Robot master behind 'Men in Black' and 'Hellboy' shows us how movie magic is made

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You probably don't know who Mark Setrakian is. But you know his work:

  • The well-meaning demon and his amphibian counterpart Abe Sapien from Guillermo del Toro's 2004 film Hellboy
  • The tiny Arquilian alien Gentle Rosenberg, who maneuvers his human-shaped body from inside its head in 1997's Men in Black
  • The titular gorilla in 1998's Mighty Joe Young
  • The star of George Lucas's infamous 1986 flop, Howard the Duck

All of these diverse characters came from the workshop of one person: robotics and creature-effects guru Mark Setrakian.

Hellboy, with his Setrakian-designed right hand.

Setrakian currently is the mastermind and designer behind Robot Combat League, Syfy’s new weekly fighting-robot show that features a dozen 8-foot-tall robotic monstrosities clobbering one another.

Setrakian had made a name for himself in the robot-combat circuit in the 1990s and early 2000s, sending his creations into battle in the original Robot Wars competitions and the BattleBots TV series.

His film work began at Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas's special-effects house.

Now Setrakian, whose laid-back demeanor starkly contrasts his otherworldly creations, works from his studio at Spectral Motion in Glendale, California, where he created the RCL robots and fashions numerous robotic creatures for movies.

The unadorned exterior of Spectral Motion doesn’t stand out on its quiet street outside of Los Angeles. But, once you enter, the green, vicious canine creature standing there, as well as the myriad of fantasy and sci-fi movie posters that line the walls, instantly show that you’re somewhere out of the ordinary.

Inside the workshop, engineers and artists work among their creations. Oversized claws and limbs protrude from under clear plastic sheets, and full-scale aliens, demons, and monsters watch as new creatures are brought to life under the studio’s florescent lights.

From his mind to your movie-viewing

Setrakian, whose special-effects work keeps him behind the scenes, uses his unmatched robotic-engineering knowledge, advanced puppeteering skills, and artistic vision to turn creatures normally confined to the pages of comic books and science fiction stories into memorable, lifelike film characters.

His creatures are so lifelike that viewers often think they are computer-generated imagery, instead of being engineered and built.

TechHive: Michael Homnick
Setrakian stands in front of his 8-foot-tall 'Robot Combat League' prototype.

In an exclusive interview with TechHive at Spectral Motion, Setrakian told us that filmmakers understand that the best effects come when you combine real models with CGI.

“I’ve had the good fortune to work a couple times now with Guillermo del Toro, who is an amazing director,” Setrakian says. “He really loves having physical things on his set because he recognizes the value of being able to point a camera at something and direct it, and at the end of the day you can take that shot and cut it into the movie.”

Go-to guy for monsters

Setrakian is widely regarded as the best mechanic in Hollywood.

By making creatures so realistic that viewers sometimes assume they are produced by computer, Setrakian, with a team of engineers and artists, has surpassed what people generally believe is achievable with traditional robotics and puppeteering.

The practice of using robotics to emulate real life, called biomimetics, is how Setrakian makes his living. As a biomimetics expert, Setrakian applies in-depth knowledge of engineering, modeling, and advanced puppeteering to create ultralifelike creatures that draw inspiration from real biological systems.

“I really thought of myself as someone who makes puppets,” he says. “In my case, I’m using the highest technology that I can get my hands on to make really, really cool puppets.”

Setrakian's credits also include additional aliens in all three Men in Black films, assorted creatures in the Hellboy movies, a wolflike "scrunt" for Lady in the Water, and other fantastical beings for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and the upcoming Pacific Rim.

Learning at Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic

Setrakian grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like any self-respecting geek, was an avid fan of Star Wars and other sci-fi and fantasy films. He says watching those movies inspired him to pursue special effects as a career.

"I’d watch movies and look at the way things were done, and I’d do diagrams and sketches of how I thought the effects were achieved," he says. "I was usually wrong, but it was still a fun exercise."

TechHive: Michael Homnick
Setrakian poses with skinlike attachments in his Southern California studio.

After honing his skills by sculpting, painting, and creating models of creatures on his own time, Setrakian’s big break came at age 19 when he landed a job at Industrial Light and Magic, Lucas’s Bay Area-based special-effects house. Setrakian says his time at ILM gave him focus and laid the groundwork for the rest of his career.

“The sort of magical way that you can bring something to life with a mechanism, radio control, or different puppeteering techniques just really resonated with me,” Setrakian says. “That was when I started focusing my attention on mechanical design, and I have basically been expanding on that ever since.”

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