Recommission: The Making of RoboCop

Trevor Hogg chats with production visual effects supervisor Jamie Price and visual effects supervisor Nordin Rahhali about bringing a robotic enhanced law enforcement officer to the futuristic streets of Detroit once again…

“I saw the original in the theatre when it came out in 1987,” recalls Jamie Price (The A-Team) who was chosen by filmmaker José Padilha (Bus 174) to supervise the visual effects for RoboCop (2014).  “I watched it and the sequels again before we made this movie to re-familiarize myself because sometimes your recollections don’t always match the reality of it.  One of my first questions to José was, ‘What approach are you thinking for the movie?’  In a lot of ways the original is untouchable.  He had the same feeling and was clear that we weren’t remaking RoboCop.  We were making our version of it.”  The subject matter would be the same though the tone shifted away from the dark satire helmed by Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers) and staring Peter Weller (Star Trek Into Darkness). “The drone discussion is coming into our life and couple that with how the media has changed, and some of the ways of corporate and government relationships have evolved you end up with a movie made in 1987 which is still topical today.  Our approach was to make a more realistic and dramatic story with those same themes.”  A previous collaboration set the stage for Price to join project.   “The executive producer Bill Carraro (Stay) and I had worked together in the past; he had mentioned about him coming onto RoboCop and they were looking for a visual effects supervisor.  Through Bill I was able to setup a meeting with José, we clicked and I got the job.”  Padilha was embarking upon his first major visual effects movie.   “José is a documentary filmmaker at his roots and he had done two dramatic movies in Brazil prior to doing RoboCop.”

“José’s primary concern was he wanted to bring a documentary style to the making of RoboCop,” explains Jamie Price.  “One of the things I do most as a visual effects supervisor is to make sure that various people, whether it’s the director, producer, actors or crew members, understand what it is we’re doing with the visual effects.  So often when you’re shooting a visual effect the technique seems arcane or you’re reacting to something that’s not there.  With José we went through the script and talked about how we could use the techniques for each part of the movie so he could still have the freedom to shoot it.  We took advantage of a lot of modern visual effects techniques, camera tracking and rotoscoping in order to give him the flexibility to make his movie handheld with a lot of long takes without cutting the camera.”  The shooting style added another layer of complexity.  “Maybe a handheld camera isn’t a match mover’s favourite thing in the world but on the other hand it can be more forgiving sometimes.   You have a lot of things like motion blur which can be your friend when doing camera tracking.”

“One of the great things about RoboCop was that we shot a lot of visuals on-location,” notes Jamie Price.  Even the case of the Tehran Scene we built a 250 foot long Tehran city street so we essentially had a location to shoot with so we could walk through and do our tech scouts.  José would be clear about how the action would progress and where he was going to cover it from. We got a good idea of not necessarily what the individual shots would be but where the camera was going to be and what the setups were going to be.  We scanned the space and looked around to see what was going to be our potential issues.  On top of that there was a lot of concept art done and a lot of your standard planning done.  We did a lot of what I call ‘techvis’.  We didn’t make a lot of edited animated previs sequences though in the case of the finale we did do that.  What we did do was we built a lot of the sets and locations in computers and positioned cameras.  We worked with Lula Carvalho [Wolf at the Door], the director of photography, to get an idea of what we would be photographing; it helped us understand how big our green screen needed to be, where we needed to place them, and what sort of CG assets we were going to need based on those camera positions.”  The Visual Effects Department works in tandem with the Special Effects and Stunt Departments.   “I’ve always been of the philosophy that I like to shoot as much as possible.  I don’t want to do something digitally just because we can.  I want to do something digitally because it is the best thing for the movie.  You sit down and look at the action described in the script and figure out what portions will be practical, digital or attempted by a stunt person or an actor.  We work together.”

“If you look out your window you see buildings that are a hundred years old standing right next to modern buildings,” observes Jamie Price.  “A lot of what sells the difference between the view out of your window now and the view out of your window years ago is the personal technology people are using and that’s what we built our future on.  We had updated handheld tablets, cellphones and display technology throughout the movie and that was about it.”  Price notes, “The challenge was to make graphic displays that were natural, told the story when they needed to do that, and were easy to read.  You balance all of that with making it look realistic and interesting.  We got a bunch of graphic designer, showed them movie and talked to them about what the storytelling components in the graphic scenes needed to be and turned them loose.  José is a logical and intelligent guy so he counselled everybody to take their inspiration from what was on these screens from the context of the movie itself.  If you have a scene in a medical lab there better be medical inspired graphics on all of those displays because you know José is going to read every one of them and he did.”

“Other than the future technology of RoboCop himself and some of the drones we did hit the audience over the head with futuristic designs,” explains Jamie Price.   “We wanted to keep it grounded in reality.”  Some digital background modifications had to be inserted.  “We did do two major modifications to the Detroit skyline.  The first one was that we added the OmniCorp headquarters. We scouted Detroit and found a place for it.  With the aerial unit I shot three days in Detroit to get background plates and we added a digital roof.  The second thing we did was modernized the Detroit police station.   We had a location in Toronto that was used.  We made a digital representation of that building which was placed in the Detroit skyline.  In terms of background replacements a portion of the finale takes place on the roof of the OmniCorp building and that was a large green screen set we built.  The set itself had to be extended because we couldn’t build the entire top of a skyscraper.  During my aerial shoot I hovered over the spot where we being putting digital OmniCorp headquarters.  I shot a series of plates 360 degrees from that location using a gyro-stabilize camera and by turning the helicopter.  We stitched those together.”

“Legacy Effects was tasked with building a practical suit and there are two versions of RoboCop’s suit in our movie,” states Jamie Price.  “There are the beta and final versions.”  CG augmentation was required for the signature law enforcement outfit.  “For us it fell into two categories.  One was what we called ‘slimming’ which is where we tapered the dimensions of suit.  A lot of times we did it in 2D and 3D by replacing portions of the suit; that brought Joel Kinnaman’s [Safe House] silhouette to a space it couldn’t be because of the bulk of the suit.  The other category we had was mechanical moving parts.  Standing looking at it you would see a black under suit that Joel was wearing under the rigged exterior of the suit. Whenever we saw that flexible black outer suit we replaced it with hard mechanical gear.  We didn’t just put the mechanism in the space where the other suit was.  We carved out negative space.  If you were looking at RoboCop bending his knee you would see negative space where there ought to be a kneecap. You intuitively know that a human occupies that space.”  A key element for the robotic enhanced law enforcer is his weaponry.  “We knew that RoboCop was going to have his guns deployed from his thighs.  Martin Whist [Super 8] and his Art Department designed futuristic weapons which were physically and digitally built.  We would often have Joel wearing a holster on the side of his leg; he would reach down, grab the gun and draw it.  We would end up painting out the holster and animating a digital gun that transitioned to the practical that he drew.  The reverse of that was Joel when he was putting the gun away would often start with a practical gun and put it down to his leg and drop it.  We would paint it out and digitally take over to make it go back into his leg.”

“RoboCop’s disassembly was one of the scenes that made me want to do the movie because it makes the audience ask the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’” remarks Jamie Price.  “Because you’re looking at this guy who is mostly now a machine except for his brain, a portion of his face, and parts of his lungs and hands.  We knew that was going to be a powerful scene so one question for us was, ‘How we are going to shoot it?’  When RoboCop is fully disassembled there is so little of him left resulting in a lot of negative space.  We put Joel in the scene with Gary Oldman [Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy] and we shot it.  We brute forced took out his body where we needed to and restored the background.  We did take him out of the suit so we could clearly see his lungs and throat moving.  When we replaced the body digitally and had the view of his lungs we could match them to when Joel was actually breathing and when he spoke his throat was actually moving.  We made a conscious decision that we would for the intimacy of the scene and performances of the actors we wanted them in the scene together.”

ED-209

In the case of the ED-209 and EM-208 which are humanoid robots featured in the movie we took the original Art Department concepts and started to do motion-control studies to see how they could move and work.  We ended up altering the design in a number of cases in order for them to move more realistically and to make an interesting silhouette or shape when they appeared in the movie.  We had a back and forth process between José, Effects Department and the Art Department designing the digital characters in the movie and from there the approved models were given to the vendors to do the final version.”  Physical representations were utilized to help with the cinematography and acting.  “We ended up painting them out and in some cases it was a lot of work but it gave us that realism.  In the case of the ED-209 the Special Effects Department built a wireframe which was the right size and shape.  Basically, aluminium rods welded together on wheels. It was positioned in the frame and sometimes we had someone push it through the shot so the eye line was correct, and to give the camera operator something to look at and focus on.  In the case of the EM-208 we had great studio performers wearing tracking markers and put them in the scene; they did work with a movement coach to deliver a robotic performance.  We ended up replacing them with CG but they were invaluable to giving a sense of realism to the performances and to the camera work.”

EM-208

“It’s getting harder to departmentalize movies,” states Jamie Price.  “We have characters that run throughout the movie or environments that appear in many different locations.  In the case of RoboCop we were doing a lot suit enhancements and we couldn’t necessarily do them all in one place.  You look at the requirements of the movie and how they could best be grouped.  You look at companies and find the best way to take advantage of their strengths.  That’s exactly what we did.  In the case of Framestore which did the Tehran Sequence and the final battle; they have a strong environment group, great hard surface work and good animation so were a good fit for all of that.” Method Studios has a great graphic design side to their company as well as a visual effects side so they were perfect for displays and the Novak Scenes.  Novak is the futuristic TV host played by Sam Jackson [The Negotiator].  We have a holographic set that has a lot of immersive and interactive graphics.  They also did the button at the end of the movie where RoboCop is reassembled. There is a battle scene which was a nice chunk of work that Mr. X did in Toronto.  It was great to use them because the location was there and they were local and could come out.  We also gave another chunk of work to Soho in Toronto.  They all did versions of RoboCop. There was a lot of sharing of assets and looks in this movie.”

“I’m a huge fan of the original film,” states Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Nordin Rahhali.  “I remember growing up with that and being both amazed and scarred for life after some of the scenes in that.  I was excited to be part of this one. We came onto the show quite late in the game so there wasn’t a whole lot of trying to figure out the look of RoboCop and designing the ED-209s; that was something more to do with Framestore at the time.  What we had to do was figure out a design aesthetic that would work in the future. We didn’t look back at the old films to try to figure out what that would be.  The tone of the film was different from the original.”  Rahhali notes, “The original one was gritty as well but it was satirical.  It was a dark comedy. This one with José being a documentary filmmaker his approach was quite different; he pays homage to the original but reinvented it for today’s audience which works out quite well.”  Graphics in various stages of completion needed to be substituted leading to the involvement of Method Studios.  “We had a meeting with José and Dean Wright [Visual Effects Producer] at the time.  Jamie wasn’t involved with the original conversation as they were mainly graphic components of the visual effects we were pitching for.  Once we got that whole award which was a huge chunk of work they started talking to us about taking over different sequences.  For example, the end sequence which was the rebuilding of RoboCop which fell under Jamie Price’s domain as it was pure visual effects; that’s when Jamie and I started interfacing.”

  

The work involved two Method Studios facilities.  “This is the second film that Bruce Woloshyn and I collaborated on so it was pleasure to work with him and the whole Vancouver team,” remarks Nordin Rahhali.  “Vancouver handled a lot of the compositing on the show; they had almost a 100 shots and we had 200 shots in L.A..”  Method Design led by Sr. Creative Director Mike Sausa was also involved in the project.  “Everything from cellphones in the future to every single component of an OmniCorp medical lab or the Novak virtual set, including behind the stage with Novak when they’re making interactions on control panels which you are then seeing reflected up on the holographic stage, to the military wing of OmniCorp and the Detroit police station before OmniCorp ends up funding them after RoboCop becomes created had to be designed which was a lot of content. They came through by creating a lot of ideas and getting that in front of José so he could signoff on the concepts.  After the concepts were signed off on we then had to get them in all of the shots.  We created UV maps where you had the grid pattern with numbers and colours which we would give back to the design department so that they knew exactly where hand interactions and gestures needed to be custom animated.  We had to develop a whole process; we’re trying to streamline the 280 plus shots that we had to do.”

“I was up in Toronto, which is by the way is also my hometown, early in October for reshoots for the end sequence,” states Nordin Rahhali.  “I was up there with Jamie, José and the whole crew; we shot a sequence where RoboCop is being reassembled.  This is late in the game where you’re not sure if he’s going to make live. RoboCop gets fully put back together from what are minimum organic components, which are his lungs, heart, head, spinal column and his one hand.  Oldman hits the button and RoboCop gets rebuilt right in front of our eyes in a new lab based in a military compound.  We have ED-209s lining the walls in the background.”  The shot lasted 600 frames.   “It’s a medium close-up that starts out on a track on the floor where you see all of the robotic components underneath the floor that are housing his different limbs [his arms, legs, abdomen, and chest plates].  They rise and the camera rises and tilts up as we follow the abdomen and watch all the components get ready to dock. They connect to his lungs.  You’re seeing his legs getting attached and some of this is happening off-screen; his hands and wrist plates all get in place.  Framestore had done the Disassembly Scene so they gave us the asset.  We had to remodel certain aspects of it because we were looking at sections they didn’t have to worry about and retexture areas that needed a high resolution because of how close we were on everything.”

“The heart needed to be animated pumping,” explains Nordin Rahhali.  “The heart is right behind the lungs so it presses up against the lungs.  When we get to the head the brain is a little bit exposed and we’re animating the brain slightly to have a rhythm to the circulation of the blood. There were a whole bunch of subtleties that we added.” The shot was almost entirely CG.  “The only thing that was practical in the end was parts of his hand, face and the background.”  The background needed to be re-projected because the camera had to be changed slightly and the RoboCop suit had to be matched to the on-set lighting environment.  “We spent a lot of time and attention to nailing the different pieces of how eutrophic were each of the metal pieces.”  Organic components had to be integrated with metallic ones.  “That’s a completely different beast.  Now you’re dealing with subsurface patterning and the lighting plays into how that surface reacts.”  A great deal of attention was given to the lung casing.  “The lungs are encased in a pinkish fluid; it was that fluid we spent a lot of time trying to dial just right.  It couldn’t look bloody.   Not only were his lungs were refracting but also the fluid in there was catching light and obscuring in a realistic manner the depth of his lung casing.  The back of his lungs were less clean than the front of his lungs because they were further away from the edge of the glass.”

“We had eight weeks to turnaround one of the most iconic parts of the film which is the first time RoboCop is revealed,” remarks Nordin Rahhali.  “It’s a shot you can’t mess up.  Alex Murphy has been forcibly awakened from a dream where everything is hunky dory but the reality is that he’s not really a man anymore but mostly machine.   It needed to be spectacular.”  Four concept frames were created in-house that inspired the Transition Sequence which required the blending of two different plates.  “One was shot on a circular dolly in the backyard of a house.  The other one was on a circular dolly in the lab where RoboCop gets first revealed and also disassembled.  We had to reconcile those two cameras; that was the big first step.  How to make two different cameras into one master camera?  It turned out that they were done with slightly different lenses, the circular track speed was different between the takes, and the height was different.  We had to almost build entirely Alex Murphy from the A plate which was the backyard and then use him for the majority of the entire shot but make him look like he was in this other camera which eventually takes over.  It was an integration nightmare to try to put all of that stuff together.”

  

Transitioning from starkly contrasting lighting environments made the sequence more complicated.  “We rendered the lab environment both in the backyard and lab lighting,” explains Nordin Rahhali.  “Because we rendered both passes once we started coming up with the interesting transition effects elements in compositing we were able to use the backyard environment and mix in the lab lighting.”  There is a surreal quality to the shot.   “What does surreal mean?  To me it means dream-like.  There’s a circular lens effect that was added which was part of the original concept we pitched.  It starts off as it could be reality.  Slowly his dream is invaded by the reality which is when he starts to wake up.  So his dream and brain is trying to make sense of the new stimulus.  Alex Murphy starts to see Frank Sinatra floating on a screen inside his dream and then pieces of the background start appear and people are digitizing off in an interesting way; he starts to see the lab technician through the house widow at his backyard. Those type of things start to appear and become more climatic as the dream collapses into reality.”  Rahhali notes, “We started off practical and ended up practical. 1500 out of the 2000 frames are almost entirely CG or manipulated heavily.”

“We had creative freedom with the Novak set where Samuel L. Jackson is a futuristic host,” states Nordin Rahhali.  “In those cases the whole background is your canvas.  You can generate anything you like on there provided it’s still telling the story.  We had to come up with multiple looks for this environment.  One thing José didn’t want to do was repeat and revisit the same looks over and over again.  The segment is broken with interviews with Samuel L. Jackson character.  Each time it represented a difference slice of time in the film so we wanted the segment to be updated with a new backdrop.  Some of those came late to the point where we had our looks locked down, we finally started to get to another sequence and not much time left in the project.   We figured we already knew what those sequences were going to look like from previous conversations.  Once José saw it in a cut he may not have liked it.  ‘You need to come up with something new.’  We’re scratching our heads going, ‘Oh, boy.  We haven’t got the look.’  That’s what the creative guys in the design department do.  They throw together ideas quickly and we’re able to get more unique looks out of them.”

“We didn’t shoot anything in IMAX or do anything in high resolution,” remarks Jamie Price.  “IMAX has a proprietary technology that they use to get the resolution for their projection screens so for us with visual effects it was straightforward and transparent.”  Staying in the realm of 2D was not an issue for the project.  “We always thought that RoboCop was not a movie that screamed that it needed to be in 3D.  We shot it conventionally and didn’t make any particular adjustments for the possibility of 3D.”  Imperfections are essential in making things believable.  “The biggest problem with visual imagery is that it is often too perfect.  You have to work hard at that.”  Price adds, “In any movie no matter how complex or simple are the visual effects might be the biggest challenge is making sure that their language fits in with the language of the movie.  In other words, the audience is not taken out of the movie by the visual effects either in a good or a bad way.  The visual effects should flow, look great and support the story.”

Production stills and VFX images © 2013 Columbia Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.  

Images and video courtesy of Columbia Pictures and Method Studios.

Many thanks to Jamie Price and Nordin Rahhali for taking the time to be interviewed.

Make sure to visit the official websites for RoboCop, FramestoreMethod Studios and Legacy Effects.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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