“Real Steel” making use of some real steel

"Real Steel" movie poster. Photo from Creative Commons.

It is commonplace for the majority of special effects in modern movies to be rendered through computer graphics, and the movie “Real Steel” is no exception. But the director of “Real Steel“–Shawn Levy–decided to take the special effects one step further, recruiting Legacy Effects to make full-sized robotic puppets to act alongside the actors.

When audiences hear of puppets, they probably think of something akin to the Muppets or the hand-held puppets of Jeff Dunham. The 24 puppets produced by Legacy Designs are full-scale, gadget-filled animatronic puppets. These puppets had over 350 individual machine parts, which allowed the puppets a full range of motion in their limbs. Each of the 24 puppets ended up weighing around 250 pounds apiece.

The puppets could be controlled by any one of Legacy’s operators through a system of remote controls. While the puppets were not used for every scene of the movie, they did play a key role in the filming. The puppets could not be used during the fast-paced combat scenes and were swapped out for their CGI counterparts.

The puppet robots were primarily used during close-up shots with the actors, allowing for greater detail to be added in later with CGI. The additional detail added to the robots during the final stages of film editing were things like cosmetic damage to the bodies of the puppet or electronics. The use of the puppets, according to Levy, allowed the actors to express the emotions and actions of their characters in a more realistic way, which would not have been as easy if the robots had been purely created from CGI.

Screenshot from the movie "Real Steel." Photo from Creative Commons.

Levy spoke with reporters on one of the major setbacks that happened when working with these robotic puppets. Early in filming, one of the robots, Ambush, suffered some hydraulics issues. These hydraulics issues caused the robot’s head to continue to lower until it crushed its own collarbone and its chin got stuck in its chest-plate. After a quick reset the shoot was back up and running.

Levy looks to have successfully fused CGI and puppetry in “Real Steel,” something that is becoming increasingly uncommon as producers are more likely to go the route of pure CGI when offered the chance to create a hybrid of special effects. This is done in favor of the sureness that CGI will come out as intended, where working with something non-computer operated increases the chance for something to go wrong.

Effects like the puppets used in “Real Steel” give the audience and actors something new to enjoy. Film audiences are becoming increasingly picky over the quality and realism of CGI effects, and actors are asking to work with tennis balls as stand-ins for their CGI-created counterparts. Hopefully more directors will do as Levy has done with “Real Steel” and attempt to strike a balance between CGI effects and traditional special effects.