A Cast of Robots

Several other robots play roles in Robocop. They range from a 15th-century unit designed by Leonardo da Vinci, to the 207, a RoboCop prototype. There are also the 208s, a horde of humanoid drones; the 209s, hyper-aggressive killing machines; and a fleet of armed flying drones. With each class of robot, production designers had to decide whether to use CGI, build animated replicas, put a person into an intricate costume, or use some combination of these three techniques. In each case, CGI was the top choice.

“The 208s act as foot soldiers, so there are lots of them in the movie,” says Whist. “But they are slightly smaller than normal-sized people. So building 300 costumes, finding 300 actors who fit the physical profile we would need, and then putting all those folks into costumes for what their robotic characters would have to do didn’t make sense. It was much more practical to build a few, but they weren’t animatronic or robotic, and do the rest as CGI elements.”

The 209s, which also played a role in the original movie, look more suited to war zones than city streets. “The 209s aren’t even humanoid so it would’ve been impossible to portray them with actors inside costumes,” explains Whist. “And making them completely robotic might not have been possible, not on our budget."

But the production company did upgrade the 209s, making them more aggressive in how they walk and fight and giving them more mobility. “We gave it a more ‘in-your-face’ stance with the upper half of it leaning forward and always above people looking down on them,” says Whist. “All of its lines come from the back and go forward and toward the middle, mirroring its guns on either side of its torso. It is not passive in any way. It’s always moving forward and targeting potential criminals.”

In fact, the only person in a robot costume is Kinnaman playing RoboCop. “RoboCop had to be a costume because the movie is about a man trapped in a robotic body. So we needed the interactiveness and acting possible by having a person inside of it,” says Whist.

Whist admits the movie would have been different had it been made 40 years ago, and much of that difference concerns CGI and how much the technology has improved. “CGI is advancing every year in terms of getting realism for an affordable price,” he says. “That’s always been the goal, more realism. And money is always the limiter.”

When asked what he would’ve done in RoboCop if the budget and schedule had allowed, Whist didn’t hesitate. “More cars. I would’ve liked to have designed and built more full-sized working futuristic cars, and this is a common complaint in moviemaking,” he says. “But it costs so much to modernize cars that I wasn’t able to do as much of it as I wanted to.”

So why didn’t he use a little CGI magic?

“Money again,” he explains. “It’s hugely expensive to add 100 CGI cars to an action or chase sequence already shot on real city streets and make them look real. It takes a lot of programming time to add just one car and keep it lit correctly with reflections and all the lights and shadows changing as the car moves. It’s complicated and expensive. Most moviemakers still can’t afford it even though prices are coming down for CGI. And for this movie, even though it is set in Detroit, it’s not about all the cars.”