Randal M. Dutra on ‘RoboCop’ and the stop-motion ED-209

Illustration by Aidan Roberts.

Recently on vfxblog, I was able to speak to former ILM animation supervisor Randal M. Dutra about his work on The Lost World: Jurassic Park for that’s film’s 20th anniversary. I invited Dutra back to talk about his stop-motion contributions to RoboCop, which this week celebrates 30 years since its release.

On that film, Dutra was one of the animators of ED-209 at Tippett Studio (others included Phil Tippett, Harry Walton and Tom St. Amand). The enforcement droid was realized as both a full-scale puppet used on set and an articulated stop-motion miniature animated by the Tippett Studio crew, often against a rear-projected background plate advanced one or two frames at a time. Here’s Dutra’s thoughts on helping to make the ED-209 character so memorable.

vfxblog: How was a typical ED-209 shot planned out? How did the script translate to storyboards, and then onto the stop-motion stage?

Randal Dutra: Typically when “building” a shot, you review relevant shots before and after your current entry. You want “continuity”— a filmic consistency, an observance of established flow. There are many continuity considerations––action and composition are chief among them. How is the shot composed? What is the length of the shot, its frame count? What are you able to communicate, within those constraints or parameters? Storyboards were typically the visual reference bible, and still are a valuable tool, but they are being replaced by more kinetic animatics/pre-vis assets.

Randal M. Dutra animating ED-209 in mid-stride. Note the surface gauge employed: It is the stop-motion animator’s lifeline.

vfxblog: What were some of the important factors you had to keep in mind in animating this robot – this weapon – in terms of its movement and personality?

Dutra: ED-209 was a model, designed by Craig Hayes, that had a large head but no facial features save a deep depressed grill for a “mouth”. There were no expressive eyes. So his character relied heavily on body language and positioning, along with the later added robotic “voice” and mechanical sound effects. ED’s arms ended in guns, his legs were reverse “Z” joints.

ED was an overgrown bully—obscene firepower coupled with a very low, unimaginative AI. Lethal ability with no failsafe: that was the dark overriding satirical humor of not only ED, but also the morally corrupt urban society that created him. ED was a ticking bomb waiting to go off. And when he did, as established early on in the boardroom scene, there was bloody hell to pay.

Hard-surface animation models, like ED-209, with their “exoskeletons” give the animator a much more positive “grip” for posing than do softer, fleshier foam rubber puppets. This type of hard model also provides cleaner access to adjusting armature joints for proper tension.

Dutra animating ED-209. The “broken” or “Z” leg design lent itself to interesting actions.

vfxblog: Some have said for ED-209 that the limitations of stop-motion actually contributed to the look and made the robot both more menacing and more endearing. Was that on your mind at the time?

Dutra: The inherent “strobing” of stop-motion animation in those days (with no use of the common aids of today such as frame grabbers) did not hurt the robotic feel. In fact, it probably added to the illusion. That’s part of the charm of stop-motion, it’s not perfect nor is it necessarily meant to be. It is uniquely hand-wrought.

vfxblog: For the staircase sequence, how did you approach those shots?

Dutra: As a key animator of ED-209, I especially enjoyed the challenge of ED’s quandary at the top of the staircase. ED was not programmed to negotiate such a foreign geometry/architecture. Certainly his clunky, large three-toed feet were not designed for it. So here was a chance to exploit character. ED offered his toes rather delicately, “testing” the waters of a spatial void—with no answering solid flooring or surface. I had ED look down, as much as his head would allow, “processing” while still pawing with his digits. It was a telling, light counterpoint to such a heavy piece of machinery. Of course, the actual tumble down the stairs was accomplished by a lead-weighted, loose-jointed model that was filmed live-action and over-cranked.

Dutra animating ED-209’s uncertainty at the top of the staircase. ED-209 was not programmed for such an action, and is unsure of the consequences.

vfxblog: How did you review shots at the time? Were there any re-takes done, or did you go in certain directions and have to change your approach at all?

Dutra: Our animated shots from the previous day were reviewed the following morning in the upstairs studio screening room/office. Called “dailies”, these morning sessions allowed for comment and the designation of “Final”, “CBB (“could be better”, acceptable due to tight production scheduling, but might be revisited), or “Redo”.

Dutra adjusting the joints on ED-209 prior to animating.

vfxblog: What are your memories of the speed at which you had to finish RoboCop, and then of the reception the work received?

Dutra: When animating my shots, my mission was very clear. Preparation was paramount. Nintey-five percent of my shots were first-takes on that show. Set ups and animation had to be accomplished with great speed on RoboCop as it was a very tight schedule. Many times a concentrated, full “run-through” would be animated and included in that night’s 7pm cut-off for the “lab run” (in the days of film developing). Occasionally these efforts actually hit all the high marks and were accepted as a “final” the next morning. They were fresh and had all the “juice”.

Dutra putting the finishing touches on a small-scale Robocop model he sculpted, cast, and painted for the shot of Robocop using ED-209’s arms/guns against itself.

Thank you again to Randal M. Dutra for taking the time to be part of this retro look at RoboCop. You can find out more about Dutra’s work at his website: http://www.randaldutra.com.