Creating a Nuanced But Believable, Tech-Soaked Future Vision for the Sci-Fi Reboot

RoboCop is back, this time in a future not so far removed from our current computer-centric web of security-cam, drone and even social media surveillance. Sony Pictures Entertainment's remake of the Paul Verhoeven 1987 classic is directed by Brazilian José Padilha, who worked with New York creative studio Perception to develop the film's signature computer-assisted point of view.

Best known for animated broadcast opens and "future-tech" effects that define the virtual gadgets and large-scale, holographic computer screen and heads-up display interfaces in Iron Man 2 and 3 and Men in Black 3, Perception also regularly consults on real world next-gen interfaces for technology brands like Samsung and Microsoft—all of which made the studio a perfect fit to create the various H.U.D.s, video walls and other futuristic media concepts Padilha wanted to populate RoboCop's dystopian version of Detroit in 2028.

After the studio first asked the facility to bid on the film, Creative Director John LePore says the project quickly evolved into something much more expansive. "When we submitted and won our bid, we were only pitching two very specific elements," he says. "We assumed we'd be one of many facilities working in parallel on various parts of the film, as we'd done before. But our designs ended up touching somewhere around 100 shots."

Unlike for Tony Stark's Iron Man, RoboCop's H.U.D. is his primary persona and occupies a good deal of screen time. Says LePore, "The brief came to us as, 'RoboCop sees his enemies and takes a moment to calculate his view of the geography around him to gain some sort of tactical advantage.' We had some very basic, rough sketches from the studio, which we took as an opportunity to figure out what would be the most strategic way for him to look at his environment. We played with dozens and dozens of different variations, from old-school videogames' aerial views to camera fly-throughs."

Perception's team spent close to one month working on-site in Toronto, where the film was shot, with Padilha and the rest of the post-production team. "We set up shop there to have as much intimate interaction as we could with them so that we could quickly establish the language we'd use," he says. "But more than anything else, we needed to figure out what worked best for these guys, what they responded to the most. José really wanted things that were as realistic-looking as possible and had a practical purpose. That's the way we won the pitch in the first place; the concept that resonated with him the most had this very linear, almost flow-chart sense of layout and you could see each window leading into the next, letting you make a logical order or sequence out of each different thing that was happening in the POV."

These POVs are not RoboCop's alone. The film's EM208s and ED209s, military-spec robots with their own H.U.D.s, approach their targets with old-school precision and vaguely villainous overtones. "RoboCop, as a human/robot hybrid, is the new-school approach," says LePore. "As his emotional states change and his character evolves, he also gets actual OS upgrades. He starts out as RoboCop 1.0 and we updated his H.U.D. as the character leap-frogged from 1.0 to 3.0, suggesting several steps forward in interface design."

Perception defined the various elements and their purpose within RoboCop's heads-up display for the studio and director, which is how the design team typically presents concepts to its clients.

To make that leap seem both natural and uniquely futuristic, LePore says versioning was essential to the process. "We had so many different ideas and there was so much exciting stuff that we wanted to experiment with in this world, ranging from more predictable ideas like a target moving around on the screen and scanning elements to other things that were borderline abstract. We started to think, this isn't looking through a camera's eyes or a person's eyes; we're looking at what a computer sees. We even experimented with the way a computer might interpret light, not so much as color values, but more like point-cloud information, refractive indexes and global illumination, where the robot is calculating when light hits one object it's bouncing off it and off of the next object, and that's how it understands its visual interpretation of the world." That is also, not coincidentally, the technology behind how animators and designers interface through their computers with their created worlds every day. "Ultimately, it was up to José to focus in and narrow all those down and decide which interface best communicated the story and moved it forward. Then we built from there."

It was Perception's experience as conceptual consultants in real-word interface design, says LePore, that further helped ground that evolution in realistic details. "We've worked with computer companies, telecom companies and even aerospace companies to create real, practical interfaces that will be used now. With that knowledge, we brought in elements that always served a practical purpose and had a logic to them, and weren't just superfluous eye candy. They go by fast in the film, but the idea was that you could pause it and make sense immediately of every single element on the screen at any given time. We know that audiences are so much more savvy to this kind of stuff—and on-demand, many will probably pause it and scrutinize it!—so we really work hard to make something that isn't just a jumble of blinking lights and spinning shapes."

That hasn't stopped Perception's technology clients, however, from asking for a little bit of that futuristic movie magic to thread back through their next-generation designs. "We're moving into a position where we own this specific space between the real stuff and the fantasy stuff, with a hand in making the fantasy stuff seem more real and the real stuff that much more fantastical," he says.

Perception similarly decoded the many layered elements in OmniCorp's central command screen.

Good design must expertly blend form and function, especially when it exists within another visual art form like film, and LePore says that concept was often top- of-mind when working on RoboCop. "Part of what makes these elements appear sophisticated and advanced is their complexity, but we always have to walk a fine line between distracting from or interfering with whatever is caught in camera, whether that's a performance or other action," he says. "We found ourselves in certain scenes leaning on the graphics to really fill the frame and push a scene forward. There are a few sequences where RoboCop's vision goes into this almost augmented-reality state—for the sake of situational awareness, he's able to step out of his own shoes and move his point of view throughout an environment so he can have tactical advantages over his enemies. In situations like that, the graphics completely take over the frame and drive the action. But in other places, the design is only meant to give you a bit of context."

The design also became part of the central character's arc. "When they were working on the rough cuts, the graphics had a huge weight on their shoulders in terms of storytelling," says LePore. "There were a lot of really complex plot points and even pieces of character development. There are a lot of things going on in RoboCop's mind, which evolves and changes through various emotional states, many of which are displayed through his POV in his H.U.D."

In addition to multiple H.U.D.s, Perception designed interfaces for the massive screen that anchors fictional OmniCorp's central command facility, as well as a media control room on steroids for The Novak Element, a political talk show that winks at The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News. The creative studio built all these elements with a combination of Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects, Maxon Cinema4D and Autodesk Maya, though some custom scripting was necessary to deal with the sheer amount of nested footage within footage that the film's massive displays combine. "That core group of software is really powerful for us," says LePore. "But one of our artists happens to be very talented in scripting and creating templates, these kitted tools that everyone else on the team can then use to automate the workflow, especially when we're dealing with a grid of a thousand pieces of footage animating across the screen. We need to be able to control and coordinate all these pieces basically swarming all over the place as a unit. But we also need the freedom to be able to individually pluck specific ones out and bring attention to them; that's where the scripting is invaluable."

The versions of H.U.D.s Perception created for the film are all linked by a common design logic and grid.

Back in its New York City studio, Perception collaborated remotely for a solid six months with the film's visual effects team to produce the final shots. "We ended up preparing most of the segments in a relatively untreated state," says LePore. "What ended up in the film doesn't have a very dramatic color treatment to it, just a little bit of extra texture that was dialed in. Last August, most of our work was delivered as a toolkit and after we had handed that off for delivery, there was still some fine-tuning and messaging that was done to make minute adjustments. As I understand it, the studio was making edits right up to the end and a lot of the other facilities came in to help as the release date approached. Our crunch, however, was on the first half of the project."

At the time Perception started on RoboCop, the creative studio had just begun another big concurrent project, Captain America 2. "We came into Captain America really early in an almost pre-production phase," says LePore. "After we delivered RoboCop in August, we jumped back into it. Actually, today might literally be when we wrap. We put a tremendous amount of work into it that project as well over the past four or five months."

RoboCop is in theaters now and Captain America 2 is scheduled for release this April.

Perception's "control room on steroids" is one of several elements designed for the Novak Element TV show featured in the film.