The original script for the Lost in Space finale didn't have two robots duking it out – only a second alien robot (let's call that one SAR) that would show up so Will Robinson's Robot could knock him out of the garage, saving the family. When the show's senior VFX supervisor (and previous Emmy winner) Jabbar Raisani read that, he knew it wasn't enough.
"I was like, 'That's really too short. You need a robot fight,'" Raisani told SYFY WIRE. "You don't watch 10 hours of this show only not to see a robot fight."
Luckily, executive producer Burk Sharpless agreed and the fight was on.
But how to choreograph the CG scrimmage? Raisani invited designers from Image Engine to the set to powwow with episode director David Nutter, stunt coordinator Jeff Aro, and the Robot himself, Brian Steele, and together they came up with a plan. Then the Image Engine team went back to their office, put on motion-capture suits, and worked out the blocking. "It was like their own version of Fight Club," Raisani said.
"You need a human-like performance," said Image Engine's visual effects supervisor, Joao Sita. "How does your body change when someone tackles you? We started it out very violent, and it was too much, so we had to dial that down a little bit."
Sita actually watched Fight Club for inspiration while animating the fight, and he saw a connection between Will Robinson's persona-shifting Robot and the movie's Tyler Durden. He also examined Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography in the film "to see how much of it we could translate into the robot fight," he said. "They jump in very close to the fighters, and you get the raw moments where the punch is close to the camera, as if you're a fighter in the match."
After Sita did his calculations, the whole VFX team regrouped and blocked out the fight more carefully in order to animate the robots. "We were trying to figure out how we could up the ante of the fight," Raisani said, "to elevate the sequence to get it to be as cool as possible." It wasn't necessarily a matter of boosting the violence. They reworked one version of the scene in which SAR was blasting lasers at Robot, because it was detracting from the emotional story of a boy and his bot.
Then Raisani suggested to VFX producer Terron Pratt that Robot should melt SAR's face and break his arm in half. "Ultimately, what I want is for each of them to have a superpower," Raisani said. "And then I realized, 'Oh! He's had these hot hands throughout the whole season, and he can use them against SAR's blasts. He could melt his face off. He could break a limb off, and have the stuff inside of it start running out.'"
The question was, could the show afford that effect? Yes, it turned out — after Pratt reconfigured the budget. But would showrunner Zack Estrin approve? Raisani decided not to risk asking. He just okayed the pricey sequence himself -- liquid metal, shooting sparks, and all – without telling Estrin in advance. "It was a gamble I was willing to take," he said, "because it was so cool."
Raisani and Pratt were confident that Estrin would love the new effects – and he did. "He was really happy," Raisani recalled, and only asked that they tone down a few shots that looked as if there were blood coming out of SAR's broken visor. ("Technically, it's not blood," Raisani said, though Estrin wasn't buying that line of reasoning.)
Only after the showrunner approved the sequence did Raisani let Image Engine know that they had been working on a project that Estrin hadn't known about, and hadn't seen it until it was finished. "I think their stomach dropped a bit!" Raisani said. (After getting over the initial shock, Sita decided that "it was totally worth it!")
The fight scene blasted both robots out of the Jupiter 2 before resolving what it meant that Robot seemed to have made a choice to defend Will Robinson. Will we ever see these or other robots again? As the production gears up to start shooting in early September, Raisani wasn't inclined to be all that informative, although he did allow that "it's likely we'll see another robot." Robot rematch!