Ethan Checks Out Some Heavy Metal Boxing on the Set of 'Real Steel'
by Ethan Anderton
September 8, 2011
Stepping foot into a century old factory that once pumped out Model T cars, normally I'd feel like a troublemaker sneaking around abandoned buildings trying to pass the time. But in this case, we're walking onto the gritty, expansive set of Real Steel, an ambitious new film from executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) starring Hugh Jackman and a whole slew of robots smashing each other to pieces in the boxing ring. On this particular day we're watching an unruly crowd in the underground robot boxing circuit cheering on a brutal fight between Midas and Noisy Boy.
Here's the two robots myself and others saw duking it out in Michigan on the set of Real Steel:
While normally watching a scene like this unfold would entail the use of your imagination to picture two robots boxing each other in an industrial makeshift fighting ring, the technology being employed on this film makes watching the scene a little more fun. The special effects team, referred to as the Brain Bar, responsible for the motion capture technology created for Avatar is on set monitoring all of the robot boxing on their own intricate set of monitors and computers where all of the pre-recorded motion capture for each boxing match is simultaneously combined with the live-action footage being shot on set that day. Essentially, the motion captured robots have half-rendered models of themselves appearing on the monitors while the camera moves around them as if they were real actors in the ring in front of us. Watching this technology come to life in itself is mind-blowing, but being in this huge location genuinely feels like being transported into the world of Real Steel.
Here's how Shawn Levy describes that very world in which this story unfolds:
So in the year 2020, which is when the movie is set…people have gotten bored by the limitations of the human body such that boxing, MMA, UFC in the world of this movie, they have lost their luster. And so people have started making, manufacturing machines so that there's limitless carnage for human spectacle.
As far as the fighting between these robots (which you can see in the promising first and second trailers for the film), we're not going to see a bunch of explosions or rockets firing off. These are robots fully-trained as brutal boxers. Levy comments on the fighting and the two tiers within the sport of robot boxing:
There's no weaponry. There's no rockets. There's no lasers. These are human designed -- it's shit we could build now. Honestly, if we were super-super rich and smart, we probably could build in the next 5 to 10 years. In the world of the movie there's two tiers. There's league and there's non-league. So league is WRB, think NASCAR and NBA. Huge money, huge corporate sponsorship. Two minute rounds and a robot can either be completely destroyed or go down for a 10-count and lose the fight. So that's the league. But Hugh's character doesn't live in a world remotely connected to the league. So he works in the Underworld. The Underworld as we call it is basically a national circuit of unsanctioned venues.
And where I find myself on this particular summer day is an old automobile plant that has been turned into The Crash Palace. It's here that we've watched Noisy Boy and Midas duke it out with dirty, leather clad, biker-gang looking spectators cheering from what feels like an industrial opera house. With fights chorographed by Sugar Ray Leonard and the dusty, wholly genuine set of Real Steel surrounding me, it feels like I've time traveled to some kind of post-apocalyptic future. Never has a set been so captivating. This set is so unbelievable that even star Hugh Jackman was taken aback by the sheer scale of it all. The actor says:
My first thought was like no one is going to believe this is not CGI. Everyone’s going to think this is extension looks so incredible. I mean it’s so amazing. That was my first thought that this looks so unbelievably good that they aren’t going to believe it’s for real. And I think it’s going to be the same with the robots because we have real robots for some of it and then it’ll be CGI. It’s really exciting.
Of course, as appealing and stunning as these sets and robots will be, at the heart of this film isn't just what Levy refers to as "tech kind of fetishism." In fact Levy concedes, "I think that's not particularly fresh anymore. I think that's been done and it is being done by people frankly who do so better than me." In fact, it's that approach to the project that seems to have made him an unlikely perfect fit for the film, a choice personally made by Steven Spielberg. Even levy was surprised by his meeting with Spielberg saying, "Why did you call me? It's not even a comedy." And Spielberg says, "Because I've seen what you've done. It's always commercial, it's always kind of big-hearted but I've had this feeling that your take on this would be what it needs." And it's that motivation that resulted in Levy spending seven months re-writing the script with writer John Gaitins.
With Levy's time spent on the kiddie pool with films like Cheaper by the Dozen, Big Fat Liar and Night at the Museum, you wouldn't think a futuristic, metal smashing film like this would be the right project for a directing who's grittiest film up to that point was Date Night. And while, I was a little put off by Levy saying on set, "This ain't no Night at the Museum," I was more than pleased to see him deliver on that statement with the footage, concept art and shooting on display that day. Essentially, at the core of Levy's Real Steel is a film that aims to combine otherworldly science fiction elements (in this case fighting robots) with a grounded story about a father trying to reconnect with his estranged son. Hugh Jackman comments on his character and the rough path ahead for the relationship between he and his son:
I think he’s a little bit of a broken man, you know? And he’s disappointed himself and many people right throughout his life and he’s kind of used to that. He kind of expects to disappoint people. So he’s one of those people who doesn’t put himself in a situation to have people rely on him, you know, deliberately because he lacks at self-confidence or self-belief I suppose. And this is a kid he pretty much abandoned at birth and having him around is just a constant reminder of probably his biggest failure in life, you know?
We see the dynamic between Jackman and Dakota Goya, the young actor playing his son, and the chemistry between them when they're at odds is so genuine, it makes you feel like you're watching a family argument in public at the local grocery store. Despite the fact that there's wrecked robots being dragged around by cranes on set, and more grungy biker-looking robot-boxing fans walking around their trailers, it's not hard to get lost in the pure emotion and grounded drama between these two. It's the same kind of family drama that made Spielberg's films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind feel so real despite out-of-this-world elements.
Combine that difficult father-son relationship with the rise of an unlikely robot champion in Atom who may have more in his metal head than just wires, circuits and lights, and we have a film that could capture some of the charm that Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment used to deliver. And for anyone saying this film still feels like a carbon copy of Transformers, both Spielberg and Levy held off on the gimmick of 3D because, as Levy says, it would have been a disservice to the 70% of the film that's drama to let the 30% that's robot action drive the 3D decision.
It's decisions like that, Levy's unlikely approach to a film about robots beating the hell out of each other, and his childlike wonder and energy on set that give me faith in him as a director, despite that fact that most of his family friendly fare hasn't been my cup of tea. Hearing about his inspirations for this film, the development process, and seeing the world he's bringing to life with Hugh Jackman, I can't help but think Levy has plenty more tricks up his sleeve, and a lot more to put up on screen then slapsticky kid-friendly films. This is a film that will have the hard hits of a boxing match and a powerful drama. Once again, check out both the first and second trailers for this flick, and if you're feeling skeptical about the film at all, let me implore you to reconsider, because this film looks to have a lot of fantastic action, stunning visuals, amazing special effects, but most importantly, an original story and a lot of heart and passion. Real Steel hits theaters on October 7th.