that were really imperative to brining Atom to life. Jason Matthews was the key artist in charge of Atom. Ian Joyner was the key digital sculptor that translated Tom Meyer's production design artwork into 3D. Of course, there was a team here at Legacy of engineers, mechanics and model makers led by Dave Merritt. Mold makers, artists and painters were also involved in the total execution of Atom.

"Real Steel" is more of an intimate father-son story with a sci-fi element to it, than it is a big blockbuster effects spectacle. Was this a part of the allure of the project for you? I love when we can help create a character that is integral to the story. It's first and foremost a good story that touches the audience. If we can do a great job with effects to bring that story to life, then I feel like we've made a great contribution. That's the key to a great movie. All the special effects in the world won’t make a good movie if there is not a good story behind them.

Any final thoughts on Real Steel? It was a real pleasure to work on this film as it felt like a harmonious team effort from the start. Everybody understood their role, and everyone’s part of the film was treated with great importance. Shawn Levy, the director, had a great energy that he brought to the film. The producers were very effects savvy. I’ve had a great history working with Producer Josh McLaglen who has worked on epic effects films from Titanic to Avatar and effects producer Ron Ames was integral in bringing us together and organising all of the visual effects on the film. My colleagues that I’ve been nominated with were outstanding in their contributions. My team here at Legacy worked tirelessly in creating the robots. I'd like to give a special nod to my right-hand man Jason Matthews who became Atom. Last but not least, thanks to my great mentor, Stan Winston, who gave me a great opportunity in this business.

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