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American Robotics on European Film Sets

For over 20 years Kyle Martin, founder of Moxie Tool, has been creating animatronics and mechanical props for the movie industry. As a roboticist and puppeteer he works in Los Angeles making conceptual art come to live on the big screen. Futuristic props and – more often than not – monsters arise from Kyle’s workshop to travel to film sets all over the world. He tells us about their journey across the Atlantic to London (Attack the Block), Berlin (Hansel&Gretel: Witch Hunters) and Budapest (Blade Runner 2049). 

I work in metal. First I design in my head, then on the computer and use giant machines to carve objects out of metal. Never forgetting that metal is a living material that hardens with age and has different properties depending on it’s origin. Just like wood. Or stone. Whatever I make, it needs to grow out of an organic concept combining the idea with the material, it’s aesthetics as well as the newest technology and functionality. My work has to make sense at the end.

  • Homage to Flight

When I was asked to build the Memory Orb (designed by Mike Hill) for Blade Runner 2049 (2017) I happily took on the task. It is an analog prop without cables that can be operated by the actor. Because of this it has a weight to it that effects the actor’s movement and relationship to the orb. These tangible props (and sets for that matter) are generating a very different feel to the movie. Budapest seems to be a cradle of productions like this. A city with a long history and rich architecture lends itself to anchoring the imagined world of a movie set in a world that can be touched.

Work on the creatures begins for me by studying anatomy and movement. The creatures you see in movies always relate one way or another to a type of animal so I try to find the movement that defines the creature the most. Meanwhile it is important to think about their role and motiviation in the movie in order to implement every aspect of their character into the building blocks of the skeletal structure.

The movie Attack the Block (2011) was filmed in London. Once the animatronics have been completed in Los Angeles everything had to be carefully packaged and shipped oversees. It is always a great adventure to film abroad and find the necessary equipment and tools to set-up a workshop. Part of the job is to discover the city and locate all the resources needed for a successful shoot and this allows for a very unique experience of our surroundings. Instead of walking through London as a tourist I always felt emerged in the mechanics of the city, mapping out a network of people and locations.

  • Attack the Block

One of the key elements for authentic movement on this project were the arm extensions. The suit performer in the ape/wolf costume had to use these extensions to achieve the desired motion. Working closely with movement choreographer Terry Notary (Planet of the Apes, The Square) we rehearsed as much as possible and achieved I believe great results. Of course puppeteering the jaws of this creature added the effects needed for this genre. We have to be very smart about how and when we use the robotic hero head and aware of the loss if something broke in the precisely configured electronic and mechanical interior. For the more violent scenes the stunt heads were a better choice.

A few years later Edward the troll travelled with us from L.A. to Berlin to play in the movie Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). The reference for movement here was the human. To me human hands were always fascinating. I draw a lot of inspiration from Rodin’s sculptures – especially the hands – and turn them into moving sculptures on screen. Hands are so well designed and so incredibly difficult to reverse engineer. Our hands don’t move linearly  – a finger even can move in several directions and it becomes very intricate work to replicate this flowing, multi-directional movement on such a small scale. Luckily we had a little bit more flexibility with Edward’s rather big hands.

Making a film is such a unifying experience. People from different countries and from all walks of life come together to create something great. Having the opportunity to puppeteer Edward was incredibly rewarding in this environment. It seemed the whole crew felt empathy towards this brute when I was able to orchestrate his facial expressions via a remote control to evoke emotions. These fleeting moments of unity are the one’s we all strive for, don’t you think?





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