For Sony Pictures Entertainment’s recent remake of RoboCop, Brazilian director José Padilha re-imagines the futuristic Detroit seen in the 1987 original. This time, the year is 2028, and while chaos reigns just as before, the backdrop is much more realistically future-tech. New York-based studio, Perception developed a wide range of concepts, designs and animations for over 100 shots in the film.
Perception’s two specialties often inform each other. When designing for film, directors are excited by the authentic details built into every element. When concepting for UX, brands love their cinematic approach. A detailed understanding of these two areas, and the space between them defines Perception’s unique position as a studio that is moving into new areas and discovering new markets.
Known for their work on futuristic gadgets and technology seen in movies such as Iron Man 2 and 3 and The Avengers, Perception had just started work on Captain America: The Winter Soldier when the studio asked the company to bid on the film. Once they were tapped for the job, they worked closely with Padilha in Toronto, Canada, where the film was shot before returning to New York to continue the project. Using a combination of Cinema 4D, Autodesk Maya and Adobe After Effects, Illustrator and Photoshop, they created several point-of-view HUDs, large-screen interfaces and the holographic set for The Novak Element, a talk show hosted by Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) in the film.
“We love forecasting futuristic technology, and finding new ways to visualize that on screen has become a specialty for us,” Perception’s Creative Director, John LePore, says, explaining that the studio also does conceptual design for real-life technology companies like Samsung and Microsoft. “They’re asking us: ‘What is the interface of the future and how can it be relevant to what we do?’ So it’s the perfect cross-section of being film buffs and technology geeks.” (See Perception’s RoboCop case study - link below)
Keeping the fact that Padilha wanted the film to have a gritty, realistic look, Perception focused on developing gadgets and other types of technology that balanced the need to be complex and sophisticated with a sense of purpose. Lead Artists Jeff Baghai and John Koltai helped create elements, templates and toolkits for the team so that multiple people could work on multiple elements at the same time. He also helped create precise layouts of all of the elements that would appear within the HUDs.
RoboCop’s HUD interface was particularly challenging, LePore says, because it was responsible for more storytelling than almost any other interface element the studio has ever worked on for a film. Especially important is the robot’s slow realization that he is human and yet not human. “The character has tremendous revelations that you see from his HUD’s point of view,” LePore explains. And as viewers, you see from the way his mood and personality are depicted through the interface that Alex Murphy, the police officer, is still a major part of RoboCop.”
Also important is the way RoboCop uses his HUD interface to do his job. When scanning citizens to determine whether they are a threat, for example, the interface shows him cross-referencing their identity based on things like fingerprints and retina scans while also monitoring their heart rates and accessing the police database. From this information, he is able to build an equation on screen to calculate the risk.
As the RoboCop robot is upgraded to go from version 1.0 to 3.0 during the film, his HUDs evolve too. “It’s not that the HUDs become more organic or human,” LePore explains. But they become more advanced in their capabilities, evolving away from the HUDs of the military spec robots in the film—EM208s and ED209s—whose HUDs were also designed by Perception.
Freelance designer Johnny Likens was tasked with developing some of the most advanced features of RoboCop’s HUD. One of the most impressive is what LePore describes as “situational awareness ability” that allows the robot to scan the environment using a virtual camera view that leaves his POV and allows him to look around corners and columns. For one key scene in which RoboCop is in a warehouse and must spot potential threats in a room and come up with strategic solutions to take each one out, Likens used 3D geometry of the space that Perception received from one of the other VFX vendors on the film to get tracking data and set up a camera in Cinema 4D.
The camera could then respond the same way the natural camera did, allowing the team to transition into the 3D view that allowed RoboCop to look around corners. To give his POV a stylized look, we used a combination of C4D’s Sketch and Tune and cell renderer, which lent an almost blueprint-like view of the space.
To create the holographic set control room for the political talk show, The Novak Element, Perception’s Lead Artist, Andrew Paulus, developed the look and layout and then completed the animation and build out using a combination of C4D, Maya and After Effects. Nuke was used for final compositing. The software combination is a toolkit that Perception has relied on for several years, LePore says, adding that many of the artists on staff are generalists so they can easily work on multiple tasks.
Of all of the concepts they explored for the set, they settled on the one that allowed the show’s host to interact with a variety of floating windows as he sorted through the information he was presenting. “He literally interacts with the news to control what people are seeing,” says LePore. “He is the media puppet master, distorting and bending the truth to suit his needs.”
Freelance designer, Chase Masingill, was brought on to do a lot of custom scripting needed to make it easier for the team to work with the massive screen layouts and complex arrays of information. Likens created the content to populate the screens, which included hundreds of individual windows and widgets. In all, over the six months Perception worked on the film, the team fluctuated between 8 and 16 artists working at any given time.
“We came up with a lot of interesting technical solutions while working on this project,” LePore recalls. “But what stands out most for us is that we were able to stay agile the whole time so we could respond to the studio and the director’s needs. A film like this can be a fluid process with several twists and turns, and it’s crucial for a studio like ours to be both calculated and spontaneous.”
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.
Director: Jose Padilha
Editor: Daniel Rezende
VFX Supervisor: James E. Price
Chief Creative Officer: Jeremy Lasky, Daniel Gonzalez
Creative Director: John LePore
Art Director: Jeff Baghai
Head of Production: Gunnar Waldman
VFX Supervisor: Ajoy Mani
Design and Animation:
Gerald Mark Soto