Robot boxing isn’t just for your little Rock’em Sock’em game anymore. In the new Syfy series Robot Combat League, metal giants dole out powerful punches on other robots. Much like in the Hugh Jackman-starring Real Steel, competitors shadowbox in an exo-suit that translates every uppercut and right hook to their mechanical avatars.
The show began with an idea from producers Jeremy Whitham and Craig Plestis. They gave the duties of creating the show’s robots to Mark Setrakian, whose credits include the animatronic effects in Hellboy, Men in Black, and Batman Forever. He was also a competitor on the Bill Nye-hosted show BattleBots in 2000.
Setrakian designed 12 robots for Robot Combat League that are each operated by teams of two: one shadowboxing contestant — one is George Lucas’ daughter, MMA fighter Amanda Lucas — and one tech-savvy teammate. It took Setrakian about three months in late 2011 to build a prototype robot, and then he led a group of 20 effects artists at Los Angeles effects studio Spectral Motion to create the robots that would appear on the show. Each robot cost about $200,000 to make, Setrakian says.
Ahead of Robot Combat League’s nine-episode season — the premiere airs tonight and is already available to watch online — Setrakian chatted with EW about designing bots for the show, inevitable Real Steel comparisons, and what the future might hold for boxing robots.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about the first time you got to see these robots march out into the ring, with lighting effects and fog machines.
MARK SETRAKIAN: When they walk into the ring for the first time, they look gorgeous. They’re like custom show cars in robotic form. So cool. It’s an incredible pay-off. When the contestants meet the robots for the first time, I got to drive them into the ring. So I was in the exo-suit, and I got to control it. I got to swing the fists and inject a little personality into these things. It was really nice for me to have an intimate moment with each one of the robots before they were turned over to their teams.
Have you seen Real Steel?
I have seen it. Interestingly enough, at the time when I had my first meeting with Jeremy, the advertising [for Real Steel] hadn’t really hit yet, so we didn’t really know that was coming. Of course the movie was probably already done. But I hadn’t seen it yet. Real Steel is exactly what people have been talking about and wishing for for decades, which is humanoid robots that fight. And in fact it’s based on a  episode of The Twilight Zone, and that in turn was based on a book, a short story by Richard Matheson. I don’t mind comparisons to Real Steel because it is similar, and if you say, “Well, it’s like Real Steel,” then people have a pretty good visual of what it’s going to be like. It’s not derivative of Real Steel any more than Real Steel is derivative of The Terminator or Pacific Rim is derivative of Real Steel. It’s all based on robots both in fact and in fiction that we’ve been enjoying for so long. And now it’s really time to see it come to fruition.
What were your main objectives when designing these robots?
When I first started designing the prototype, I almost went into like mental vapor lock because there are so many pieces that have to work well together for this thing to succeed. One of the things that really concerns me is that from an engineering standpoint, I know it has to break. When these robots hit each other, they’re gonna break, and I have to think about where I am going to have that breakage occur. And I have to design it in such a way that it’s strong where it needs to be but it also has — not vulnerabilities, but it has things like crumple zones. [It needs] ways in which the thing can come apart without becoming totally disabled from one hit.
I also really focused on making sure that they absolutely worked really well — even in this very, very harsh environment, which is a fighting arena where they’re hitting each other. It’s okay if the robot fails because it snaps in half or because one of the arms gets ripped off. It’s not okay if the robot fails because something like a software glitch or a wire breaks and the whole robot stops moving. That’s not interesting. It’s interesting when the robot explodes. It’s not interesting when it just stops walking and no one knows why.
I’m curious about those exploding robot moments. Are the sparks flying and the hydraulic fluid spewing out of them all real results of the fight, or are there some added effects involved?
The sparks are pyro — there were pyrotechnic artists who were trained to watch the fight and work the pyro into the fight as it evolved. That was an effect that the producers chose to add to the robots. I thought it was interesting. But the hydraulic fluid, everything that you see when the arm breaks and the fluid starts squirting out — that’s all actually happening. They asked me if they could have a fake fluid system on the robots, and I said, “No, you can’t.” For one thing, I can’t have any fluid other than hydraulic fluid in the machine because it would just cause it to short out, so the hydraulic fluid is all real. Whenever that happens, it’s real damage that has to really get repaired in between the rounds.
How did you make the robots different from one another but more or less equally matched?
The inner skeleton of the robot is basically identical from one robot to another. The outer skin is different — in some cases, very different — from one robot to another. For example, there’s one robot that’s made of carbon fiber, so it’s inherently lighter and potentially faster than the others. But the carbon fiber armor isn’t as strong as steel armor. There’s another robot that has a steel roll cage, which is really durable, but it’s also very heavy, so that affects the robot to some extent. At their core, they are completely evenly matched, but their accessories, if you will, their armor and their weapons are all slightly different. Just different enough to give them a little bit of an advantage in one area, maybe a little bit of a disadvantage in another area. However, the most important thing is how the operators, the robot jockeys, control them and the strategy they use.
Once you saw the contestants operating the robots, did any of them surprise you with their strategies?
Some of the contestants really took to these robots very quickly, and that impressed me, and it didn’t surprise me. It made me very happy though because I tried to design these robots to be as intuitive to operate as possible. And when someone can get into the exo-suit and immediately find their form, get comfortable with this, suddenly you’re inside this robot’s skin, and you’re making it move. That worked out really well. I had designed the exo-suit in such a way that they could be adjusted for people of different stature. And one of the really interesting things about this was that the human fighters who would not normally be pitted against each other — women and men, big people, small people — are now fighting as equals in the arena because it’s the robot’s strength that they have.
Those 20 minutes you have to help the contestants fix their robots between rounds — how well do you handle that kind of high-stress situation?
I actually do very well in these kind of high-stress environments. I do a lot of work on feature films, and that can sometimes be an extremely stressful environment when you’re trying to get the piece that you have in front of camera, and it has to work flawlessly at the time when it’s needed, and there’s a lot of other stuff happening around you at the same time. That’s very good training for this NASCAR pit crew-type moment when the robot is broken and you have to look at it and say, “Okay, here’s the three things that we can do in 20 minutes. Let’s go.”
What is the purpose of the bar that connects the robots to the side of the ring?
The robots can walk without that bar, but they can only walk very slowly, and they have to walk very deliberately. There’s two things that the bar does: One thing is that it provides a conduit for the hydraulic fluid that drives the robot. The power source of the robot is outside of them. There’s two reasons for that. One is that the power source is huge. It’s this 500-pound machine. It has 150 gallons of fluid in it, and it pressurizes the fluid to 2,000 pounds per square inch, and it flows into the robot at 50 gallons a minute, and that amount of power turns these robots into super-beings. That would be impossible if they had to be self-contained. The other thing is I really think very much about safety, and I have the ability to immediately turn the robots off, and if I cut that pump off, the robot is truly inert. There’s no fuel on board. There’s no batteries on board, so when we have to race in and make repairs, I can be confident that the robot is actually safe [to work on]. The other thing that that bar does is it stabilizes what we call the roll access, so the robot can’t easily tip to the left or the right. And that really comes back to me wanting it to be a fight and not just “which robot is going to fall over first?”
In Real Steel, robot boxing is huge. It’s the biggest sport of the future. Do you see that ever happening, there ever being a full-blown sports league for robot fighting?
Well, I do actually see it as something that’s going to be big in the future. There are two basic behaviors that I think most sports are based on, and we have a phrase for it, which is “fight or flight.” So racing comes from running, and when the car was invented, it gave people who want to go fast the ability to go faster than humanly possible. And up until now there’s been no equivalent of that for fighting. But now there is.
The premiere of Robot Combat League, “Rise of the Machines,” airs on Syfy tonight at 10 p.m.
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