Dialogue: John Rosengrant on 'Real Steel's Oscar-Nominated Effects, 'Spider-Man,' 'Iron Man 3' and 'Pacific Rim'

Dialogue: John Rosengrant on 'Real Steel's Oscar-Nominated Effects, 'Spider-Man,' 'Iron Man 3' and 'Pacific Rim'

Jan 24, 2012

Their names may not be as instantly recognizable, but I consistently find people who work behind the scenes on movies more interesting to talk to than those who work in front. Then again, I'm just a geek for, well, the geekier side of filmmaking. So if you like to peak behind the curtain to see how movie magic is made, you'll enjoy our below chat with John Rosengrant, the animatronics expert (he worked with Stan Winston for decades) and co-owner of Legacy Effects. Earlier today, Rosengrant, who has worked on everything from the original Terminator to the new Muppets, received his first Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects for the surprisingly cool Real Steel, which also happens to be out on Blu-ray and DVD today.

Movies.com: Congratulations on the nomination!

John Rosengrant: Thank you, thank you. It was a very pleasant surprise to wake up to this morning.

Movies.com: Did you wake up for the announcements or did you just wake up to find your phone had been very busy?

Rosengrant: I knew we had a 50/50 shot, since there were 10 movies and they're going to pick 5, but it's still very exciting. I've been to four bake offs and never made it to the big dance, so it's pretty terrific.

Movies.com: I think the effects in Real Steel aren't just some of the most impressive of the year, but they're the most impressive aspect of the movie. There's a blending of practical and CGI that's just incredible. What do you think is the greatest challenge facing effects artists today?

Rosengrant: With each film the bar keeps going up. Audiences are very sophisticated and they're always looking for the next big thing that will wow them, and, knock on wood, I've been blessed to work on some movies as recently as Avatar that have really moved things along. Even these smaller films, and Real Steel isn't tiny by any means, but it's important to keep pushing the effects and learning what to do to make them better, because the budgets always shrink and the timeframes always get shorter, but the excellence still has to be there. It's not an excuse. No one's going to sit in the theater and go, "Ah, but they had less money and time..."

So we've had to adapt to how we work to still deliver that quality in a truncated timeframe. And we've done that by having our traditional sculptors sculpt digitally, and we can rapid prototype out parts, so that cuts down time and gets you to building these cool things that much faster. There's an efficiency now where you can be planning and engineering alongside your art simultaneously. It's a constant quest to build bigger better and faster cheaper.

John Rosengrant

Movies.com: When you come onto a project these days, is there a satisfying balance between practical and digital or do you think there's too much CGI these days?

Rosengrant: I thought the balance was struck nicely on Real Steel. From the beginning there were a lot of veteran people brought together with the goal of what's the best way to do it. Honestly, Real Steel was a very harmonious experience, because from the top down everybody was on board with a game plan and they stuck to it. That's rare these days when scripts aren't even finished when you begin filming a movie. Things just aren't thought out, but this movie was very well planned and very well executed, and that's why it was on time and with the level of FX that it brought forward.

This one was great, but there are times when it's off kilter. I think that comes from filmmakers maybe not having experience with animatronics or prosthetics and these kind of effects and not understanding what you can do with them. There's a new generation of filmmakers where everything has been digital for them, but I think when they get an opportunity to work with it and it's delivered on a level that's very enhancing for the film, I think they see that it's a great mix because it makes the CGI work that much better. Erik Nash [the visual effects supervisor] will be the first to tell you that he wished we had built all of the principal robots in the entire movie, because it helps inform them what the robot should look like.

There were plenty of shots in the movie that were all digital that we had nothing to do with except for the fact that we took our puppet out there and let them shoot it in the frame. It gave them all the specular qualities that they needed. They knew exactly what Atom would look like in that lighting condition. And they didn't have that for Midas or a couple of the others and they wish they did, because I think Ron Ames [the associate producer] came up with a formula where they saved about 25% on about every robot digitally that they had an animatronic for. So there's a fiscal responsibility that, if this was embraced also, translates into not only visually making something better, but it helps financially.

For example, with Midas, was he gold paint or was he gold plated? What parts? Was it all of him? All those things need to be addressed, whereas when I made the robot, I'd make those choices and they'd already be there in the real world. But, like I said, with this film it really was a wonderful experience because everybody worked in harmony.

Movies.com: As far as general technology goes, what is exciting you these days about the industry as a whole?

Rosengrant: We've embraced the computer technology and we always have, all through my 25 years with Stan Winston. It's not something to be afraid of, not if it can help you. We love doing, like I mentioned earlier, that our traditional sculptors now sculpt digitally and that we've interfaced that into our pipeline here. It's cool what we can do. We can sculpt something one minute then grow the part right here under our roof, rapid prototype-wise, and in a matter of hours actually have something sitting here. It's exciting. The minute you take on a new technique we find a new way to customize it or bend it or shape it or help us in another way, and you go, "Oh my God, if you did this with it, I wonder if that would work..." and I think that's what keeps you going.

The end result of bringing a character to life is the most rewarding, but it's that journey toward finding ways to get there that is thrilling.

Real Steel Robots

Movies.com: Please tell me there will be a large, animatronic lizard in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Rosengrant: In Spider-Man? Someone would probably shoot and kill me if I talked about Spider-Man right now. [Laughs] That one is really on lockdown. That one we really can't divulge anything on.

Movies.com: Fair enough. What is next for you?

Rosengrant: The shop is working on Pacific Rim right now. That's the big project right now and it's very cool, very Guillermo del Toro. It's neat. And it looks like Iron Man 3 is on the horizon and then I'm in talks on a couple other big projects where I'm just going to keep my fingers crossed and hopefully not jinx them.  

Categories: Interviews, Sci-Fi
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