Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real Steel

Real Steel rocked us with its story of a boy bonding with a robot. And a big part of why the movie is such a fun breath of fresh air is its awesome robot designs.

We talked to the movie's lead concept artist and robot designer, Victor Martinez, about how he created a whole slew of robot fighters. He told us about his unlikely influences (Ben Templesmith!) and the challenges of making humanoid robots that each had its own personality .

Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real Steel

The studio didn't want these robot boxers to look too much like Transformers, since that was another franchise they'd already established on the big screen, says Martinez. So the designers had to go back and look at other sources of inspiration for robot design, both real and imaginary. In some cases, the design team was looking for trends to steer clear of.

One important way these robots are different from Transformers: they look like they were made by people. Martinez says the design team was keen for the robots to look utilitarian, with gears, pistons, servos and gyros. "They had to feel like they really functioned," he said.

Many of the robot designs include a throwback to the vintage, humanoid robots of the 1950s, with an "old-timey nostalgic feel" but also a contemporary spin, says Martinez. It was all part of establishing a
"robot language" that would inform all the different robots in the movie.

And Martinez explains his artistic inspirations in creating these 'bots:

I was looking a lot at works by Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith. I really liked the mood of their artwork and raw grit and attention to context in their work. I wanted to design robots, too, that felt like they belonged in a gritty real world and not some static future environment. Our robots fight mainly in back alley, seedy underground boxing venues. They are supposed to feel like they were welded together in someone's garage.

There are some exceptions to this rule, like former World Robot Boxing contender Noisy Boy and the current champion, Zeus.

As far as the boxing part of robot boxing, Martinez says the designers studied a lot of paintings by George Bellows, to get the same mood, atmosphere and lighting in the fights. "We wanted the fight scenes to feel like they had just leapt out of one of his boxing paintings."

Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real Steel

The first robot Martinez worked on for the movie was Noisy Boy, the former contender that Charlie buys early on. Says Martinez:

From the beginning, he was meant to be a very polished, flashy, and sleek - the idea was to fuse a Japanese Robot with a Samurai with a Tokyo Drift sports car. And since he was from Japan, I thought it would also be cool to inject the feel of the Tokyo night lights and super graphics of Shinjuku all over his armor...for example, his forearm LED displays flash words like "NOISY"..."BOY"...and the equivalent of "POW"..."BAM" when he lands punches.

Martinez also drew inspiration from crash-test dummies, which are designed to take a lot of abuse. Noisy Boy has body parts that are banded or striped, which makes him look like he was designed to absorb shocks, like a spring or accordion. His parts are "sandwiched together by tension cables and shock absorbers."

Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real Steel

Another robot that Martinez worked on was Metro, the junkyard robot who's owned by a group of punk-rock meth-heads at the Zoo, in the middle of nowhere. He's literally put together from scrapped pieces of other robots. "We lovingly referred to him as 'Frankenbot,'" says Martinez. "He's the antithesis of Noisy Boy. He's anything but polished and sexy. He's a monster - a work horse - made to take a beating and wear his dents proudly."

One of Metro's fists is just a huge sledgehammer. "Hey, it does the job," says Martinez. At first, Martinez and production designer Tom Meyer were considering making Metro's other fist a whole engine block, but they decided that might be too cartoony. "In general, the designers tried to push the limits of what these robots could look like while still maintaining human proportions, with two arms, two legs, a head and so on.

At one point, the designers experimented with having a boxing robot that bounced around on springs, in an homage to kangaroo boxing. Says Martinez:

All the robots are meant to look unique and homemade...much like the creations that came out of the Battle Bot circuit back in the day. Some were built for show, some built for speed, some for strength, kind of like how you'd build up a video game character with various mods - each has advantages and disadvantages.

Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real Steel

As for Atom, the main robot in the movie, Martinez's main contribution
was working on different ideas for the face. Production designer Tom Meyers did the overall design, and then concept artist Drew Leung refined it. One question was whether Atom should have recognizable facial features, or something more ambiguous that you could project your own feelings onto.

In the end, the designers worked towards giving each robot its own unique personality and flavor. The robots had different themes, and they also reflected different stages in the development of fighting robots, as well as different fictional manufacturers.

Check out some more of Martinez's original concept art from Real Steel below:

Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real Steel

The Crash Palace


Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelAn early "hero" view of Noisy Boy
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelAnother early "hero" view of Noisy Boy
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelAn early study of robot evolution
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelEarly robot motion study
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelNoisy Boy from all angles
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelThe Omni exterior
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelLooking down into the Omni from above
Designing a World of Robot Fighters: the Concept Art of Real SteelLooking up into the Omni from the floor