Robot master behind 'Men in Black' and 'Hellboy' shows us how movie magic is made

You probably don't know who Mark Setrakian is. But you know his work:

  • The well-meaning demon and his amphibian counterpart Abe Sapien from Guillermo del Toro's 2004 film Hellboy
  • The tiny Arquilian alien Gentle Rosenberg, who maneuvers his human-shaped body from inside its head in 1997's Men in Black
  • The titular gorilla in 1998's Mighty Joe Young
  • The star of George Lucas's infamous 1986 flop, Howard the Duck

All of these diverse characters came from the workshop of one person: robotics and creature-effects guru Mark Setrakian.

Hellboy, with his Setrakian-designed right hand.

Setrakian currently is the mastermind and designer behind Robot Combat League, Syfy’s new weekly fighting-robot show that features a dozen 8-foot-tall robotic monstrosities clobbering one another.

Setrakian had made a name for himself in the robot-combat circuit in the 1990s and early 2000s, sending his creations into battle in the original Robot Wars competitions and the BattleBots TV series.

His film work began at Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas's special-effects house.

Now Setrakian, whose laid-back demeanor starkly contrasts his otherworldly creations, works from his studio at Spectral Motion in Glendale, California, where he created the RCL robots and fashions numerous robotic creatures for movies.

The unadorned exterior of Spectral Motion doesn’t stand out on its quiet street outside of Los Angeles. But, once you enter, the green, vicious canine creature standing there, as well as the myriad of fantasy and sci-fi movie posters that line the walls, instantly show that you’re somewhere out of the ordinary.

Inside the workshop, engineers and artists work among their creations. Oversized claws and limbs protrude from under clear plastic sheets, and full-scale aliens, demons, and monsters watch as new creatures are brought to life under the studio’s florescent lights.

From his mind to your movie-viewing

Setrakian, whose special-effects work keeps him behind the scenes, uses his unmatched robotic-engineering knowledge, advanced puppeteering skills, and artistic vision to turn creatures normally confined to the pages of comic books and science fiction stories into memorable, lifelike film characters.

His creatures are so lifelike that viewers often think they are computer-generated imagery, instead of being engineered and built.

TechHive: Michael Homnick
Setrakian stands in front of his 8-foot-tall 'Robot Combat League' prototype.

In an exclusive interview with TechHive at Spectral Motion, Setrakian told us that filmmakers understand that the best effects come when you combine real models with CGI.

“I’ve had the good fortune to work a couple times now with Guillermo del Toro, who is an amazing director,” Setrakian says. “He really loves having physical things on his set because he recognizes the value of being able to point a camera at something and direct it, and at the end of the day you can take that shot and cut it into the movie.”

Go-to guy for monsters

Setrakian is widely regarded as the best mechanic in Hollywood.

By making creatures so realistic that viewers sometimes assume they are produced by computer, Setrakian, with a team of engineers and artists, has surpassed what people generally believe is achievable with traditional robotics and puppeteering.

The practice of using robotics to emulate real life, called biomimetics, is how Setrakian makes his living. As a biomimetics expert, Setrakian applies in-depth knowledge of engineering, modeling, and advanced puppeteering to create ultralifelike creatures that draw inspiration from real biological systems.

“I really thought of myself as someone who makes puppets,” he says. “In my case, I’m using the highest technology that I can get my hands on to make really, really cool puppets.”

Setrakian's credits also include additional aliens in all three Men in Black films, assorted creatures in the Hellboy movies, a wolflike "scrunt" for Lady in the Water, and other fantastical beings for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and the upcoming Pacific Rim.

Learning at Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic

Setrakian grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like any self-respecting geek, was an avid fan of Star Wars and other sci-fi and fantasy films. He says watching those movies inspired him to pursue special effects as a career.

"I’d watch movies and look at the way things were done, and I’d do diagrams and sketches of how I thought the effects were achieved," he says. "I was usually wrong, but it was still a fun exercise."

TechHive: Michael Homnick
Setrakian poses with skinlike attachments in his Southern California studio.

After honing his skills by sculpting, painting, and creating models of creatures on his own time, Setrakian’s big break came at age 19 when he landed a job at Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas’s Bay Area-based special-effects house. Setrakian says his time at ILM gave him focus and laid the groundwork for the rest of his career.

“The sort of magical way that you can bring something to life with a mechanism, radio control, or different puppeteering techniques just really resonated with me,” Setrakian says. “That was when I started focusing my attention on mechanical design, and I have basically been expanding on that ever since.”

Next: Robot-combat enthusiast

A passion for robot combat

While creature-effects robotics pay the bills, it’s easy to hear the passion in Setrakian's voice when he speaks of his robot-combat side projects. And when it comes to battling robots, it’s hard to find someone with more street cred than him.

As one of the original competitors in the Robot Wars contests held in San Francisco in the ’90s—other competitors included Jamie Hyneman of Mythbusters fame—Setrakian and his aptly named robot The Master earned a heavyweight title in 1995 and an induction into the Combat Robot Hall of Fame.

He also had a successful stint controlling The Master on the TV show BattleBots in the early 2000s (which featured Bill Nye as a technical expert, as if anyone needed another reason to watch).

TechHive: Michael Homnick
Unlike the final robots he constructed for 'Robot Combat League,' Setrakian's original prototype had cameras inside its head.

Despite his extensive experience with robot combat, Setrakian says working on today's Robot Combat League show is completely different than participating in Robot Wars or on BattleBots.

“The thing that’s really cool about BattleBots is that you have people building their machines ... and they’ve invested their time and money into these things, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars,” he says. “But what we needed for [Robot Combat League] was something that weighs a thousand pounds and costs $200,000 to build, and you can’t expect hobbyists to do that.”

When Syfy first presented the idea for RCL to Setrakian, he thought the premise was daunting. “They called me up and told me what they wanted to do, and I thought, ‘That’s basically impossible,’” he says.

Fortunately, Setrakian seems to be in the business of impossible. After three months of work, he designed a working prototype from scratch, complete with an unusual control system.

Unlike traditional combat robots, which operators manage by remote control, Setrakian designed the RCL robots so that operators can control them by using an upper-body harness, or “exo suit,” that transmits their movements.

In addition, a second technician guides each robot’s lower half using a separate set of controls. Setrakian also engineered a new 25-station manifold, which essentially acts as a robotic heart, pumping high-pressure hydraulics fluid to different parts of the robot’s body.

“It just had to work—and it worked,” he says.

After impressing executives at Syfy with his prototype, Setrakian then had four months to design and construct 12 more unique robots with a team of engineers and artists at Spectral Motion.

The team ultimately completed the robots in time, and if the robotic remains littering the studio are any indication, the metal monsters went on to tear themselves apart in their battles during season one of RCL.

Although side projects such as BattleBots and RCL may seem like hobbies, Setrakian says they also serve as a form of continuing education.

TechHive: Michael Homnick
The robots Setrakian created for 'Robot Combat League' contain an assortment of hoses, actuators, and hydraulics systems.

He says the mechanics he learned from Robot Wars and BattleBots made it possible for him to create the menacing scrunt in the 2006 fantasy/horror flick Lady in the Water. In an unforgettable scene, the green, wolflike creature emerges from the mist to terrorize the characters played by Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas Howard.

[Watch: The Making of the Scrunt]

This work, in turn, laid the foundation for some of the technologies he used in the RCL robots.

“This is how I keep growing and learning new techniques, and oftentimes, especially in film work, you don’t have time to experiment, you don’t have time to do research and development,” Setrakian says. “So I really take that unto myself to do that on the side as I can, and I take what I learn from that and inject it into every project that I do.”

A disappearing art

Despite positive reviews for his animatronics work in recent films, including Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Setrakian says he doesn’t expect practical effects using robotics and puppeteering to be commonplace in Hollywood for much longer.

As CGI continues to improve, the need for creatures that are actually constructed is on the decline.

Instead, he says, spectacles such as RCL and live shows such as How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular are the perfect venue for physical creations.

“There’s definitely a place for this type of work,” Setrakian says. “Getting into robotics right now is a really good move.”

Whatever the future of robotics and creature effects in films may be, for now we can enjoy the fruits of Setrakian’s artistic vision and mechanical expertise in the raw, geeky entertainment that is RCL.

And for Setrakian, the creatures and robots filling his studio will remain as living testaments to his work.

“Working on Hellboy 2 was interesting, because when I got on set I was so happy to see my friend Hellboy again,” he says. “That’s one of the incredible things about working in this field, is that the things that I’m making, you put them together and you bring them to the set, and they literally come to life. That’s an incredible experience.”

TechHive's Liviu Oprescu shot and produced the video for this story.

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