Magazine article American Cinematographer

Ballet Robotique

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Ballet Robotique

Article excerpt

Capturing the Beauty of High Tech Assembly Lines

"Don't anybody say 'industrial film.' We're going to give BALLET ROBOTIQUE all the big-time love and attention of a feature." So said Bob Rogers, producer/director of the new General Motors film, BALLET ROBOTIQUE.

"We really did treat it like a feature," says Rogers. "We shot 35mm with an Arri III and recorded the track in six part stereo with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. But the first step was getting independent feature cinematographer Reed Smoot interested in the project." Smoot's credits include WIND WALKER, TAKE DOWN, HARRY'S WAR and the Academy Award winning feature documentary "The Great American Cowboy."

"The subject of robots in manufacturing is obviously very industrial but Bob's concept from the start was that this was to be an entertainment rather than just a documentary," said Smoot. "The dedication to that approach is what made working on it so challenging and worthwhile." Even so, Smoot did at first have a few "minor" reservations. No location scout? Four cities in two weeks? A different local equipment package and crew in each location? Shooting in factories around splattering molten aluminum, explosive lacquer thinner fumes, spark throwing welding robots and dangerous automated equipment? All of this done without a second disturbing the production flow of the factories? "Oh yes. One more thing," added Rogers. "The factories are kind of ugly but your cinematography is going to make them look like STAR WARS."

"That all made perfect sense," said Smoot. "From the director's point of view it had to look high tech because we were telling the story of General Motors' robotics program which is ail state-of-the art technology. To com-" municate that to a non-technical audience that's been to see STAR WARS and ET. we had to make those factory locations look as high tech as STAR WARS and E.T. Bob communicated that very clearly from the outset. We knew going in that the standards would be extremely high compared with the budget."

Using some of the extraordinary methods herein described, the team obtained the desired results and more.


The mood was everything: "In the dark abyss, deep blue swirls of smoke curl up from the depths below. An eerie red glow emanates from within the blackness. Suddenly the gleaming silver arms of the robots rear up and plunge forward, shooting sparks that leap and pirouette in arcs of fire. Spitting sparks, breathing smoke, they crackle as they plunge again and again to attack."

Even without the art direction, the robots are amazing creatures. They are incredibly strong and precise (they maneuver a 200 pound welding gun into position accurate within 1/16 of an inch) and they move with a grace that would make a ballet dancer jealous. "Each type of robot has its own personality," said Rogers. "One moves like a chicken. Another like a cat. One paint spraying robot moves like seaweed, gracefully swaying and curling with the current. Our objective was to use the cinematographer's art to enhance and emphasize each of these personalities. For example, we knew we wanted to use low key lighting on the big welders so the welding sparks would look like a laser battle in outer space. We planned to synchronize them with the 1812 Overture so that the explosions of sparks would take the place of the fireworks and cannons," said Rogers.

The crew also planned to metamorphasize a chassis paint sprayer robot into a mysterious creature in an "underwater" cavern. They would bathe the paint spray booth in blue green light and give the little robot a pair of red eyes that would glow in the green darkness. As he went about his regular routine of spraying paint from his nose onto the chassis, he would appear to actually be snooping around, looking for spots that needed spray painting. "By dramatizing the personality of each robot, we're extending an old animation tradition," says Rogers. …

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