Set Visit: How Shawn Levy Directed Computer Rendered Robots On The Set Of 'Real Steel' [Video Blog]

On July 4th 2010, I sat in a former Model T Ford factory in Detroit. The huge building was transformed into a futuristic make-shift boxing arena — The Crash Palace (seen above), filled with hundreds of punk-styled boxing fans, covering the floors to the rafters. I sat in front of a huge monitor off to the side, observing what was being filmed in the boxing ring in front of me.

As Shawn Levy filmed his movie that is set in the future, I realized that the future was happening right in front of me. I visit a lot of movie sets, and while each is very different, the production is usually very similar. This is one of the few times I knew I was watching something new as I sat on set. On the monitor, one robot was slugging it out with another mechanical fighter. What's remarkable about this situation is that the ring was completely empty.

The boxing choreography was done by Sugar Ray Leonard on a performance capture stage months before filming began. To my left sat a row of special effects techies nicknamed "The brain bar". You probably know them better as the guys and girls who were responsible for making the performance capture work for James Cameron's Avatar. In real time, they are able to put Gamecube-looking real-time rendered versions of the robots into the footage as it is being shot.

The camera can be placed in any direction, location, moved in any way, and the robots appear in the ring, as if they were real. The whole set has been truned into a motion capture stage, complete with hidden cameras pointing at every direction. The camera is being tracked and placed into the computer environment, which allows the brain bar to render the computer generated boxers and composite them in real time into the environment in real time. Let me be clear — this isn't being done for viewing in playback — this is being done in real time as they shoot. The camera man is able to follow the robot action while he shoots the ring, even though the robots only exist as 1's and 0's.

Years ago a filmmaker would have had to shoot such an action scene using extensive storyboards and animatics, unable to make any changes on the fly. The set-up on the set of Real Steel allows director Shawn Levy to shoot this Rock'em Sock'em robots style boxing match like he would a real fight. He is even able to consult with the brain bar and alter some of the robots' prerecorded movements to fit a certain shot.

Below you can watch a video blog I recorded with Frosty from Collider talking about our time on set. Dreamworks have also provided us with four billboards showing us some of the robot fighters from the film.

Exclusive robot billboards:

Set Visit Video Blog:Real Steel Video Blog Time Index

0:00 – How we recorded it on July 4, 2010 and to put it in perspective...Andrew Garfield had just been announced as Spider-Man.

1:50 – How Shawn Levy is finally doing a project that might excite fandom

2:15 – What is Real Steel about (thank you synopsis)

3:30 – How this set visit revealed a lot about the movie

4:10 – The dinner with Shawn Levy

6:30 – How Real Steel is a sci-fi film...but it's not a sci-fi film. We also talk about how involved Steven Spielberg was in the film

7:50 – How the movie is 70/30. Meaning it's 70% character and 30% action

8:30 – How they shot all the fights before filming began using motion capture actors and everything was choreographed

10:50 – What was it like being on set. We talk about the incredible sets in Detroit (we were in the original factory for making Model T Ford's) and how they got tremendous production value due to filming there. We describe the scene we saw being filmed and how Shawn described it as an underground opera house.

13:30 – The world of Real Steel. How there is an underground league and a professional league.

14:00 – So what did we ultimately think of the movie and the set visit. Also, why is the movie coming out in the fall and not in the summer.

16:20 – The "Brain Bar." The group that worked on Avatar worked on Real Steel. We describe what they did and what we saw. How they were able to plug in the motion capture footage/robots they shot in pre-production and have it appear on the monitors on set. It was stuff we had never seen on a movie set before and it's the future of movie making.

20:55 – Where do journalists sit while on set. We talk about the two monitors that we got to watch while on set and the footage Shawn Levy showed us in between takes

21:44 – The look of the film and how they're trying to make it feel retro. They're showing the future but not trying to make it feel revolutionary. It'll have a timeless feel.

23:30 – How they build practical robots and this way the actors could work with something that was actually there. The practical robots will also help the animators when bringing them to life. All together they built 40 practical robots.

24:55 – We talk about another scene we watched being filmed. It was backstage at Crash Palace. Many practical robots were being used.

27:10 – How humans control the robots in the ring. Each of the battles is two and a half to three minutes. When we were on set, Levy wasn't sure how it would all cut together.

28:50 – The post production schedule and how they could do 3D. Thankfully, it's a 2D release.

30:15 – More details on the scene and how we saw Hugh Jackman and his son

33:25 – What we did on our lunch break...I got the group to go to Dunkin Donuts (we don't have them in L.A.)

35:00 – What we first thought when we heard about Real Steel

35:45 – The different robots of Real Steel

36:45 – Our thoughts on what Real Steel could be. How it has a good story, how they're filming it the right way (practical stuff) and this way the animators won't be able to cheat it.

39:45 – Shawn Levy's infectious enthusiasm on set

41:00 – How sometimes a filmmaker is trapped by limitations that are out of their control

42:30 – How Real Steel has a touch of the Amblin magic