HBO´s 30 Coins

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January 2019. Javier Coronilla of Robots can Cry, founder and tech designer of BOTSZY, had just finished work on “Dark Crystal: Age of the Resistance”, when Pedro Rodriguez , makeup supervisor and winner of two Goya Academy Awards, contacted him to collaborate on “30 Coins”, the new HBO Spain project directed by Alex de la Iglesia.

After initial meetings, it became clear that there were two large creatures that presented many technical challenges and would play a key role in the series; their working nicknames would be “The Spider” and “Meatball”.

“The Spider”

The main challenges presented by this character were its enormous size, a design with polished lines that complicated the interaction between the mechanisms and the skin, and how this would imply limitations on set when creating the performance. Additionally, it had several tentacles on the ventral part that had to be moved. After several meetings, a consensus was reached in which the main body would be physical, which would improve the interaction with the actors, and the legs would be composited in post-production by the VFX team.

The Spider Concept Art
The Spider Concept Art

The size was another problem, this creature was atypically large and heavy, which made it very difficult to create the movements with conventional servos. Javier explains that “the logical decision would have been to use hydraulics or tires to control inertia and weight, but we wanted to keep a pipeline of work that we were more familiar with by using electric actuators and radio control.” 

“For this, I decided to design our own high-power servos using boards from the Pololu JRK family that, together with a high-power DC motor, gave us absolute control. We’d already used this technique before during a job for National Geographic at John Nolan’s London studio.”

Spider creature, final sequence on the show
Spider creature, final sequence on the show

“Meatball”

At the control level, “Meatball” is probably the most complex animatronic character ever to have been made in Spain. In addition to being exorbitant in size and weight, we needed the character to make large movements through space at a speed of several meters per second. The final creature ended up weighing approximately 200 Kg, and to add to the complexity, it incorporated a stunt person who was attached by means of prosthetics.

Meatball creature, ZBursh study by Ferran Piquer
Meatball creature, ZBursh study by Ferran Piquer

After several meetings and proposals on how to move it, the final decision was to integrate a 2.5 ton Kuka robot with a 2 meters per second speed, similar to that used in the assembly lines of the automotive industry. The Kuka animation would come from the VFX department and would be linked using Autodesk Mimic, a plugin for Maya that can control industrial robots. This combination gave us a clear advantage, the movement of the physical robot would be exactly the same as that of the digital version. The potential time saved in processes such as tracking and rotoscoping was clear.

The character’s facial performance would take place in real-time on set, allowing us to interact with the actors and create a more believable performance.

Puppeteer assistant Fátima Burgos, working on set
The Meatball movement rehearsal

Construction

The construction of both characters was carried out by our technology partner  and BOTSZY tech designer Robots can Cry in their studio in San Fernando (Cádiz).

The process began with a 3D scan of sculptures based on the concepts made by EDGE and Javier Hernandez to determine the internal structure and the mechanisms that would move each of the creatures.

Spider construction at Robots Can Cry Workshop
Spider Spider construction - Robots Can Cry Workshop

After several meetings and proposals on how to move it, the final decision was to integrate a 2.5 ton Kuka robot with a 2 meters per second speed, similar to that used in the assembly lines of the automotive industry. The Kuka animation would come from the VFX department and would be linked using Autodesk Mimic, a plugin for Maya that can control industrial robots. This combination gave us a clear advantage, the movement of the physical robot would be exactly the same as that of the digital version. The potential time saved in processes such as tracking and rotoscoping was clear.

The character’s facial performance would take place in real-time on set, allowing us to interact with the actors and create a more believable performance.

Problems – Solutions

Although the viewer sees a practically real creature, the animatronics specialist is actually looking at a set of mechanisms, motors, servos, electronics and batteries. That is why the problems these artists face are usually common: How to manage that many axes and mechanisms, how to manage batteries and control levels, and how to bring the acting closer to a faithful representation of what the director is looking for.

Botszy on 30 coin's set
Animatronics bench on set

In the case of the spider, it was the first time we used BOTSZY and we immediately saw its advantages. Firstly, the software is able to create unlimited mixes. That is, we had many separate channels, each one controlling an axis of movement, allowing us to reach the full potential of what the character’s anatomy permitted. For example, the various phalanges of a claw. The way to manage it was to mix several of those channels into a solo input control through BOTSZY’s virtual mixes feature, which allowed us to reduce the number of channels and control points to something manageable. 

Another big advantage of using BOYSZY was when getting rid of additional concerns that could interfere in the main role of the creature, for instance secondary animations. As mentioned in the introduction, the Spider had several tentacles on the ventral part that had to be moved while “terrifying” one of the actors. For this, we used BOTSZY´s signal generator feature in order to keep the tentacles acting themself using a sinusoidal wave setup.

Botszy setup for Meatball creature
Botszy setup for Meatball creature

As we have discussed before, controlling the battery charge level inside an animatronic creature is one of the main problems on set. The BOTSZY telemetry system allowed us to have real-time control of these levels, avoiding unnecessary setbacks and allowing us to focus on acting

And that acting is able to reach a much higher standard thanks to the filtering and smoothing of movements that BOTSZY incorporates, guaranteeing a smoother and more fluid range of motions.

Botszy station on set
Botszy station on set
Botszy Workflow
Botszy Workflow

And finally, perhaps the most powerful feature of our software and the core of our vision for the future: the ability for BOTSZY to send our live performance to a DCC (Maya in this case) so that the VFX department could have a reference to the acting or even use that animation in your post-production and animation process