An Interview With...
Ronin Special Effects
This interview was primarily transcribed from a talk that Peter gave to K-12 teachers at a BattleBots IQ workshop at California State University Northridge (CSUN) in August 2002. After the workshop, Peter commented: "I was glad I could be there, I had a blast! It is extremely enjoyable for me to share this crazy passion (robots) of mine with others and to see their excitement is as high as mine. Then to know that you guys (the teachers) will be passing that on to kids in the classroom, it takes my breath away."
First of all, how do you pronounce your name?
I used to always say: "A-bruh-HAM-son" for spelling purposes, so that everybody hears every syllable. You can pronounce it "A-brum-son" or "A-bruh-ham-son".
What is your occupation?
I usually do special effects for movies, TV, theme parks, that kind of stuff. I build puppets, creatures, monsters, robots... The last big movie I just worked on was Men In Black II.
What is your typical workday like?
Everyday is a new experience, and a new set of problems to solve. I design with CAD, machine parts, and fabricate monsters, aliens, animals, and robots, and no two are alike. Everything I build for movies is a prototype, with very little time, if any for R&D [research and development].
What do you like best about your job?
The fact that every day is different. I am not one for the cubicle.
When did you decide that you wanted to have a career doing special effects? What inspired you to enter that field?
I was greatly influenced by movies like Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as a kid. In those influential years when I was around 14 years old, movies like Empire Strikes Back, Bladerunner, Road Warrior, Alien, and Raiders of the Lost Ark were all out. After purchasing a film industry special effects magazine called Cinefex (the second issue about Empire Strikes Back), I cemented my direction in life. I have been designing, building, and puppeteering animatronics for the film, television and theme park industries since 1989. I have been participating in robotic combat competitions since 1994.
Was this a difficult field to get into?
Yes and no. I had no idea how to get into the industry, then my best friend from high school and BattleBot teammate Mark Setrakian, who was in the industry, called me up because he needed help on the movie The Blob. That got my foot in the door.
When I went to the University of Southern California, I went to the school of Fine Arts. I didn't have the grades to get into the Film School. You need something like a 4.0 [GPA] and a 1600 SAT [score]... it was like... not going to happen. So, I went to the art school and just took every film elective course I could. I knew I wanted to go into special effects and this was actually a better way to do it. I got a very good base for understanding design, form, color, and technique that applied directly to special effects. I also learned how to stick weld (we were doing large metal sculptures).
What were your favorite subjects when you were in elementary and high school?
Art, Science, Geography, and Geometry. I was always good at math, but when I discovered Geometry, visual math! wow, I was in heaven. It really clicked with me. And the transition into drafting and CAD.... hmmmm... came pretty easy as you might suspect.
Which were your least favorite or most difficult subjects?
English!! My spelling is horrible, thank God for spell check.
What activities did you like to do as a kid?
Watching movies, making movies, outdoors, hiking, fishing, building models and just being plain crazy, getting into trouble and the like.
What do you like to do for fun as an adult?
Much of the same, but add robots to the list above.
How did you acquire the skills to do what you do?
For special effects, we're like alchemists. We know a little of everything ... a little chemistry, enough electronics to get really hurt, mechanics... there's lots of different applications you sort of just have to know. I acquired most of that on the job, just figuring it out. The machining, I basically had to learn on the job. I have worked with people from many different disciplines. We all grew up on things like Star Trek, American Werewolf in London, Planet of the Apes... we were like, "it's the greatest thing man! Did you ever see this?" I worked with all these people who had all these other experiences.
I used to be able to machine at a certain level and it wasn't getting any better. And then, I started working with this one guy, who used to work in aerospace, and my machining just took a huge leap. After awhile I was able to create something like Ronin [the robot] because of how much I learned from one person... just being next to him. Like I said, most of it was all on the job.
Did you ever have any accidents or near accidents with any of the tools of the trade?
Yes, I once turned on the lathe with the chuck key in. It was only going at 120 RPM so it wasn't bad. The key just thumped down into the bed. I did do that my first year of machining. That's the LAST time it's ever happened. The first and the last! I still have all my fingers... a few cuts but I still have all my fingers.
Where did you learn chemistry and electronics?
The chemistry I learned experimenting (making things that would blow up) back in high school. The electronics was all learned by doing. I learned by having to use a certain piece of equipment and what it takes to make it work.
How did you and Mark [Setrakian] get involved with BattleBots?
Before BattleBots there was Robot Wars and were building and competing in that since the beginning (1994). Before Robot Wars, Mark and I were interested in remote-controlled (RC) cars and making RC trucks with rockets and small flame-throwers to fight each other.
BattleBots competitions seem quite violent and aggressive. What is the positive side to competitions that are based on destroying the opponent?
Here comes my philosophy of robot combat, be ready. In my view the creation and destruction go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin, yin and yang. I know going into this that my robot could be destroyed, but thats why I'm building it!! We are only temporary on this earth, nothing is permanent, so I try not to be too attached to an object that I poured hours of muscle and brain power into when it gets hammered. One of the most positive sides to the competition is the real world aspect. Throwing your robot into the arena, you learn about dynamic forces and loads that your calculations could never come close to (too many variables), and that your opponent never sits still for you. You need to stay flexible, like a reed in the wind, ready for any change that might get thrown your way during the match.
"A warrior's greatest weapons are mental and physical agility, coupled with adaptability."
What do you like best about the creation process and the competition?
The design, coming up with some wacky idea and implementing it.
What do you like the least?
Sometimes the building just takes too much time!
What advice do you have for kids who want to work towards a career in special effects or robotics?
Physical effects like I do are a disappearing art, Computer Graphics are rapidly replacing the effects I do. Robots for other applications, other than film, is a great way to go.
Has your BattleBot robot, Ronin, ever "starred" in anything outside the BattleBots competition arena (Battle Box)?
I just shot a Judging Amy episode. The storyline is about an underprivileged kid who loves BattleBots but he can't get into the Physics class that is teaching a BattleBots course. So, he starts stealing soldering irons and motors and stuff like that. So, he gets in trouble. Tyne Daly takes him in to sort of help him along and introduces him to another guy and they build a robot together. The high school kids supposedly build Ronin.
Ronin also was on "The Drew Carey Show", in the background for a scene where the two characters, Lewis and Oswald built a couple of BattleBots for a local competition. The robots (actually built by Mark and myself) built by the two are, of course, failures at the event, all in the name of comedy.
We used Ronin's tread base for a robot in a couple of "Friends" episodes and recently Ronin was on a robot combat episode of "CSI".
What inspired you to design Ronin?
If you know any of my teammate Mark Setrakian's robots, his main first robot was called Master. It was two spheres, with a bar in between, like a big dumbbell. The motors and everything were crammed inside these spheres and drove on the spheres themselves. The whole sphere was like a big giant wheel. On the two-inch bar, he would clamp on whatever weapon he wanted: a saw, a whipping tail, a big giant sword, a battle axe... and he would just drive it around, totally modular. It was so ahead of time, it was unbelievable. Nobody was doing anything like that. The center bar was so important to me: the modularity and clamping on to it, but I've always loved treads and tanks. So I started with designing a tread. For what I wanted it to do, there was nothing out there being manufactured.
How did you use Computer Aided Design (CAD) for this?
I completely designed the tread and sprockets myself. I had to do all the math to figure out the pitch diameter for the sprockets and how many teeth and all that stuff. That was the extent, pretty much, of my calculations. I don't like to live in a world of numbers.
Anyone who wants to live in a numbers world, that's all fine, but you've also got to live in this one. This is the real world. So, I would do enough calculations to figure out my geometry and then I just went and started doing it.
I'd go back and redesign almost everything and tweak and change. The current Ronin doesn't have the original side plates from the first event. They were a little smaller before. I added like one tread link in length and one tread link in height diagonally so that the whole system would get a little more space. That was a long machine process.
Do you machine all your designs yourself?
Originally, I machined everything on there (Ronin) myself. At this point now, there's huge chunks which were machined by a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) shop. My time... I just didn't have it to give to machining.
I love the fact I know how to machine because how I design is really influenced by that knowledge. For example, I think, "Ok, if I design this part this way, that's eight set-ups to get to that finished part. That's going to cost me a lot more. So, how can I design this part more efficiently?" So, knowing how to machine is a really great tool. You still need people who know how to MAKE something. That is a crucial thing for the future. If kids today can know how to machine, that's an amazing tool that will come into play later on. Somewhere, somebody has to make something or know how to program the robot or CNC machine to make something. We still have to have THINGS in our physical world.
How do you see this technology being used in other areas besides BattleBots and special effects?
What I've learned from these things is so transferable to anything else. This technology is transferable to a Mars rover, a military application, search and rescue or even a car.
When I used to do Robot Wars way back in the beginning, somebody came by and said, "we need a robot that can go down an air-conditioning shaft and clean out the duct and examine the duct because we can't send a guy down there.
What are ant-weights?
Ant-weights are one pound robots. The competitions are very cheap and easy to get into. Everything can be built with hand tools and a drill at home. Most of the parts are model parts you can get at a hobby store. The emotional return from these things, the excitement I get out of this compared to the STRESS I get with a larger robot going to a BattleBots competition... It's so much FUN!
What other accomplishments are you proud of?
My daughter (my biggest fan) is my greatest achievement. I climbed Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the continental United States) in one day.
Did any individuals influence you?
My grandfather, who has a gift for all things mechanical and my teammate Mark Setrakian, who pushes the envelope of design and building of combat robots.
Do you have any favorite quote that inspires you?
I have a couple:
When asked about cutting the budget on the Arts during WWII, Winston Churchill responded with:
" My God Man, what do you think we a fighting for!"
- 9 April 2003
27 January 2015
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