DreamWorks/Greg Williams
Mandi Bierly
February 23, 2012 AT 04:00 PM EST

Each year, the Oscars recognize A-list talent we regularly see on screen, on the red carpet, and in tabloids. But the Academy Awards also reward those who work behind the scenes: the writers, editors, costume designers, and others who help create trophy-worthy movie magic. This Oscars season, we’ll be toasting those off-screen artists by delving into the hidden secrets that helped create the on-screen magic that we — and the Academy — fell in love with. For more access backstage during this Oscars season, click here for EW.com’s Oscars Behind the Scenes coverage.

Real Steel director Shawn Levy knew he succeeded in telling the story of a washed-up fighter (Hugh Jackman) who redeems himself in the eyes of his estranged son (Dakota Goyo)–they partner to train a boxing robot–when that robot, named Atom, tested as well with movie audiences as Jackman and Goyo. Bringing Atom to life–a character that doesn’t speak or have facial expressions–involved a combination of animatronic and CG robots and the skill of motion-capture performers, puppeteers, and animators. The end result earned the film’s visual effects team an Oscar nomination. EW spoke with Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Erik Nash, who shares the nod–his second (he was also nominated for I, Robot)–with John Rosengrant, Dan Taylor, and Swen Gillberg.

— The moment they knew they had something special: “The first time we actually saw Atom move after they dig him out of the mud in that junkyard, and he’s on the table in the gym and they power him up, and he sits up and immediately starts mimicking the boy–that was all done with the animatronic robot. As soon as we saw Jason Matthews, who is puppeting Atom, mimicking what Dakota was doing, we knew right then that this was gonna be something special,” Nash says. “Shawn didn’t tell Dakota what to do specifically in terms of looking at Atom, so Jason didn’t know what Dakota was gonna do. He just had to react to Dakota on the fly, and it made this really magical moment where this kid is looking at a real working robot. That’s one of the advantages of having an animatronic robot available on set so it’s not just a guy in green spandex that he had to imagine as a robot. This was a real working robot sitting there opposite him.” (Fun facts: It was executive producer Steven Spielberg who suggested Levy build real robots. Levy also didn’t tell Jackman what to say when he shot the scene where his character Charlie first shadowboxes with Atom–or rather motion-capture performer Eddie Davenport on stilts–in the grass. He just played Explosions in the Sky’s “First Breath After Coma” after telling them to do their thing.)

— How the magic really happened: For a fight scene like Midas versus Noisy Boy, they began by filming motion-capture performers. That footage was animated to videogame quality for the virtual camera phase, which allowed Levy to cut a version of the sequence that became the template for principal photography. Using the Simulcam system developed for Avatar, a cameraman was able to watch a playback of that sequence on his camera and capture the live-action background at the same time. So while it looked to everyone else like he was alone in the ring, he was seeing the boxing robots through his camera. “The big advantage to that, besides being incredibly cool technology, was it allowed Dave Emmerichs, our camera operator, to shoot the fights as you would shoot human boxing. So he’s in the ring reacting to boxing robots that are visible to him on his camera, not trying to imagine boxing robots and frame something that isn’t there,” Nash says. “It gives the cinematography to the fights a real immediacy and a visceral quality that a couple years ago you couldn’t achieve. You used to have to shoot an empty plate and figure out how to make the robots fit into that frame after the fact.” During postproduction at Digital Domain, final animation, lighting, rendering and compositing took place to create photo-realistic robots to insert into the live-action backgrounds. Watch the video below.

Next: Robot carnage!

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