Robot, meet your maker: animatronics expert Mark Setrakian on building robo-gladiators for Syfy

Imagine eight-foot tall, human-controlled robots throwing fists like boxers in a no-holds-barred bout for mechanical supremacy. That's the idea behind Syfy's new show Robot Combat League, premiering February 26 at 10/9c.

But how did these fighting machines come to be? To find out, I spoke with Mark Setrakian, the roboticist behind the show who has worked on a myriad of high-tech productions including the Men In Black franchise, Hellboy, and the upcoming Pacific Rim.

How did you get involved with Robot Combat League?

The producers of the show, Craig Plestis and Jeremy Whitham, were looking for people, and most of the people that they spoke to — and this is what they told me — said, "Well, there's one guy who can do this and it's Mark Setrakian." So they eventually they got in touch with me and we went from there.

You've been making robots your whole life, both on and off the big screen. How did you get started?
When I was 19, I got my first job at [Industrial Light & Magic], which is George's Lucas effects company. I was fascinated by the Harryhausen movies, stop motion and visual effects, and model building, all that kind of stuff. So I started doing animatronic creatures at ILM, and I've been developing that work ever since.

This isn't the first time you've been involved with robotic bloodsport. You were renowned in the 90s for your Robot Wars robot "The Master." What was that time like?

That was the most fun ever for me. I was spending time in the shop, building this [fighting] robot…and this was the first time that I really poured a lot of effort into something that was entirely for me I think I had Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine on endless loop, and I would work all night in the machine shop by myself. It was just so much fun. Then to win the [Robot Wars] heavyweight championship that year was just icing on the cake. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

You were behind the scenes designing the robots on Robot Combat League. Can you describe your process?

My role in the process was to help them make a show that was going to succeed on a technical level. The technology that goes into these robots has to work — that is the bottom line. These things have to absolutely work in the arena.

So I built a prototype, which is a robot called Hades. It's this huge robot [made out of] welded stainless steel. It's got horns and it's kind of glowing red from the inside.

After I built the prototype, there was a lot of mulling over at Syfy, and then they said, "We'll do it." So I had four months to build twelve more of these things. And bear in mind that the prototype took about four months to build.

What are each of the robots like? Do they have personalities?

They totally have personalities. Actually, the first one that we finished that was fully painted and walking around in the shop was A.X.E. And A.X.E. is one of the tallest robots. It's red and white, and it has an axe head that moves. It can actually chop its opponents with its head.

I have a video where I'm standing in the shop, and we fire this thing up, and the thing just starts walking towards me. And when they walk, they're fast! They're fast and they're heavy, and it makes this really loud clanking noise when the feet hit the ground, like "bang! bang! bang! bang!" walking up to me, and it stops inches away from my camera lens. And you can hear me laughing in the video because it's just unreal to have this thing marching around with so much authority.

Why do people love watching robot warriors duke it out?

One of the fascinating — and maybe unexpected — things about how these machines work is that you can have a small woman and large man fighting and they're on the same level. They're fighting as equals because stature is basically taken out of the equation when you're fighting through a robot. Now, make no mistake, this is not a fight between two robots. This is a fight between two people. The robots are doing the physical fighting, but the human beings that are controlling them are handling all the strategy and coming up with all the movements.

What do you think will keep fans coming back for more Robot Combat League?

I guess the short answer is people will maybe tune in for episode one to watch the robots, but after that, they'll tune in to watch the people. Without the people, the robots are nothing.

You've not only created battle robots, but artwork and software, as well. Where do you find the inspiration for your projects?

There are a few themes in my work, I guess, and one of them is that I like really organic movement. In the context of a creature, I like the movement to be really life-like. So I've spent a lot of time working on that and making it the best that I can.

The robots for Robot Combat League are kind of like that. I've worked hard to give them enough capability that when someone gets at the controls of this thing that you really see that person's personality transmitted right to the robot.

What has been your favorite project up to now?

My favorite project is Robot Combat League. And I'm not kidding. This has been the most challenging, most difficult, and, yet, also the most rewarding project of my career. I have never worked harder on anything in my life. And I'm a hard-working guy. This thing pushed me absolutely to my limits.

Why do you think people should watch Robot Combat League?

Because it's awesome! It is seriously so entertaining. Chris Jericho [Robot Combat League's host] described it as watching a smash-up derby between two Lamborghinis, and I can tell you that the robots aren't just smashing each other. They're really fighting. It's a bloodsport with no blood. It's a fascinating show.

Robot Combat League premieres on Syfy February 26 at 10/9c. Head here for an advance look at the robots in action.

Kwame Opam is a tech writer and content producer for Studio@Gawker.