Animatronics in cinema: returning to the world of RoboCop


Animatronics are mechanical devices that simulate the movements of living creatures or objects. The history of animatronics spans decades of development, beginning with simple mechanisms for animating dolls and advancing to modern high-tech structures capable of creating realistic movements and facial expressions. This technology creates characters and objects that can interact with actors and the environment.

The 1987 movie RoboCop is a prime example of how animatronics were used to bring one of the most memorable heroes in cinema history to life, serving as a case study for the impressive work of animatronics in cinema.

● Act 1: From King Kong to Avatar

The history of animatronics in cinema predates the advent of digital special effects. An early example of animatronics in cinema is King Kong (1933), where animatronic puppets were used to create the effect of a giant gorilla interacting with actors and the environment. Animatronics often directly relate to puppets, models, and makeup and are an integral part of production design. With technological advancements, animatronics became more complex and realistic. In the 1970s and 1980s, this technology was widely used in horror, science fiction, and fantasy movies, including Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), Predator (1987), and The Terminator (1984). The success of the latter significantly influenced the launch of RoboCop. These movies utilized animatronic costumes and models to construct their unique worlds. The Ultimate Film Club highly recommends these cinematic legends.

● Act 2: The world of RoboCop

Let's take a closer look at our hero. RoboCop tells the story of police officer Alex Murphy, who becomes a victim of criminals and is transformed into a cyborg by the OCP (Omni Consumer Products) corporation to fight crime in a futuristic Detroit. The world is meticulously detailed, showcasing stunning production designs,from company logos and monitor interfaces to decorations and costumes.

Costume work in RoboCop was crucial. Rob Bottin developed the costume, starting with life-size clay sculptures and undergoing numerous modifications over several months. The final costume was a composite organism: a flexible under-suit, harnesses, rigid fiberglass parts, 24 different costume pieces, makeup, wax, and, of course, animatronic elements. These, along with the scenes featuring their interaction, made the RoboCop character and cinematic world even more attractive and memorable for audiences, with some shots becoming iconic and widely memed over time.

Animatronics were also used to create the effect of interaction with the robot antagonist ED-209, detailed in archival footage of the meticulously combined shooting. The Ultimate Film Club will explore this topic in future articles. What movie do you think should be discussed next?

● Act 3: Significance

Thanks to innovative special effects and animatronics, RoboCop became a classic action movie of the 1980s and left an indelible mark in cinema history.

With the advent of computer graphics in the late 20th century, animatronics began giving way to digital effects, which offered more flexibility and opportunities to create visually stunning scenes. But can all computer effects and innovations replace the memorable work of artists, customers, and designers? Their efforts remain justified as we continue to remember and return to last century’s cinema.

In the film industry, there are many proponents of practical effects. There are few directors and cinematographers who prefer to avoid CGI and do everything practically, but they stand out, especially for the A&K team. As mentioned in this article, Christopher Nolan is a prominent representative of that approach (hyperlink: article title). One of the main advantages of practical effects is the interactive exchange with actors directly on set, creating more natural and realistic scenes.

Animatronics in cinema is not just a technical achievement but also an art form that helps directors and artists create fantastic worlds and characters. With its help, cinema comes to life, bringing unforgettable experiences and admiration for the magnificence of creativity.

— Murphy, I'm a mess!
— They'll Fix You. They Fix Everything.

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