Tony Gardner’s special effects get free rein in ‘Robot & Frank’

Working Hollywood: For Tony Gardner, the special effects whiz behind ‘Robot & Frank,’ taking flights of fancy is all in a day’s work.

August 25, 2012|By Cristy Lytal, Los Angeles Times

One of the main characters in “Robot & Frank” looks like a robot, walks like a robot and talks like a robot, but it isn’t a robot. It’s a suit created by makeup and special effects designer Tony Gardner and his company, Alterian Inc.

The futuristic film stars Frank Langella as a retired jewel thief who makes a new friend who has more servos than scruples. Gardner’s robot suit makes a convincing costar, thanks to the voice of actor Peter Sarsgaard and the movements of dancer Rachael Ma.

Gardner developed his talent for creating believable illusions as a child growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland.

“I was 5 or 6, and I remember my grandmother bought me a magic set for Christmas,” said Gardner, 48. “It had this card box in it. You put a card in it, and you close it and open it, and the card’s gone. It was one of those defining moments for me where I just had this adrenaline rush that maybe I’ve spent my whole life trying to re-create. That’s the part of it that I really enjoy: making people invest in stuff and believe that it’s real.”

At age 18, a chance meeting with special makeup effects legend Rick Baker led to a job sweeping floors on the set of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Soon after, Gardner dropped out of USC to work for Baker full-time.

Since then, Gardner has built the killer Chucky doll for the “Child’s Play” movies, the fat suit for John Travolta in 2007’s “Hairspray” and the severed arm for 2010’s “127 Hours.” His specialty is creating super-realistic body parts — and his work on 1999’s “Three Kings” actually caught the attention of the FBI and the Arizona police.

“For whatever reason, they were convinced that we had taken a homeless person off the street in Arizona, shot him up with bullets and filmed with a high speed camera,” he said. “It’s a backhanded compliment, really, to have the FBI investigate you on what you did with a fake body. It validates that what you did was very realistic and that people believed it.”

The medical community also finds his work convincing, and Gardner has a side company that supplies silicone dummies to train doctors, nurses and other professionals.

But Gardner enjoys embarking on flights of fancy as much as replicating reality.

“With something like the robot for ‘Robot & Frank,’ it’s pretty much free rein,” he said. “You’re presenting it as its own identity, its own character. So those are fun to do.”

The need for speed: Alterian had just over a month to create the white, humanoid robot suit. “The nice thing with something that’s robotic is there’s a lot of symmetry in parts, so your left thigh can be your right thigh,” said Gardner. “Taking a design approach where you’re trying to duplicate pieces on both sides really helped save us time. We went through our boxes of spare parts to see if there were additional pieces that we could use from other projects or even just ideas to use. And we had a couple elements that we were able to pull, just to save a few days here or there.”

Woodworking: Creating the robot involved some very old-fashioned techniques. “Aaron Romero, who’s one of our designers and effects technicians at Alterian, does woodworking and cabinetry,” said Gardner. “He actually built all these pieces [of the robot suit] out of wood. We pulled white plastic with a vacuum pump over top of that to create plastic shells that are a duplicate of his wooden forms. So we ended up with all these pieces that were hollow and super-lightweight that we then needed to assemble into some format that a person could wear.”

The shape of things: Gardner didn’t want what he built to look like a person in a robot suit. “You try to do things design-wise where you’re eliminating the concept of the height of a neck to make it look more compact and kill the human silhouette,” he explained. “We were also trying to come up with different ideas to make it look non-human in some of its functions. There’s a scene where the robot is safecracking and spinning a dial really fast. We attached the hand to the dial and spun it really fast on a motor, so that the hand was spinning faster than something a person inside a suit could be doing. So we were always looking for little things like that.”

Robot sitter: Alterian’s job didn’t end once filming started. “You have to realize that the person inside this suit is dependent at a certain point on someone else for their well-being on the most basic level,” said Gardner. “Because once your arms are locked in position, and you’re thirsty or you need your head off, you really are requiring someone else to assist you. So you’re the artist, and you’re the parent, and you’re the effects guy all that same time.”