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Puppeteers, CG meet to create 'Real Steel' robots

To create the huge, boxing robots that do battle in the new Hugh Jackman movie "Real Steel," director Shawn Levy pushed past using only CG to build huge, articulated puppets to play the in-ring warriors of the future.

Hugh Jackman plays a down and out boxer who trains robot fighters in "Real Steel." Dreamworks

LOS ANGELES--Big-budget sci-fi movies and computer-generated visual-effects are inseparable and probably will be for years to come. That doesn't mean there isn't still something magical about using engineering and craftsmanship to make lifelike, "in the flesh" versions of the other-worldly or futuristic characters these movies bring us onscreen.

That's part of the reason director Shawn Levy decided to build huge, gadget-rich "puppet" versions of the boxing robots from the new Hugh Jackman action movie "Real Steel," which opened in theaters yesterday. The Dreamworks film takes place in the near future when human fighters have been replaced by mechanized pugilists.

There are plenty of CG shots of the automaton ring warriors training and going at it round by round. But Levy had Legacy Effects construct working "real life" versions of the creatures via animatronics to interact with Jackson and the other actors on-set.

During a recent press event for the flick, Levy said he was amazed at how well the robots worked and how easily his cast rubbed elbows with them.

Legacy Effects built 24 robot puppet in total, including versions of the main "stars" Atom, Noisy Boy, and Ambush. According to Legacy's statistics, each puppet contained more than 350 individual machine parts, making for a final creation that weighed more than 250 pounds. Each limb joint could be adjusted to let operators take control of the bots with puppet articulation rods. Legacy used digital design and sculpting software in house to turn around all of final creations in four months.

"It's hard to believe, but the truth is when you're in the presence of these robots and they're moving, you think of them as real."
--Shawn Levy, "Real Steel" director

"We had remarkably few mishaps," Levy said. "These robots and the puppeteers who operate with their remote controls were incredibly reliable. We had one scary moment early on in the first work where Ambush was fighting that bull in the opening of the movie. He was standing on the lift gate, and in the middle of the take, I guess his hydraulics system went haywire and his chin started lowering and it lowered all the way down as such that he crushed his own collarbone. And his chin got stuck in his chest plate, and it was scary."

"It's hard to believe, but the truth is when you're in the presence of these robots and they're moving, you think of them as real," Levy continued. "To see [Ambush] kind of destroy himself was a little sad. So we had a 25-minute break and we fixed him right up. And from that moment on, we did not have any mishaps. I'm very, very thrilled with the results of going practical with the effects, which is a rarity increasingly."

Levy said he wanted to build working versions of the robots so his cast could have more to play to than a green screen.

"If you're asking [actors] to fake it with a tennis ball, that's tough," he said. "But if you're asking an actor to play a scene with a real 8.5-foot-tall robot, you get something different altogether. And so you get an acting reality and also you get a visual reality. I just think there's a difference. And I knew that I wanted the movie because the premise is so kind of out there. I actually wanted the aesthetics and the style of the movie to be quite realistic."

CG obviously rendered the faster, action-packed robot sequences requiring more movement. The Legacy team also used computers to "touch up" the puppet sequences with some additional detailing, enhancements, and animated damage.

Shot from "Real Steel"