Oscars: 'Real Steel' visual effects supervisor Erik Nash on bringing robot boxing to life
Each year, the Oscars recognize A-list talent we regularly see on screen, on the red carpet, and in tabloids. But the Academy Awards also reward those who work behind the scenes: the writers, editors, costume designers, and others who help create trophy-worthy movie magic. This Oscars season, we’ll be toasting those off-screen artists by delving into the hidden secrets that helped create the on-screen magic that we — and the Academy — fell in love with. For more access backstage during this Oscars season, click here for EW.com’s Oscars Behind the Scenes coverage.
Real Steel director Shawn Levy knew he succeeded in telling the story of a washed-up fighter (Hugh Jackman) who redeems himself in the eyes of his estranged son (Dakota Goyo)–they partner to train a boxing robot–when that robot, named Atom, tested as well with movie audiences as Jackman and Goyo. Bringing Atom to life–a character that doesn’t speak or have facial expressions–involved a combination of animatronic and CG robots and the skill of motion-capture performers, puppeteers, and animators. The end result earned the film’s visual effects team an Oscar nomination. EW spoke with Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Erik Nash, who shares the nod–his second (he was also nominated for I, Robot)–with John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor, and Swen Gillberg.
— The moment they knew they had something special: “The first time we actually saw Atom move after they dig him out of the mud in that junkyard, and he’s on the table in the gym and they power him up, and he sits up and immediately starts mimicking the boy–that was all done with the animatronic robot. As soon as we saw Jason Matthews, who is puppeting Atom, mimicking what Dakota was doing, we knew right then that this was gonna be something special,” Nash says. “Shawn didn’t tell Dakota what to do specifically in terms of looking at Atom, so Jason didn’t know what Dakota was gonna do. He just had to react to Dakota on the fly, and it made this really magical moment where this kid is looking at a real working robot. That’s one of the advantages of having an animatronic robot available on set so it’s not just a guy in green spandex that he had to imagine as a robot. This was a real working robot sitting there opposite him.” (Fun facts: It was executive producer Steven Spielberg who suggested Levy build real robots. Levy also didn’t tell Jackman what to say when he shot the scene where his character Charlie first shadowboxes with Atom–or rather motion-capture performer Eddie Davenport on stilts–in the grass. He just played Explosions in the Sky’s “First Breath After Coma” after telling them to do their thing.)
— How the magic really happened: For a fight scene like Midas versus Noisy Boy, they began by filming motion-capture performers. That footage was animated to videogame quality for the virtual camera phase, which allowed Levy to cut a version of the sequence that became the template for principal photography. Using the Simulcam system developed for Avatar, a cameraman was able to watch a playback of that sequence on his camera and capture the live-action background at the same time. So while it looked to everyone else like he was alone in the ring, he was seeing the boxing robots through his camera. “The big advantage to that, besides being incredibly cool technology, was it allowed Dave Emmerichs, our camera operator, to shoot the fights as you would shoot human boxing. So he’s in the ring reacting to boxing robots that are visible to him on his camera, not trying to imagine boxing robots and frame something that isn’t there,” Nash says. “It gives the cinematography to the fights a real immediacy and a visceral quality that a couple years ago you couldn’t achieve. You used to have to shoot an empty plate and figure out how to make the robots fit into that frame after the fact.” During postproduction at Digital Domain, final animation, lighting, rendering and compositing took place to create photo-realistic robots to insert into the live-action backgrounds. Watch the video below.
Next: Robot carnage!
— About that climactic shadowboxing round jump punch in Atom versus Zeus: In this case, after Jackman caught air, the animators at Digital Domain had to meticulously animate Atom to mimic him. “Compounding all of that, it was a slow-motion shot,” Nash says. “So we had to mimic Hugh’s action precisely, but also give Atom the weight you’d come to expect. It’s a CG thing, so it really doesn’t weigh anything, but the animators have to impart the sense that he weighs 1,200 pounds and is moving that way. It’s one of the more challenging animation shots in the movie.”
— Another challenge: keeping track of the destruction! “With these robots wailing on each other, particularly where it goes five rounds, we knew that there was gonna have to be a very significant and progressive amount of damage to both robots. Because once we’re in postproduction the shots aren’t necessarily worked on in continuity–and there are so many different people working on the shots, and there were shots that moved from one round to another and in doing that the level of damage on the robots would have to change–we had to have a way of looking at any given shot and knowing what level of damage was appropriate, so that in context, it was progressive,” Nash says. “So we built a system that basically relied on a database that tracked punches and where and when damage happened so that at any given moment, an artist could know exactly what the damage level to the two robots would be in any shot in the sequence. And then we had to create those levels of damage, which was both a modeling task in terms of deforming the pieces of the robots, putting dents in, as well as a lot of surface texture changing, so that the paint would get scraped, and dull, and in some places, go away and leave the bare metal underneath. That was a pretty tedious and involved task that involved just about every department at Digital Domain. Shawn and the studio’s appetite for how much the robots get damaged actually changed significantly during postproduction. We wound up having a lot more damage to the robots than was envisioned when we started out.”
— Hidden Gem: “In the very first robot fight where Ambush gets dismantled by the bull, for the shots where the bull and the robot actually make contact, we obviously had to use a CG bull both for humane reasons and the not-so-obvious reason that bulls don’t take direction at all,” Nash says. “So to put our mark on that CG bull, he has a brand on his left hind flank that says D2, which stands for Digital Domain. You can’t miss it if you know where to look.”
Next: The Decappuccino and drool
— More than a visual guy: It was Nash who came up with the phrase “serve up a decappuccino” for when Midas decapitates Noisy Boy. “My trademark line that thankfully made it into the movie,” Nash laughs. “Shawn was sitting there as Anthony Mackie was doing his commentary, writing it right before we were going to shoot it. We knew what all the beats were–we knew that Noisy Boy was gonna lose his head–and Shawn’s like, ‘You need something for when he gets his head popped off.’ I don’t know why it occurred to me, but I thought, ‘Oh, decappuccino.’ Shawn heard it, and goes, ‘Love it.’ He wrote it down, gave it to Anthony Mackie, and like two minutes later they were shooting it. I think it was in a lot of the TV spots. It’s nice for Shawn to always give me credit for that.”
— Another thing he’ll take credit for: “The other thing that I thought worked out well that I suggested, it was way back when we were doing the motion capture and I first saw the artwork for the Metro robot that Tom Meyer designed. One of the things that Shawn really wanted him to have was this sort of Sling Blade underbite. When I saw the illustration of that robot, my first thought was, Oh, he should be drooling. We thought, well, because he’s this robot that’s cobbled together from pieces of different robots, he wouldn’t be put together that well and he might be leaking oil. And if he was leaking oil out of the corner of his mouth, it could hang off like drool,” Nash says. “Shawn loved that, and if you look carefully in that particular fight, you’ll see that Metro is drooling throughout. That’s one of the great things about Shawn. He was always open to ideas, no matter where they came from. A good idea didn’t have to be his or the writers. He was open to ideas from every direction. If it was right for the movie, it was in the movie.”
— On the nomination process, known as the visual effects bakeoff: Each year, a select group of films gets to present a reel to the visual effects branch of the Academy in hopes of snaring a nomination. This year, 10 films had 10 minutes each. “The reels I’ve enjoyed the most, having gone to the bakeoff now for about 20 years, are the reels that tell a condensed version of the story of the movie. So that’s what we tried to do. The nice thing about Real Steal is the boxing and the relationship with Atom is throughout the movie, so we could tell a condensed version of the story and still have plenty of visual effects. It helped that about 48 minutes of the two-hour running time involves visual effects, so we had a lot of material to choose from,” Nash says. “The best compliment is that the work is seamless, that you can’t tell when it’s a CG robot or when it’s an animatronic robot, and along with that, the idea that the work is consistent from beginning to end. That’s something I’ve always tried to achieve in the movies I’ve worked on. I’m of the belief that the visual effects on a movie are only as good as the least effective shot in the movie. Nothing takes me out of a visual effects movie more than a shot that doesn’t quite sit right and fit into the sequence that it’s in. People have commented on how consistent the work is in Real Steel, and that’s something that really means a lot to me.”