RoboCop is considered a sci-fi film classic. It has spawned two cinematic sequels, a pair of TV shows, and two animated series, as well as several video games. Its upcoming remake (opening next month) presented the filmmakers with a host of challenges and opportunities to give the film a fresh new look and feel. Updating some of its special effects was similar to a large engineering project, forcing filmmakers to balance costs and time against the realism, quality, and goals of the picture — not to mention the safety of the cast, crew, and equipment.
The film is set in 2028, so writers had to keep scientific and engineering breakthroughs depicted in the film to those possible in only 14 years. So there’s no space travel, Star-Trek-like replicators, or laser weapons. But that time span does leave room for beefed-up bullet-spraying weapons and tasers. And although the movie features no spaceships or flying cars, there are unmanned drones, already a common sight on battlefields.
“RoboCop is just a bump into the future, not a huge 200-year leap into a fantasy world of technology,” says Martin Whist, production designer on the film. “It’s right around the corner, so we wanted to have recognizable features and elements of our world today.”
The producers also wanted the film to be an homage to the original, so some details of the 1987 version carry through, including the setting, a crime-ridden Detroit, the two-legged nonhumanoid drone (the ED-209s), and the use of a dying human cop as the basis for the newest security “product” from OmniCorp.
A key plot point is that RoboCop is built from some of the remains — namely the head and right hand — of a dying police officer. Plus RoboCop, played by Joel Kinnaman, must emote, so his face must be visible. This meant producers couldn’t use CGI (computer-generated imagery) for the RoboCop character. Instead, they built an intricate costume, several in fact.
“Designing the costume, we had to fuse aesthetics and functionality,” says Whist. “It had to look like man in a machine, not a suit on a man, and we weren’t CGI’ing it. So it had to work with a human in it. And we had to construct it, so we had to temper our imaginations with the fact that it would be built and worn, and still had to look cool.
“The suit is made of maybe 150 parts, which are assembled into about 10 larger subassemblies so it can come on or off more easily,” he says. “In the story, the suit is made of graphene, a superstrong and lightweight form of carbon currently being explored in labs. But if the suit were really graphene, it would be so flimsy and ethereal that RoboCop would look light on his feet. For the sake of the story and visuals, and so it would have a presence and real mass, especially when he was fighting, we made the RoboCop suit look more like armor or shielding.”
Characters in the movie had similar problems. When RoboCop is first brought to life, he sports a silvery mechanical skin, a sly wink to the original. But those in charge of RoboCop wanted him to look more menacing and lethal. So the scientists and technicians in the movie give RoboCop a darker, more-intimidating makeover.
“The silver suit was a tip of the hat to the original, with the same color and several similar components,” explains Whist. “The second, darker suit is inspired by the creature designed by Swiss artist Geiger for the movie Alien, as well as the stealth bomber, and Formula 1 racing cars. It has an aggressive, contemporary design that is organic, aerodynamic, and sculpted.”
The newer RoboCop also gets to retain his human right hand. This keeps the character in the movie and the audience always aware that there is a human in the machine.
“The suit was first designed in a computer. Then parts were ‘grown’ using 3D printing or cast in plastic or resins, depending on whether the part had to be stiff or flexible. Movable joints were constructed out of foam. There is very little metal,” says Whist. “The actor is completely inside it, but he can maneuver. For example, in most of the scenes with RoboCop on a motorcycle, a stunt man wears the full costume while actually riding the bike.”
The costume also didn’t weigh much more than an ordinary suit of clothes, but it did fit tightly. The tight fit meant Kinnaman, as well as his stunt doubles, had to meet certain requirements. “We cast for a lean, dexterous actor with the build of a triathlete,” explains Whist. The suit adds the muscles and inches. Kinnaman is 6’2” but the costume makes him 6’8”.
The production company built several RoboCop suits, each with a specific purpose. The “hero” suit,” for example, is in nearly perfect condition, with all its components intact and gleaming. It’s earmarked for close-ups and dialogue scenes. There’s also a stunt suit, which could take some hits and didn’t have to remain in pristine condition. Glaring bruises or scuffs can get buffed out in CGI. And with all the suits, any moving components and other devices such as weapons were added in postproduction using CGI. That includes the gun “holstered” in his right thigh and his other arm transforming into a gun.
For scenes deemed too dangerous for even stunt personnel, RoboCop was rendered in CGI, eliminating the need for extensive stunt-crew training and taking several shots at different angles and then stitching them together.
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."
For more details and a look at how the movie was made, check out Robocop Returns with an Eye on Realism.