When director Shawn Levy’s Real Steel opened last October, it surprised quite a few people. For one, the so-called “robot boxing movie” packed a whole lot of heart. While some may have been expecting wall-to-wall robot fights, they soon found out that buried beneath this sci-fi adventure was an emotional father-son story. Secondly, audiences discovered that Real Steel featured some of the best visual effects of the year. I nstead of relying solely on CG for the numerous robot-boxing matches, Levy opted for a nuanced blend of practical effects and cutting-edge motion capture technology. What resulted was some of the most seamlessly blended effects in recent memory. When it came time for the Oscars to announce the contenders in the Best Visual Effects category, it was no surprise that Real Steel popped up on the list.
As we’re just a few weeks away from the Academy Awards, Steve got the chance to sit down with Levy earlier today to talk about the visual effects in the film. In addition to musing on the hybrid effects approach, the SimulCam technology that made the effects possible, and what sets Real Steel apart from the other VFX nominees, Levy also provided a few updates on the Real Steel sequel, specifically talking about how their approach to Real Steel 2 was directly influenced by what demographics responded to Real Steel most passionately. Hit the jump to watch the full interview.
- :08 – Levy shows off and talks about the original model of Atom that they made when conceptualizing the film. They based all the robots in the movie off of this model.
- 1:17 – Talks about the enthusiastically positive response to the movie from people on the street and colleagues in the entertainment business. With 20/20 hindsight, he’d like to tinker the marketing. Real Steel is more of a family film geared towards a father-son story, but the marketing sold it as a “robots fighting” movie.
- 3:35 – The difficulty of selling an original movie not based on any pre-existing material in a 30-second TV spot. “The reason why, frankly, sequel talks are still ongoing is that the movie’s done $300 million around the world, we’re on our third round of making the toys, our DVD has sold and rented crazily, and so we’ve kind of been having these conversations about like, it’s in the culture now and if we were to tell a new iteration of that same story, we’re not climbing that same hill.”
- 4:30 – The status of the Real Steel sequel: “I speak to [DreamWorks Co-Chariman/CEO] Stacey Snider every week and we’re getting our script within the next two weeks. I’ll just say that—I mean look, $300 million worldwide, that’s a good number for a movie that cost just north of $100 million. The DVD seems to be articulating, the sales of the DVD seems to be speaking to a fanbase that now exists, whether it’s from having seen the feature or being curious and seeking it out on Blu-ray. I’ll just say that those numbers with the box office, with the toy sales, they’ve all got us thinking and they do have us talking. So it’s a maybe with a capital ‘M’ (laughs). I just made up that incredibly pretentious expression.”
- 6:04 – Talks about the hybrid of practical and computer-generated visual effects. In order to make the seamless blend of the old school approach, they built the actual robots complete with hydrolic remote controls and used the practical robot for every shot that was possible with a real robot. The fighting, dancing, etc. of the robots was done using motion-capture and CG. They blended the old school craftsmanship of great practical effects work done by puppeteers with the outer edge of motion-capture technology to give Real Steel a textural realism.
- 7:35 – Steve recounts a story about describing the seamless integration of Real Steel to Michael Bay about the seamless integration he saw in a Real Steel editing bay visit.
- 8:07 – Talks about what he thinks distinguishes Real Steel from the other visual effects Oscar nominees. He says their blend of the older paradigms in effects work with the newest paradigms of effects work results in the visual effects on display in Real Steel.
- 9:00 – The practical models. Levy says he has Atom’s head in his office, but there’s also a full articulated Atom and a stunt Atom. Noisy Boy, Ambush, and the Hero Atom are still in Stan Winston’s studio.
- 9:59 - Real Steel action figures. Levy says he has the whole set and they sit in his office next to his model Owen Wilson from Night at the Museum.
- 10:48 Explains what Simulcam is and how the process works. The computer captures the movement of the fights, stores the data, and converts it into a robot. Each robot is a different fighter so the robots have distinctive styles. When he’s filming a fight between two human boxers, the computer shows him onset the robot versions of each fighter moving. The Simulcam is a real-time comp and playback of the motion capture data.
- 11:58 – How much has the story they’re working on now for the sequel changed from their initial idea for the follow-up. “The question you can and should be asking is how much is that story gonna be tweaked based on what we now know is the fanbase of the franchise. Because what I now know is, yeah maybe teenagers were into Real Steel but not nearly as passionately as kids and their parents. Which is interesting because I’m like ‘the family film guy’ and here I made a movie that doesn’t look like anything else I’ve made, that’s tonally different, and yet we never escape what we are.”
- 12:44 – Talks about tweaking the sequel script based on knowing the fanbase of Real Steel “I broke the story of the sequel with John Gatins, so the writer of Real Steel 1 and I, when DreamWorks told us ‘We want another one’, we sat in a room for a couple of months, and then we sat in a room with Spielberg, and we tweaked it and we reworked it, and so the story that we’re writing for the sequel to Real Steel is very much the story that John Gatins and I broke way back when. Once I started seeing ‘Well who is sending me those letters since Real Steel came out, what are the things about that movie that people are responding to?’ Yes it’s the fights, but it was really that father-son heart of the movie, and the wish fulfillment of like ‘What if you could be that kid?’ and the good movies, whether it’s The Goonies or whatever, it’s going to tap into the kid version of us. I think that’s what Night at the Museum did and I think that’s what Real Steel did and so we’re certainly kind of tweaking the sequel script based on an awareness now that that is what happened with Real Steel.”