Zoic's Men on their mettle

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Even though Dr. Colin Mayhew is a fictional robotics professor whose website (www.r50rd.co.uk) serves as the anchor of Mini's "Men of Metal" interactive viral campaign, VFX animators at L.A.-based visual effects house Zoic built the CG r50 out of Mini parts using robotic principles that would work in the real world. After all, if the robot didn't look realistic, then the campaign, which works by linking print components to web sites about the independent scientist with accounts of robot rescues, wouldn't work. The very short films on Mayhew's site, which demonstrate tests at various points in the robot's construction, were the result of collaboration between agency Crispin, Porter & Bogusky and Zoic, whose team included co-creative directors Loni Peristere, and Andrew Orloff, designers, animators and robotics consultant R. Daniel Kubat. "Every gear and every cable and every gizmo that you see in the robot is something that [Kubat] and Zoic came up with together, and everything you see is a part from a Mini," says Orloff, who studied parts on Mini's official website and took hundreds of photographs at an L.A. dealership's garage. Everything from weight distribution, power source activity and limb articulation was debated and created realistically, as the designers searched for Mini parts that would serve the desired functions-something that was hotly contested once the viral site activated, starting heated debates in auto and tech message boards.

One of the most important techniques used to make the r50 stand scrutiny was a high level of detail, in which every gear, screw and joint moved the way a real robot's would. They would also have to work on a level of detail that would work when the robots were blown up to billboard size for outdoor ads. Ultimately, that resulted in an enormous amount of data, in which the models contained five million polygons (for a bit of comparison, ATI's Ruby, below, is made of 80,000 polygons). "It was a challenge to animate that because the model is so large that it doesn't move around very easily," Orloff says. Using LightWave 3-D to model, texture and render the bot, effects artist animated him in Maya on a lower resolution model before converting back to LightWave.

But besides merely being functional, the r50 also had to look cool. While the 1980s cartoon Transformers obviously lent influence, designers took cues from Japanese anime robots and samurai armor. "We definitely wanted him to look almost like a knight in shining armor, " Orloff says. "We used some of the door handles, windshield wipers and antennae to give that samurai look." They also made him functionally light yet muscular-looking by setting torso panels several inches away from the skeletal elements. "The hood on his chest and the wheels on his shoulders give him a weight on top that makes him look broad and sturdy," says Orloff, on the bot's heroic stature. "Iron Giant was a good reference too, because we didn't want our robot to be too scary. He's supposed to help people."

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