Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Heartbeeps Robots: Interviews with Creators Jamie Shourt, and Charles Arrigo

Heartbeeps Index



Robots are commonplace in science fiction and movies, but Heartbeeps is one of those rare films that star both real and simulated robots. The simulated ones are in the form of Andy Kaufman as Val-Com-17485, and Bernadette Peters as Aqua-Com-89045. They star as two companion-series robots who wander away from a factory to explore that mysterious thing called life firsthand. Joining them in their odyssey are two mechanical creations: "Catskill," a stand-up comedian who never stands up, and "Phil" who is a "son" constructed by Val-Com and Aqua-Com from spare parts. These protagonists are pursued by the infamous Crimebuster police robot that is equallly capable of ticketing a jaywalker or routing an army of revolutionaries. Catskill, Phil, and Crimebuster wetre constructed by Universal's special effects department. The Crimebuster robot was designed by John Corso, and is the ultimate law-enforcement weapon. It is a fully armoured, self-propelled, all-terrain vehicle whose mission it is to locate, identify, and destroy the fugitives from justice. Despite its noble purpose, Crimebuster seems to have a few screws loose. Charles Arrigo, in charge of special effects for Universal, explains some of the features of this law-and-order juggernaut. "It has a simulated cannon--a flash of fire come out of it--and it is gas-operated to give a practical effect that is filmed by the camera, rather than doing an optical effect that is done in post-production. Additionally, there is a gas-operated rifle, and a real flame-thrower. It will shoot a flame of up to 60 feet if you want, and we found that was a little far, so we cut it down to about 30. We constructed it using the internal part of a flame-thrower, and then turned our own barrel, and added our own cooling jacket. Up in the top we rigged two TR-16 submachine guns that fired blanks. With the weapons it had it could fight a war! It was fun to build and combine some complex effects with ones as simple as rigging a hand-held flare pistol. sThey were going to pull the joke of having a hand, either real or mechanical, stick out and fire the flare, but decided against it.

"Along with the pyrotechniques, the vehicle was equipped with a siren, an array of flashing colored lights, and a rotating multiple turret. At night, with all these things going, it's really impressive. The body is primarily fiberglas with sheet metal, and most of the panels are interchangeable to give us some design flexiblity. As it turned out, we only removed some of the panels when using certain effects or when setting up certain camera angles. The vehicle is self-propelled by a gasoline engine and carries two men, one to drive, and the other to operate the effects. When we did some of the effects involving fire we had the men inside in fire-suits and a flame-out chemical system like that used in the Indy race cars that shoots out a powered extinguisher under pressure. Like all the robots in the movie, Crimebuster had a pleasure-center which would calm it down and make it happy or contect. It adds some humourous moments. I guess we all need our strokes--even robots." The robot-comedian Catskill, whose voice is provided by actor Jack Carter, was actually two units. One had a real comedian inside that was used for joke timing. Along the interior were control buttons that would activate certain responses. The comedian would keep one of his arms inside an immobile robot-arm where he had the control buttons at his fingertips. The other was manipulated by remote control.

Arrigo describes the various effects: "Catskill's mechanical arm moves an animated cigar up to his mouth. The cigar produces smoke and a simulated ash falling off the end. We put in little red grain-of-wheat lights at the end for a glow. His leg lifts up, swings across, and sometimes misses and falls back down to comedic effect. In designing the smoking cigar, we came across a way to eliminate the oil residue and smell that are by-products of the standard method of producing smoke. This was done to accomodate the comedian confined inside Catskill. We're going for a patent on this device."

Phil is a completely mechanical, remote-controlled robot that was designed by Jamie Shourt and Robbie Blalack. Shourt's designs have been seen in Silent Running, Airplane!, Star Wars, and Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

"Phil is 100% radio-controlled, and because of his small size, he pulls a trailor that contains the battery units. This eliminated any need for cables and gave him complete freedom of movement," explains Arrigo. "There were four people operating him, and each person controlled different functions. We used up all the radio control bands and ended up splitting them. Phil's eyes rotate, his ears turn, he has a blinking brain, his hand waves, and he could actually grip an object, turn his head, and move in any direction. The men operating the controls developed the character of Phil in terms of his movement and gestures. They were always working it, even when not shooting, to practice the movents, timing, and control. Offstage they would have Phil involved in some mischief, and for the crew it almost became a person as people would react to it, and it to them. "Radio-controlled 'props' have not been used that often in the industry although the technology has been around for years in R-C planes, cars, and boats. This was mostly because the functions were limited. Now we're seeing the tie-in with micro-electronics and computers. You figure the mechanics with RAMS and servos to make it operate a certain way. Sometimes the parts were not available and we machined them. The mechanical arms and hands for Phil have several movenents, each controlled separately. It's much more complicated than using an actor's hand with an appliance over it. Although, sometimes the situation calls for something like that. Altogether, Phil had 24 separate movenents of body and limbs," Arrigo notes. With all these animated, remote-controlled features, Phil represents the current state of the art. Robots currently being developed for science and industry can duplicate nearly all human movements. All self-propelled robots rely on wheels or tank-like treads for movement; none are capable of walking.

Arrigo explains: "You can make a robot scoot, roll, pull, or you can work it from wires above, but as far as walking is concerned, the balance and equilibrium are not there. And I don't think you'll ever see it--unless by using gyros and if you can lift where you don't have any weight. You could lift with air pressure and gyros. We can make a single leg walk, but after the first step you lose the balance and the thing falls on its face. I'm constantly getting calls from all sectors of society asking 'Do you have a robot that walks?' and I reply 'If you get a walking robot, let me know!'"

Heartbeeps is a story about robots that has created three ingenius examples of what is possible now and what we may look forward to in the future. From the writer's imagination to the design and construction department, an army of people worked to develop these mechanical creatures. Their efforts will be studied and enjoyed by audiences and technicians alike.




As the creator of Huey, Dewy, and Louie for Douglas Trumball's Silent Running, Jamie Shourt is an experienced hand at the art of designing robots, but his task of designing and constructing Phil, the baby robot of Heartbeeps, was a challenge of a different order. "This was a real robot," he explains. "It had to really function. There was a lot more mechanical engineering, mechanical design, and electronic design involved. This is the only time that a robot has been used in a motion picture, where there hasn't been other versions of the robot: dummies or miniature people or bilateral amputees to work the thing from inside. With this robot, everytime you see it, it's doing everything."

Shourt's interest in film and technology began when he was quite young. At the age of 12 he made his first time-lapse movie using a timer device that he designed himself. Throughout high school and collge he paid his way by working as a still photographer and cinematographer. Once in college, however, he steered away from a serious study of film for awhile to major in marine biology. Throughout this course of study, he acquired much of the technical knowledge that was to prove instrumental in his later success in effects work by learning the fundamentals of engineering physics, electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical design. Shourt's interest in art was then fired up, when, in graduate school, he "started wandering into the art department at Long Beach State College."

"I always did things that combined photographic techniques, art and technology, which is pretty much what I'm continuing to do now," says Shourt. Since completing his schooling, his combined skills in technology and art have been put to use to create special effects for such films as The Andromeda Strain, Meteor, Silent Running, Airplane!, The Blues Brothers, Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and Star Wars. On the George Lucas film he performed an impressive array of functions as he worked on the creation of the computerized camera system, the optical printing, the rotoscoping, the design for the zero-gravity explosions, and the mechanisms required to film the miniatures such as the electrical and cooling systems. The pre-production work on Phil of Heartbeeps began with a careful reading of the script. "I started forming images of what this thing might be," recalled Shourt. "The script put certain demands on what was designed: it had to be all-terrain, to be able to climb mountains, had to be able to work inside buildings for interior scenes. The physical constraints of what it had to do--pick up a rabbit, pick a flower, chase other robots, look like it had been assembled out of spare parts--continually impacted upon the possible design parameters." Early on in the project, Shourt investigated the possiblity of contracting established robot manufacturers, including some in Japan. "We discussed the possiblity of having them build the robot to our specifications. The minimum time frame we were looking at was on the order of a year and a half, and even then it was pushing it. The lowest price we were talking about was three quarters of a million dollars and they went up from there. And their technology wasn't exactly adaptable to the look we wanted. Of course we didn't have near that sort of money and we had three months from the word 'go' to when we had to have the complete robot and its operators trained." Since the option of employing a robot manufacturer was not practical under the circumstances, the new technology needed to construct Phil had to be developed by Shourt and his company, Shourt Works Limited. The new developments included a new servo amplifier, battery technology, and suspension and drive train system. Once all the oarts and mechanisms had been constructed, Shourt was then faced with a tricky design problem: "The robot is very, very small, much smaller than any current robot I was continually fighting available space within the physical parameters of the robot in order to fit in the size motors required ( which was two one-horse motors in his drive train ), the gear boxes, the noise reduction circuitry, the amplifiers, the battery systems, and so forth. In fact, in the base of the robot, everything is dso tightly packred that there is not even enough room for a golf ball."

Two identical Phils were built to expedite the shooting schedule by allowing two separate robot scenes to be filmed simultaneously. The second Phil was needed as a potential back-up in case the first robot broke down. Fortunately, a back-up wasn't needed, and the second Phil was used, instead, in the scene where the robot is supposed to be taken apart, and in the sequence of Phil "growing up," and the alternate robot was made to seem taller, and more "adolescent-looking."

"The wagons that the Phil unit pulled contained solid batteries, and was covered by a thin layer of 'junk' on top," Shourt explains. "The batteries would allow them to run at full tilt for about 12 hours without changing the wagon... In the middle of development, it became desirable for Phil not to pull the wagon--first for some interior scene, and also for continuity reasons, and for better asthetics--so I redesigned the robot base and added two on-board batteries which gave him an operating time at full tilt for about two hours."

Shourts's considerable expertise in computers and robotics may be seen in a future project, Mysterious Invaders. For this film, presently in development, he has deisgned large, computer-controlled mechanical insects, which, Shourt promises, will be very authentic. Other projects include Group I Films' The Sword and the Sorcerer, which will feature many high-quality original negative mattes, and two 3-D movies. Shourt's abilities, in such areas as opticals, computer-driven camera work, matte painting, and mechanical effects speak of an uncommon versitality in special effects. He regards this as a mixed blessing. "I've paid a price for it, because as a result for not being known in one particular area, I haven't received as much recognition as my younger colleagues who have expertise in a special area. But what it has done is to create a breadth and a strength in my organization which allows us to make it through hard times, and, of course, to produce a better product when we do effects work, because we can bring more disciplines to bear. If there is one secret to creative and successful effects work, it is to use as many techniques and processes as possible. In that way, the viewer is totally befuddled when trying to recognize what you did, because most of them don't realize that you've used every trick that anyone's ever used."

LINKS to other articles:

Moviegoer #1 Robot Creator Jamie Shourt Interview

LINKS to cast, crew

Complete Cast, Crew, and Company of Heartbeeps

My Favorite Web sites

Angelfire Home Pages
Free Web Building Help
Angelfire HTML Library
htmlGEAR - free polls, guestbooks, and more!