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Oscar 2012: Erik Nash Talks 'Real Steel'

Production VFX supervisor Erik Nash of Digital Domain gets into the virtual production ring.

Atom on the set and in the movie. All images courtesy of Digital Domain.

Real Steel took the Simulcam developed for Avatar and put it into a real world setting for the next advancement in virtual production in collaboration with Giant Studios, which came up with a new system. Erik Nash provides an overview of the significance for this Oscar contender.

Bill Desowitz: Interesting mix of nominees but with an emphasis on character-driven work such as yours.

Erik Nash: Yeah, it was the first year with 10 in the bakeoff and it was quite a tough group to be in. Lot of competition.

BD: What are your impressions of the five nominees?

EN: Well, in my mind, the favorites would have to be Planet of the Apes and Harry Potter. Planet of the Apes just because of all the facial work, particularly on the Caesar character, which is just phenomenal, and Harry Potter, they've never won but the work is just so consistently outstanding, particularly in the latter half of the eight movies. I think they may benefit from it being the last of the series, and people wanting to show some love for the work, not just for the last film but for the whole series of films.

BD: You've obviously raised the bar here for virtual production and the use of the Simulcam for these great robot boxing matches. What's it been like as an experience?

EN: When I read the script coming on two and a half years ago, it struck me immediately that it was a project that just called out to take advantage of that budding technology: Just the nature of the fights being robot on robot within a confined space. It's almost like it was written to take advantage of virtual production, specifically Simulcam. And we were very fortunate that the production and the studio agreed with our take on it and took the leap and put the investment in upfront to take advantage of the technology because there was a bit of a risk because it hadn't been done before. There was definitely quite a risk to take the plunge with us but at the end, when it was all said and done, they couldn't be happier with the outcome and saw the benefit of the approach, both in terms of how it enabled us to put the bulk of our visual effects money on screen and also really imbue the cinematography of the fights with a visceral quality and an immediacy that you could never achieve in the traditional manner where you blindly shoot negative space and shoehorn the animation into those plates after the fact. And they also the savings that virtual production gave us in terms of shooting a pretty sizable visual effects movie in 71 days with no second unit. And, again, without the virtual production component, that would've been impossible. We never would've gotten all those plates for the robot boxing as quickly and as efficiently as we did. There were times when we were shooting Simulcam when we were doing as many as six setups in an hour, which in terms of plate photography in my experience and everybody's experience I talked to is unheard of. So I think this approach definitely gave big benefits in a variety of manners on this movie.

Before.

Unlike Avatar, the synthetic characters were able to be on-set.

BD: What was the process like for this movie?

EN: It's so intuitive. There's a little bit of a learning curve in terms of the process and the terminology we use on set. Occasionally, there were very minimal delays, usually just to save what we had just done because there is an incredible amount of data that you're generating as you shoot. But other than that, there was no learning curve for the camera operator and the director, Shawn Levy. They're seeing robots through the camera as we shoot, and so you can shoot it as if you were shooting human boxers. Really the only onset complication is that if you're not looking at the feed from the camera with that live composite, you're see a cameraman in the ring with a steadicam by himself, which is sort of odd. And for all the extras and talent onscreen reacting to the boxing, we needed guide them as far as where they should be looking and what their eye lines should be. The fact that you had onset temp versions of the shot as soon as Shawn yelled, "Cut," was a huge benefit both for his process for deciding whether or not we had a usable plate -- and more often than not it was take one. And then Dean Zimmerman, our editor, having a temp with videogame quality robots in frame going through the boxing choreography, he's cutting as we're shooting, which really accelerated the whole post-production process, allowed them to give us turnovers often within a week or two of completing cinematography on a given sequence, so it gave us a head start in post. There were shots we were virtually finaling nine weeks after the plate was shot, while we were still in Detroit. Again, speed and efficiency that's unheard of. This allowed us to focus on the subtlety and the nuance and just creating a consistency from end to end.

Before.

Director Shawn Levy could direct his virtual boxers.

BD: And the challenges of animating the robots?

EN: The biggest challenge we faced was getting our lead robot, Adam, to connect with the boy and be endearing, sympathetic and appealing as a real character and not just as a machine. And to get the audience to connect with. The toughest part was we had to do that without dialogue and he has no facial expression capability whatsoever. His face is hidden behind this mesh. As far as the robots in general, we wanted to have believable weight and mass. So the three parties that had to create Adam's performance, Jason Mathews, the Legacy puppeteer for all the practical shots, the motion capture performers and Dan Taylor and his Digital Domain animation team, pulled it off with subtle and nuanced body language. And they made him relatable.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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