Overseen by Framestore VFX Supervisor Rob Duncan, our London and Montreal offices combined to deliver a full range of photo-real visual effects for José Padilha’s RoboCop reboot, encompassing more than 600 robot and bullet-filled shots.
Framestore's major worked included CG augmentation of both RoboCop’s traditional silver suit and its new black incarnation, a spin on the original's ED-209s and all-new humanoid EM-208s, as well as creating huge battle sequences, vastly extending sets, blowing up the car that injures good-cop Alex Murphy and building OmniCorp’s headquarters – a colossal collection of work completed in just over a year.
'Having a reliable and creative VFX vendor is key for movies like Robocop. I was very lucky this way, as MGM introduced me to Framestore. One of the best things that happened to me on Robocop.'José Padilha - Director
The March of the Robots
The film opens with a live broadcast from Tehran, showcasing the pacifying police role that OmniCorp’s range of robots carry out in the field. Not quite everything goes to plan, however. Soon, the artists had to add smoke, explosions and general destruction to the scene and also to populate the sequence with fully CG ED-209s, the towering robots that will be familiar from the original film, and the humanoid EM-208s.
The original idea for the EM-208s was to have stunt actors on set to aid with choreography and composition. They were placed in motion capture suits in case we could use their movement to inform the animation, but that idea was abandoned because each EM-208 needed to move in the same robotic way. “If you had a group of robots all off the same assembly line with the same software in them they would do more or less the same thing rather than using a motion capture of six different people” says Rob Duncan. “Even with heavy choreographing there would have been too many differences." To give them the robotic feel, the team developed their own generic walk cycles, and animated the robots using that technology.
In its search for a human face needed to make its robo acceptable to the American public, OmniCorp comes across Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a police officer mortally wounded by a car bomb. The car is fully CG throughout the shot, with Murphy taken over by a digi-double as the explosion happens. A lot of work was done to make sure he could be seen in the resulting fireball.
“It’s a very long shot, we were back into Gravity land!” says FX Supervisor Johannes. “It was complicated because there are flames coming out of the car, a lot of debris and interaction with him, in the end it required several simulations (done with Flush, Framestore’s in-house version of Naiad) in different directions because fire comes out of the front, back, through the doors and from underneath the car. There was no way we could just hit a button and watch it work – it was quite an assembly of different simulations that in the end worked really nicely.
Entering the Brain
In the ensuing surgery shots we see Murphy’s exposed brain. “It was a really fun shot” says Compositing Supervisor Adrian. “There was a certain playful element of adding bits of goo that came off the tweezers, it’s all CG and it just looks gross." Murphy then learns the true extent of what has been done to him when, strapped to a docking station, he watches himself being disassembled in a mirror as each mechanical part is removed one by one until all that’s left are his head, lungs and throbbing trachea. Obviously only a full CG takeover of the suit and dock would suffice!
“We built it to be as realistic as possible, even to the extent of building a layer of goo above the brain so the light would refract correctly” adds Adrian. "There was quite a lot of detailing in how the 3D was put together to make it look as realistic as possible. The first shot in that sequence is particularly hard because of the sheer length of it, the amount of motion and the camera movement – it needed all aspects of compositing.”
Suited and rebooted
After the big reveal we see RoboCop in action, wandering disorientated through a lab. A big part of our work was in augmenting the brilliant physical suit made by Legacy Effects to make it seem more robotic in ways that wouldn’t be possible without VFX. A section between the end of the shoulder and the beginning of the upper arm was gouged out and the abdomen was slimmed it down to make negative space in the hips and the pelvis. We also took out areas around the elbows and his neck. “It was all to confuse the audience and make them wonder how they could have possibly got a man in that suit” says Rob. Parts of the physical suit were made out of rubber to allow for movement so certain elements had to be replaced to make them more metallic. “We’re really proud of how good we made the suit look in light and comp” says Montreal CG Supervisor JP.
Bringing out the big guns
Utter Mayhem. That’s what happens in the film’s destructive final battle. Taking place between RoboCop and multiple full CG ED-209s in an environment that was unsuitable for large scale practical effects (actually the Vancouver Conference Centre, in which events were taking place around the shoot), the scene is a medley of thousands of bullets, millions of shards of glass and plenty of explosions. “It’s a bit like the Tehran sequence –we pretty much touched every shot” says Rob. “In one way it’s great because you’ve got control over everything, but in another way it’s really tough to keep the continuity going. If there’s an explosion you have to keep the residue rolling over into the next few shots.”
The Richard Hammond Builds a Planet Effect
As the battle goes on the ED-209s literally bring out the big guns. The team wanted to give the Gatling gun a signature look to make sure the audience would appreciate the increase in firepower. The inspiration for it came from a strange source however: “I happened to be watching Richard Hammond Builds a Planet on BBC2,” says Rob, “and they showed what happens when you fire a high calibre machine gun at a steel plate – it super heats and in slow motion you see these little licks of flame which you wouldn’t really notice when you’re viewing in real time. So that became the reference point to distinguish it from normal impacts and the Richard Hammond effect became the short-hand for describing when we should see that type of impact and everyone found it hilarious.” It’s a fittingly frenetic end to an action-packed remake and Framestore were glad to have been on board to bring the year 2028 to life with incredibly varied body of work.