By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By IAN FAILES
In 1987, fierce creatures and hulking robots seen on film were still mostly the domain of either full-sized practical effects or stop-motion animated miniature puppets. When director Paul Verhoeven needed menacing enforcement droid ED-209 to wreak havoc in his future dystopia, RoboCop, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in July 2017, he capitalized on both techniques.
The scenes with ED-209, while limited, have become some of the most memorable in VFX film history, partly because of the initial ferocity of the robot’s actions, and owing to its comical turns in navigating a staircase, and its eventual demise.
Tippett Studio, led by visual effects supervisors Phil Tippett, VES, and Craig Hayes, devised the ED-209 effects. The studio built both the full-sized model of this Omni Consumer Products (OCP) weapon, a mostly static set piece that was around seven feet tall and weighed 300 pounds, and a matching stop-motion version capable of much more articulation.
RoboCop depicted a Detroit, Michigan, future that was crime-ridden and run by a mega company. The concern had developed a huge crime-fighting robot that developed a dangerous glitch.
The company then tries to win back the public’s favor by reconstructing a newer robot using the body of a slain policeman. The film starred Peter Weller and Nancy Allen. There were several sequels. The film was rebooted in 2014 with director José Padilha and actors Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. The original is still regarded as the crown of the RoboCop progression.
RoboCop screenwriter Edward Neumeier first thought up the ED-209 character after seeing a Japanese model-kit design that had arms with enormous guns. “That was the idea from the beginning,” says Tippett about his studio’s contribution to the film.
“For the design of ED-209, I happened to be at a barbeque and I ran into this kid who was amazing. Hewas barely 20, his name was Craig Hayes, and he worked for this guy who did prototypes for military helmets. So I hired Craig to come on board and he and I would go down to Los Angeles to see director Paul Verhoeven and develop the design for the ED-209.”
Verhoeven pushed the design heavily towards a non-anthropomorphic feel, with legs that executed a ‘Z’ configuration and a head that resembled a radar sensor. Tippett and Hayes also implemented a grill shape for ED-209’s mouth.
“For a while, something was wrong with that, but we couldn’t figure it out,” says Tippett. “And then I realized: Hey, you know what, turn the mouth upside down because he’s smiling. And so we turned the mouth upside down and it kind of gave him a more ominous look.”
“We couldn’t afford Go-Motion. So that was that. And, you know, in terms of believability, robots tend to lend themselves to the stop-motion process.”
– Phil Tippett, VES, Visual Effects Supervisor
ED-209 ON THE MOVE
In the years prior to RoboCop, Tippett had pioneered a stop-motion animation technique called Go-Motion, which, via the use of motion-controlled articulators, allowed a puppet to move while the shutter of the camera was open, and therefore create motion blur. The idea was to avoid the stuttery feel that sometimes came with traditional stop-motion. But it was not used on RoboCop, for two simple reasons.
“Well, we couldn’t afford Go-Motion,” says Tippett. “So that was that. And, you know, in terms of believability, robots tend to lend themselves to the stop-motion process.”
Instead, a relatively traditional rear-projection set-up was employed for most of the ED-209 shots in RoboCop. That way, scenes with the droid could be effectively composited in-camera, and budgeted accordingly.
“We’d shoot a wedge test every day and that would go to the lab the next day, and we’d come back and make corrections,” outlines Tippett. “And depending on the level of complexity, it would be like two, maybe three, days of set-up time and then shoot. And we pretty much got everything first take, so that was from three to four days per set-up.”
“The first time we saw everything together was at the cast and crew screening in Hollywood at the Academy Theater, we knew that we’d worked on a really terrific movie.”
– Phil Tippett, VES, Visual Effects Supervisor
In terms of animating the puppet, Tippett shared duties mostly with Randy Dutra and Harry Walton. “We had to do a few rehearsal shots because nothing organic could walk like that, so we had to figure out how to make it believable. Not only was it Z-shaped but its head was driven by a big lead screw that moved legs up and down. It was a very non-human kind of thing.”
Perhaps ED-209’s most memorable scene features the droid chasing RoboCop to a staircase. It’s a structure he fails to navigate and goes tumbling down the stairs. Close-ups of ED-209’s head and tentative toes were stop-motion animated on a staircase set that matched live-action plates, and then the view of his fall achieved with a miniature shot at 96 frames per second.
The humor in that sequence is arguably upstaged, however, by one in which RoboCop destroys ED-209 with a powerful gun. Full-scale pyrotechnics enabled the destruction; while stop-motion was then used to reveal just the remaining legs of the droid wobble for seconds before collapsing.
“Just before we were ready to go on that shot,” recalls Tippett, “the producer Jon Davison called me up and said, ‘Hey, the movie’s gotten too serious. Do something funny with him.’ So I found some little whirligig model parts, little spinning fans and things like that, and I just played it not as a monster, but as if he was a dysfunctional drunk.
“I timed the shot out, and then against a piece of black velvet I shot a smoke element that moved in concert with what I was going to do stop-motion wise, and shot that on film first and then back-wound the camera and did an in-camera kind of a trick where I double-exposed the smoke over the stop-motion.”
Tippett has fond memories of the film’s production, and of its success upon release three decades ago.
“The first time we saw everything together was at the cast and crew screening in Hollywood at the Academy Theater,” he says. “We knew that we’d worked on a really terrific movie. Magazines started picking it up, and Newsweek wrote a big cover article on it. It was one of the big smash hits of the summer.
“You’re always lucky when you get involved in something that turns out good. Because we work on a lot of things that aren’t,” he concludes.