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