Released during the highly competitive summer of 1987, the modestly budgeted RoboCop managed to do more than "stay out of trouble" (as its titular character was known to intone). The face of cybernetic law enforcement held his own against many a higher-profile entry that same month, besting both Stanley Kubrick and James Bond at the box office.
Two lesser feature sequels followed, along with the nearly unavoidable TV retreads, but none was able to catch lightning in a bottle like Paul Verhoeven’s original. Mixing black comedy and action with a resurrection, of sorts, the film focused on the nefarious OCP reanimating murdered police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), placing his consciousness inside a robot body.
A remake/reboot was announced in 2005, with Darren Aronofsky later coming aboard as director for the seriously-in-need-of-factory-lubricant franchise. After various false starts, he left the project, with Brazilian José Padilha signing on to direct in 2011. Padilha brought with him longtime collaborator and director of photography Lula Carvalho, who had shot both of the filmmaker’s Elite Squad features (and has subsequently lensed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot). Alex Murphy/RoboCop is played by Joel Kinneman.
Recalls the cinematographer, "I looked at the original RoboCop again when we were first starting out. It was mainly out of curiosity, since I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid. Ours is a very different take on the story of a half-robot/half-man, and it differs aesthetically, with a much more dynamic camera, often handheld. It’s perhaps best to think of this film as its own thing rather than comparing it to Verhoeven’s."
Set only about 15 years into our future, Padilha’s RoboCop presents a world that doesn’t differ significantly from our present one. "That’s very intentional," says Carvalho. "There are many elements helping ground the film and the audience in the here and now—Murphy’s home looks like any house, with a wooden table and recognizable materials, and the police station, before OmniCorp gives it an upgrade, looks contemporary run-down—so the futuristic elements, like cars and televisions, are just little nods, not distractions."
The cinematographer’s original intent had been to shoot the main body of the movie on film, then capture the cyborg cop’s RoboVision POV via the RED EPIC. "EPIC is extremely high-res, and I thought using anamorphic lenses on it would differentiate RoboVision from the rest of the picture," Carvalho explains. "I started with the idea of using two EPICs side by side to double the field of view with the standard lenses, but it would have been too difficult to stitch that together. [Panavision] G-series anamorphic lenses gave us the compressed perspective with a wider angle, more like the human eye, since you get more of a forced perspective in anamorphic. That worked well for subjective POV, since we see in something between a 40mm or 50mm, but with a wider point of view, so this helped convey that." Carvalho worked with Libra to build a remote head atop a Steadicam, allowing the relatively small camera to go pretty much anywhere RoboCop could.
While the EPIC was retained for the POV sequences, shooting on film was abandoned in favor of the ARRI ALEXA. "We were in Toronto and would have had to send the film to New York for processing, and nobody liked that idea much," reports Carvalho. "ALEXA’s film-like qualities still provided the necessary contrast to EPIC’s look, with less resolution. I don’t think the differences just come down to numbers, though; high resolution is fine, but the important aspect is the emotion you get from an image, not some statistic." Shooting ALEXA with sphericals, Carvalho utilized Panavision Primos, augmented by a Panavision 19-90mm zoom that saw duty for crane shots.