The Robocop remake doesn't just reinvent his outer shell with a sleek new shape — it also changes how the cyborg police officer sees the rest of the world. We spoke to lead designer Mert Kizilay from the L.A. design studio yU+Co about creating a new user interface for Robocop.
Some spoilers for Robocop below...
Designing an interface for Robocop was really difficult, says Kizilay, because a lot of key shots in the movie have no dialogue — so director Jose Padilha and editor Daniel Rezende were counting on the cybernetic U.I. to show what was going on. The design had to be "really clean and simplistic to communicate well," says Kizilay.
The biggest challenge? Some of the shots in the movie are really short, time-wise, so you have to pack a lot of information into a shot that only appears for a couple of seconds. The designers tried to pack in as much sophistication as possible to make it seem like a real cyborg operating system, but some of their early efforts contained too much information for audiences to absorb in just a couple of seconds. So they had to dial back to keep it understandable to the audience, while still trying to "simplify in a smart way."
"It's a hard balance," says Kizilay, "to keep simplicity and still have interesting and smart things on the screen."
Here are a couple of concepts that represent the explorations the designers did from "generative art" they used to create the ideas for Robocop's vision:
Padilha "didn't want to go super-futuristic and crazy" with the look of Robocop's graphics, says Kizilay. "He wanted something convincing and believable, and possible to see in the near future." With that end in mind, they looked a lot at real-life systems for scanning closed-circuit televisions, GPS readouts, maps and strategic readouts of trajectories and so on.
"We were all influenced by the real approach of user interface design" in current systems," he explains. "If you were designing a gadget, what would this gadget be in 10 years? We have a bunch of shots where Robocop is scanning the environment and calculating his upcoming strategies about the situation, and we always tried to think what would happen in the future."
Here's a process shot, showing Robocop's graphics, the scene it was overlaid onto, and then the final composite:
"We tried some futuristic and military looks, but because Robocop still has his human side, we wanted to make it a real operating system, so he's in control," adds Kizilay. "He's controlling that stuff, he's not animating on graphics. This is an interface that's getting used and interacted with by Robocop himself." They wanted to give the sense that he was always running simulations and checking strategies.
Check out another composite shot in progress:
And the designers really did try to create a whole consistent operating system, that would make sense as something that could actually exist. There are more than 100 shots in the film that show Robocop dealing with different situations, from Robocop's point of view.
So "keeping things consistent was a challenge," says Kizilay. "We made a lot of mistakes." The director kept reviewing their work and changing things in mid-process, and "things started to get messy." So as a solution, they created a pool that contained elements that had already been approved, so "we could assure consistency. Everybody could pull elements out of that pool."
So the designers had to sit down and figure out, "If this was an OS, how would it operate? He has certain gadgets, how will he use them? And if he wants to combine them, how will they work together?"
In terms of a metaphor, they thought of all the tools that he can access as "surrounding his head," as if all the gadgets and graphics could slide in from the top, bottom and sides of his vision. "So he can easily combine them, and if he doesn't need them, he can slide them off and bring them in again. It's all united and easy to access. We can track where the tools are going. We can track what he's doing," so it's not "animated randomly."
Also, the designers tried to "show one thing at a time," so they could see what Robocop was doing, in order, instead of a jumble of events. So you can see what Robocop is achieving at any moment, based on the situation.
The designers also tried to make Robocop's target look like sort of like the OmniCorp logo, making it vaguely octagon shape. Since Robocop is still a product of OmniCorp, they wanted to make sure it looked properly branded.
This movie never shows Robocop accessing his four directives, including "Uphold the Law" or "Protect the Innocent," the way he does in the original film. We asked whether the designers ever experimented with including those in the film — and Kizilay says "not directly." But they have lots of scenes where Robocop is deciding who's innocent and who's a threat, including accessing police databases and live CCTV footage.
Robocop has a "detective mode," sort of like Batman in Arkham Asylum, where he can search in real time for clues and information from CCTV and other sources. He can scan people and check their eye movements to see if they're lying. "It was really challenging," says Kizilay. "Jose was asking questions like, 'What would a real cop do in this situation?' We were forcing ourselves to think logically and put ourselves into that situation, just like Robocop."
One of the most intense scenes in the film is when the cops upload the entire past CCTV database into Robocop's mind, and it eventually overloads him. Says Kizilay, "He is filtering those images, and then detecting those crimes, and detecting the criminals and archiving those. We wanted to show a really massive scene [of video overload streaming into his brain.]"
"There's a really nice emotional intensity in that scene," adds Kizilay. "We wanted to show [that] they are uploading the images and he is getting into it, he's picking the images, detecting crimes one by one — but it's so much, tons of footage and hundreds of crimes, one by one, he needs to go faster and faster" until he gets too much.
It was a "bold decision" for the film-makers to rely so much on graphics to tell their story, says Kizilay. The graphics are really "married to the movie," and require a lot of interaction to get across key plot points.
"One shot is a big deal: He is actually re-simulating his own crime scene. It's all graphics. The shots we needed to tell the story in a short amount of time, [many] of them are pure graphics," adds Kizilay. "It is the next level of telling a story through graphics."
Check out a couple more progress shots, showing how the graphics were added to existing shots in the film, below: