R is for Robot

by Graham Edwards

R is for RobotIn the VFX ABC, the letter “R” stands for “Robot”.

How do you put a robot up on the silver screen? It’s a question that’s taxed filmmakers throughout the years – today more than ever, with science fiction being as hot a Hollywood property as it’s ever been.

Here at Cinefex, we’ve written an awful lot about droid manufacture over the years. But let’s for a moment imagine that there’s such a thing as a definitive handbook called The Manual of How to Make a Movie Robot. Now wouldn’t that be a useful thing?

Imagine further – if such a handbook existed, what might you find if you started leafing through its pages?

Suiting Up

The first chapter of our imaginary manual would probably be called Stick Your Actor in a Shiny Suit. It’s an approach that worked well for Fritz Lang when he made his 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. Brigitte Helm played the Maschinenmensch automaton wearing a costume designed by sculptor and artist Walter Schulze-Mittendorff, who abandoned early plans to manufacture the suit from copper in favor of a pliable ‘plastic wood’ that hardened on exposure to air.

Fifty years later, George Lucas followed in Lang’s footsteps when he introduced the world to the bumbling protocol droid C-3PO in Star Wars. This time the actor in the suit was Anthony Daniels, and the artist who refined the robot’s features – under the supervision of production designer John Barry – was sculptor Liz Moore, who also modeled the Star Child seen at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Performer Cheryl Sparks, born without legs from the knees down, peers out of the open faceplate of her tiny robot costume beside Bruce Dern, in Douglas Trumbull's sci-fi film "Silent Running."

Performer Cheryl Sparks, born without legs from the knees down, peers out of the open faceplate of her tiny robot costume beside Bruce Dern, in Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi film “Silent Running.”

Robot suits come in all shapes and sizes. Accompanying C-3PO on his adventures is the diminutive astromech droid R2-D2, who was frequently portrayed by actor Kenny Baker while squeezed into a tight-fitting mechanical can.

Just as squashed were Larry Whisenhunt, Mark Persons, Cheryl Sparks and Steve Brown, all of whom had underdeveloped or missing legs, and who shared the roles of the three robots Huey, Dewey and Louie in Douglas Trumbull’s futuristic eco-fable Silent Running. Locked inside vacuum-formed shells, the agile quartet went through their robot routine whilst walking on their hands.

Rods and Cables

When James Cameron made The Terminator and its sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he used every trick in the manual – and invented a few new ones to boot. At the purely practical level, he found countless ways of energizing his cyborg characters live on set, right in front of the camera lens.

For waist-up shots of the T-800 endoskeleton in "The Terminator," Shane Mahan operated a backpack-mounted puppet created by Stan Winston Studios.

For waist-up shots of the T-800 endoskeleton in “The Terminator,” Shane Mahan operated a backpack-mounted puppet created by Stan Winston Studios.

Artists at Stan Winston Studios applied metallic makeup effects to Arnold Schwarzenegger to support his role as the unstoppable T-800 assassin. The same team created animatronic replicas of the actor that revealed a chrome endoskeleton beneath the robot’s human flesh, and deployed a dazzling range of puppets and mobile rigs to bring the metal machine to life.

Here’s Stan Winston talking in Cinefex 21 about the design of the original T-800 endoskeleton:

“I wanted to retain Arnold’s form in building the robot. Not only is the robot the same height as Arnold, but all of its proportions are scaled down from and matched to fit his. The robot is anatomically correct, and could literally fit inside Arnold’s body. Even the robot’s skull was scaled down from a clay duplicate of Arnold’s head; and its teeth are duplicates of Arnold’s.”

Stop and Go

Our theoretical handbook wouldn’t be complete without a chapter on stop-motion animation – another technique used by James Cameron to bring his relentless robot to life in The Terminator.  For wide shots of the T-800, animators moved a miniature cyborg constructed by Doug Beswick one frame at a time.

Stop-motion also features in RoboCop (1987), for which animators Phil Tippett and Randy Dutra shared duties activating the malevolent ED 209 enforcement droid. In one shot, the film’s hero is seen grappling at close quarters with the mechanical sentry – for this, a nine-inch stop-motion puppet RoboCop stood in for actor Peter Weller.

Phil Tippett animates the ED 209 enforcement droid for a shot in Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film "RoboCop."

Phil Tippett animates the ED 209 enforcement droid for a shot in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 film “RoboCop.”

Less is More

Sometimes, creating a great movie robot isn’t about what you see. It’s about what you don’t see. Steven Spielberg explored this notion in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. For a startling shot of a broken-down FemMecha Nanny robot – whose face is intact but backed only by a mechanical underskull – Stan Winston Studios fashioned a puppet head with an articulated silicone face. For closeups, Industrial Light & Magic tracked the face of actor Clara Bellar onto a digital replica of the Winston animatronic.

To create Ava, the sophisticated android in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Double Negative composited CG robot components into live-action of Alicia Vikander’s on-set performance, artfully subtracting elements of her human form to create a delicately remodeled robot silhouette.

Here’s Ex Machina visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst discussing the ‘less is more’ approach in Cinefex 145:

“We worked hard to make sure that we designed something which could work practically, which looked like it had the right weight distribution, and which still had ‘form follows function’ beauty. We continually removed pieces that seemed superfluous. The great industrial designer, Dieter Rams, has a motto: ‘Less, but better.’ We constantly kept that in mind. In fact, when the design was 3D-printed for the laboratory set, it did all fit together beautifully. That was a proud moment!”

Almost Human

To explore human performance in more depth, our handbook is going to need a whole section on motion capture. Neill Blomkamp used this technique to great effect in Chappie, capturing the on-set performance of Sharlto Copley and translating it onto the film’s titular robot character. Artists at Image Engine developed a highly realistic CG robot based on designs by Weta Workshop, and seamlessly replaced the human actor with his mechanical avatar.

Interviewed in Cinefex 141, Neill Blomkamp had this to say about the creation of his robot star:

“We modeled every twist of the wrist, and every movement of the ankle, all so that Chappie would be able to mimic a human’s motion. We kept refining the three-dimensional model, and then sending that back to the designers so they could tweak the design. Then it would go back to 3D. By going back and forth like that, we got to a place where every detail of the robot moved correctly.”


Despite Yoda’s assertion that size matters not, there are some filmmakers who might disagree. They’ll be the ones poring over our imaginary handbook’s chapter on super-sized robots.

Few robots come bigger than the mechanical stars of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. Industrial Light & Magic constructed fantastically elaborate digital rigs, modeling each metamorphosing robot character first in standing form, then working backward with animated movements that took it to a crouch, before devising folding actions that would slide limbs and other body parts into place on the vehicle that was its Earthly disguise.

Talking to us in Cinefex 111 about the very first Transformers film, visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar remarked on the levels of detail required truly enormous robots to the screen:

“You’d think that hard-body surfaces, as compared to furry animals, would be easier in CG, but there is a basic rule in movies: if it isn’t complex, it doesn’t look complex. To make them look like real, complex characters and to give them the appropriate razzle-dazzle, every robot had to have thousands of articulated pieces and complex connections, plus layers of paint to look like car paint finishes. The swirl of the brush marks on the metal had to be there; the grease had to be there; the torch marks had to be there. Each of these robot characters needed layer upon layer of bump, texture, dirt, scratches and color.”

Strange Shapes

There are undoubtedly many other chapters to explore in The Manual of How to Make a Movie Robot, but we’ve got time for just one more. Having focused on robots based more or less on the human form, let’s briefly consider those that don’t look like people at all. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar features a pair of blocky droids called TARS and CASE, represented on set by pneumatically assisted bunraku-style puppets manufactured by special effects supervisor Scott Fisher. For a handful of shots showing the robots unfolding themselves into distinctly inhuman forms, Double Negative took over with animated CG versions.

In "Interstellar," the robots TARS and CASE were created on set as bunraku-style puppets, with animators at Double Negative taking over for shots that could not be achieved by practical means.

In “Interstellar,” the robots TARS and CASE were created on set as bunraku-style puppets, with animators at Double Negative taking over for shots that could not be achieved by practical means.

In Cinefex 140, animation supervisor David Lowry explained how practical experiments helped his team to devise the tricky CG robot rig required for Interstellar:

“I drilled holes into [wooden] blocks and used barbeque skewers as the joints. By playing with that, it became apparent how many different kinds of shapes you could create from just four basic blocks that have three joints each. Although it was simple, it became incredibly complicated very quickly.”

So, if there really were such a book as The Manual of How to Make a Movie Robot, which other cinematic cyborgs do you think it should include?

The Terminator photograph copyright © 1985 by Orion Pictures Corporation. RoboCop photograph copyright © 2087 by Orion Pictures Corporation. Ex Machina photographs copyright © 2015 by DNA Films and Universal Pictures. Chappie photographs copyright © 2015 by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures Inc., LSC Film Corporation and MRC II  Distribution Company LP. Interstellar photograph copyright © 2014 by Paramount Pictures.