Robot Wars
Sunday, 2 September 2001
Chainsaws, angle-grinders, axes and flame-throwers - just some of the impressive weaponry being demonstrated by participants in this summer’s Robot Wars tour.

Thousands of eager fans were treated to over two hours of destruction and mayhem, all carefully choreographed by director Hugh Wooldridge. "It’s an amazing mix of old and new cultures," he explained. "We’re acting out the ancient idea of gladiatorial combat, but with cutting-edge robot technology. In fact, almost the entire show is controlled - our job is to make the audience think that it’s not.

Even under controlled conditions, the sheer power of the robotic stars of the show (some of which weigh in excess of 150kgs) meant that humans were excluded from the combat area. "Not only do we have to keep our distance from the action, but we’re also shooting through thick Macrolon screens," revealed video director Raurie MacPhie. Fortunately for MacPhie’s camera operators, Macrolon is not only bullet-proof, but is also used as a shield by bomb disposal experts. "We have to watch the cameras’ iris controls almost as closely as their focus. Close-ups, especially, are a nightmare because of the visible scratches on the screens - and of course the kids all want to see big shots of the damage being done!" MacPhie included a single truss camera in his arsenal (all supplied by XL Video), alongside handheld Sony D35s, a standard XL SDI digital PPU and a three-screen projection rig.

Sound reinforcement for the tour was provided by south London-based Orbital Sound, who supplied a distributed d&b C7 system to handle the thrust stage. With no acoustic sources apart from presenter vocals, sound effects and stings were cued manually by operator Paul Johnson. "We did originally have a couple of effects mics, but we lost them - literally - they just got burned up!" Since microphones are not considered by Orbital as a consumable item, a keyboard-triggered Akai S6000 sampler was used to create all the crashes, thumps and assorted whines required to add impact. "The idea is to punctuate the running commentary from our MC," pointed out Johnson, "but by using a careful choice of effects, we can also add a bit of personality and humour to the robots.

Human action was provided by three roller-blading ‘Robobabes’, who were there, Hugh Wooldridge admits, "for the dads! However, we did make sure that they don’t show too much flesh, so as to not alienate the mums." The Babes, like their other co-presenters, Craig Charles and Andy Collins, were kitted out with Shure Beta 58 hand held radio mics, while the men also sported Trantec IEM systems.

Lighting operator Tellson James was also affected by the Macrolon ‘box’ that surrounds the stage. "It means that we haven’t been able to use conventional followspots on the robots," he said. "Instead, I’m using the Trackpod laser system from Martin Professional. It really works better with moving mirror fixtures than these big MACs, but they’re still pretty fast - which is just as well because these robots can really move when they want to!" Like Orbital, lighting provider EL&P also suffered losses - these were potentially rather more expensive, as props and pieces of dead robot are hurled up into the grid. An extensive system of Propane flame-throwers was provided by the BBC’s special effects department, which is also responsible for studio pyrotechnics during the filming of the series. For the live event, the pressurised cylinders were located outside the Macrolon screens and controlled by a manually-operated custom console, under the watchful eye of two fire officers.

The cavernous backstage area, more normally used for housing empty flightcases, was devoted to a series of fully-equipped workshops, where damaged or defective robots could be brought back to life by their creators. Hugh Wooldridge, who is better known for his work on large-scale spectaculars with big-name stars, claims that these mechanical monsters are only slightly easier


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