Framestore’s London and Montreal offices combine to deliver a full range of photo-real visual effects for Jose Padilha’s RoboCop reboot, encompassing more than 600 robot and bullet-filled shots.
Overseen by Framestore VFX Supervisor Rob Duncan, Framestore’s London and Montreal offices combined to deliver a full range of photo-real visual effects for Jose Padilha’s RoboCop reboot, encompassing more than 600 robot and bullet-filled shots. Framestore’s major work included CG augmentation of both RoboCop’s traditional silver suit and its new black incarnation, creating negative space to give the feeling that there couldn’t possibly be a man inside, while full CG suits were created for stunt work.
Framestore also gave a more formidable spin to the original ED-209s and created the 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,” says director José Padilha. “I was very lucky this way, as MGM introduced me to Framestore. One of the best things that happened to me on Robocop.”
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. On set in Toronto there was a 300-foot section of the street, built to two stories high. It was Framestore’s job to top up the buildings and extend the set out into the distance, add smoke, explosions and general destruction 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. All of that meant Framestore touched pretty much every shot in what is a very long sequence.
Framestore worked on several key sequences in Murphy's transformation into RoboCop -- creating the car explosion that injures him, exposing his brain during the subsequent surgery sequence and crafting the big reveal when Murphy learns the full extent of what has been done to him.
A big part of Framestore’s work was augmenting the 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. Framestore 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 Duncan.
The black RoboCop suit was done slightly differently. The shoulders were modified as before, but with the black suit’s slimmer look the abdomen only needed to be warped, rather than replaced. The stomach would be tracked to work out where it would be in the shot, then the compositors would take that geometry and use that as a basis to warp the plate to produce the desired silhouette.
For some sequences and particularly stunt-work, a full-CG RoboCop was needed, which meant the real thing had to be matched completely photo-realistically. In other scenes a partial suit was used to allow greater movement for the stunt actors and then completed in CG.
Making a run for it
Murphy’s disorientated flight through the labs leads him through several rooms, many of them massively extended beyond what was shot. There is a moment when he sprints through a massive warehouse full of endless lines of pink lab-coated workers – taken from four rows on set to countless in the final shot. From there RoboCop bursts through a door, scales a wall, and sees paddy fields sprawling out before him. On set there was a short strip of field with a few real rice plants for him to run through, but in post Framestore extended this to include thousands of plants and rolling hills in the distance. RoboCop, filmed with a partial suit to allow him to run, needed to be heavily augmented and sometimes replaced throughout these sequences.
“Off in the very distance they are digital matte paintings, but the rice fields are a simulation” says Duncan. “We had to put in hundreds of plants, sometimes closer to the camera than the real ones. From shot to shot on the day the lighting and the wind would change so you couldn’t just match one shot and clone it to the others because the real plants might be moving differently or leaning over more. You start off with a generic ‘does this plant look right? Does it behave correctly? Does it look like it’s blowing in a breeze? Then once that’s right you tailor it to each shot. Then of course you have to build in randomness. It was tricky but I think it’s very successful.”
“It worked out nicely that we could use all the plants he interacted with directly, but then we had to match those and create something with the same dynamics of a plant blowing in the wind and put it right next to the real one without anyone being able to tell the difference was quite a task” adds FX Supervisor Johannes Richter. “There are also hundreds of different strands of grass that we simulated and then I think we made about 20 different plants that are instanced all over the place.”
RoboCop’s training pits him against an EM-208, with the sequence beginning in a sterile, colorless environment, obviously a virtual reality world, which then morphs into a realistic but still CG environment. “RoboCop had to stay realistic, as the background changes from the white and blends into a photo-realistic set” says JP. “That was quite a big job, especially for the Environment TD. In the end we had a really high density mesh and we could control all of the different points that would blend and time them accordingly.”
The camera tracks out to reveal the action happening on giant screens behind a static RoboCop and an EM-208 – both of which needed to reflect the light of the screens, which were modelled in Nuke. “Rendering was a big thing for that sequence, because you’ve got a metal environment reflecting a metal robot and vice versa” says JP. “To get the lighting interaction between RoboCop and the EM-208 and the screens behind them we made a pre-comp of what the insert would be like, then passed that to lighting and they would use it to generate several passes so we would get a feel of the robots on set interacting with what is on screen behind them at the same time.”
Framestore’s new Arnold-based rendering pipeline was a big part of getting everything to look so realistic. “I was really impressed with the results we would get early on in the process when you’re seeing the first pass of lighting” says Duncan. “It looked pretty much there the first time you saw it. We were always striving for photorealism because we know we would have to mix and match practical suits with CG pieces of suits or render CG full suits for stunt work, so it was very important that the lighting was good and we were able to do that very successfully. I think that was the biggest innovation on the show really.”
Bringing Out the Big Guns
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), 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 Duncan. “If there’s an explosion you have to keep the residue rolling over into the next few shots.”
“On set they weren’t allowed to set off many practical effects, although a fake column was brought in and blown up, so we basically had to destroy the whole of the Vancouver Conference Centre digitally. We needed a lot of imagination to reach what you see in the final sequences” Duncan adds.
The destruction is so intense that it required the development of a completely new in-house bullet system to handle it. “We needed it because there was going to be so much gunfire and you needed to work out the effects of each bullet. I suppose you could animate each one and work out where it hit then apply a reaction to that, but that would have been so labor intensive that we would still be doing it now!”
The Richard Hammond Builds a Planet Effect
As the battle goes on the ED-209s literally bring out the big guns. Framestore wanted to give them 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 Duncan, “and they showed what happens when you fire a high caliber 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 is glad to have been on board to bring the year 2028 to life with incredibly varied body of work -- completed for the first time across the company’s Montreal and London studios.
“Overall it was a very smooth show,” says Duncan, “the Arnold pipeline was a big part of that, meaning the lighting wasn’t an issue at all, and our adoption of Shot Review Plus meant working across two sites, and with a new team in Montreal, went really well. It didn’t matter where the work was done -- the quality was superb.”
Jennifer Wolfe is Director of News & Content at Animation World Network.