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Q&A with Martin Whist: Designing RoboCop's Reboot

RoboCop production designer Martin West discusses his cutting-edge updates to the
'80s classic.
Bringing a new version of a sci-fi cult classic to the screen is no easy task. Depart too much
from the original, and fans will complain. Rehash too many scenes, and, well, fans will
complain. When it was announced that the 1987 dystopian morality tale RoboCop was being
remade, yep, fans complained. But the new movies production designer, Martin Whist, says
hes a fan of the first film with high expectations for RoboCops return (in theaters Feb. 12).
Discovers Gemma Tarlach talked RoboCop shop with Whist, who was in Vancouver
working on Night at the Museum 3.
Discover: What was your biggest challenge designing the characters and the setting
for RoboCop?
Martin Whist: Toeing the line between believability and entertainment. Were talking about
a man fused with a robotic body. His brain is still human, his lungs are still human, hes still
human, but hes a human fused with a computer interface. Our basis for the design of the film
was research in the cutting edge of whatever field we were tapping into. A lot of the
technology we researched was not market-ready, but it would blow your mind to see how
advanced it was. That was our starting point, though. We presented it as the norm. But the
ideas are so amazing that even some of the real research seemed too far-fetched, that a
general audience might not believe it was possible.
What exactly blew your mind?
MW: The first thing that blew my mind was graphene. I couldnt believe it. It was so strong,
so thin, so conductive. It was groundbreaking. It became the inspiration for RoboCops suit. I
was also amazed by advances in nanotechnology, specifically robotics driven by impulses in
the brain, how thats actually happening. Straight-up robotics, too, the movement and the
ability for the robots to learn, is amazing. Those are the areas the merging of biological
and robotic, pure robotics, computing and the advances in materials that became our
building blocks for designing the movie.
How did you research these areas?
MW: We did research online first, then zeroed in on whos leading the field and contacted
them to talk about ideas, examples. We did reach out to the scientific community, and the
response was amazing. David Mikulis, a University of Toronto neuroscientist, for example,
met with us and talked about the mechanics of the brain, where emotional components of the
brain are and how they might be affected by the kind of invasive surgery RoboCop
experiences. Science was our base, but you know sometimes we just have to fluff it up for
entertainments sake. But the huge inspiration was whats going on now in research.

The RoboCop movies, then and now, are all about that fusion of humans with
technology, or transhumanism. What do you think? Is this a reality thats coming soon?
MW: Its odd. Is it evolution? Is it inevitable? Is it right? I dont have definite answers to any
of it, but I think the closeness between humans and technology is inevitable. And its
incipient. You walk into a mall now, and every person has their head down, staring at a
screen. Now theyre moving the screen onto your face. Soon, maybe all you have to do is
think [about] Google Maps, and it will appear in your brain. That just doesnt seem far away.
Is your RoboCop a reboot or a total teardown and rebuild?
MW: Its definitely an upgrade. We did not want to dismiss the 80s movie at all. I love it.
We all love it. But in terms of the design and look, I just wanted to make it current, but still
maintain parts of the original.
Such as?
MW: There are two suits in the movie. We evolve into the second suit during the film, which
was very intentional because we wanted to show how it would evolve in OmniCorp. When
the movie starts, theyre dealing in straight-up robotics. RoboCop is the first time they
attempt an extrahuman, robotic-human fusion. But for the first suit, the first one hes fitted
with, I took the original suit [from the first movie]. It was, for me, an homage to the original.
Youve got an impressive background in fine art, including sculpting. How does that
inform your work in movies?
MW: My background always helps me because its based in the physical world, and we still
physically build the sets, the cars, the props, the robots. Having a 3-D mind, being able to
think in terms of form, really helps. Ill pitch an idea about something that doesnt exist, but
having that kind of mind allows me to previsualize and then explain my idea. With most
movies now, about half of what you see is a physical build, the rest is computer-generated.
What I actually build may end up being just a postage stamp-size part of the scene. But its
my job to visualize and convey the entire scene.
[This article originally appeared in print as "We Can Reboot Him"]