Building Up to Maker Faire: Bringing ED-209 to Life

Craft & Design Workshop
Building Up to Maker Faire: Bringing ED-209 to Life

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This is first in a series of videos and tutorials from master prop builder Shawn Thorsson. He’s building a life size replica of Robocop’s ED-209 for Maker Faire Bay Area and he’s letting us hang out in shop to document the process. In addition to the videos, he’ll be writing tutorials on different skills and techniques related to the project along the way. Hope you like it!

-Stett Holbrook 

When I was about ten years old, I saw the movie Robocop for the very first time and it was absolutely amazing. While the satire and social commentary probably flew way over my young head and the R-rated violence probably warped my fragile little mind in ways that forensic psychologists will base entire careers on, there was one thing that left more of an impression than all of the other aspects of the film combined. They called it ED-209 and it was everything that “awesome” meant to me.

What kid wouldn't want one of these guarding their bedroom.
What kid wouldn’t want one of these guarding their bedroom.

Growing up in the age of Star Wars, there have been many robots I’ve been fond of over the years. But if I had to pick just one to keep for my very own, I’d choose ED-209 any day of the week and twice on Sunday. R2-D2 was adorable and the Terminator was pretty tough, but Ed was muscles and monster trucks and machine guns all rolled into one big pile of cool.

I had to have it.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so and I find myself enjoying the budget of an adult dangerously mixed with the mind of a child. Even though I should’ve grown out of it when I discovered girls, I still want an ED-209 for my very own. I’ve spent years searching the yellow pages and later the internet hoping to find a local distributor or dealer for Omni Consumer Products, but it turns out that you just can’t buy an ED-209. Bummer.

For most sane people, this is where this quest would find its sad end. But I’m not sane people. I’m a maker. As a maker, it doesn’t matter if the thing I’m after can’t be bought. With the right materials, a bit of know-how, a lot of research, and a few 55-gallon drums of elbow grease, I can build my own anything.

I’m planning to unveil the finished build at the Bay Area Maker Faire. That’s May 17 and 18. That’s this year. In fact it’s only 74 days away as I sit here and type this. I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of this project while I scramble to get it done in time. There will be challenges along the way but I can assure you it will be every kind of entertaining I can make it. So sit back, relax, and join me on this mad quest to bring one of the most iconic characters of the 80s to life.

Thorsson’s Insane Project #209, Part 1: Choosing Materials and Reverse Engineering for Scale

The first step in a project like this is overcoming the “Oh my God that thing is huge and there’s no way I’ll ever be able to build it” impulse. Once I’d set that aside, it was time to start eating the elephant one bite at a time. I’ve been collecting references of all kinds for years and started noticing that there are a lot of subtle things that will make the build a bit easier.

For example, look at Ed’s feet:

Screencap from Robocop 3
They’re huge!

Looking closely, you’ll notice that the left toe on the left foot is the exact same shape as the left toe on the right foot. Then you’ll notice that the little ridged box detail on the top of the lower leg is exactly the same on both sides of both legs. Taking a step back, you can see that the left leg and the right leg are completely interchangeable. They’re not even mirror images of each other, they’re exactly the same parts!  Aside from a few details added to the larger parts, the same goes for the arms.

This is great news! In order to speed up the build, I can get away with very cheap, quickly made initial parts for just half of the robot, then make a set of molds, pull two copies of each piece, and have the whole thing!  I just need one foot, one leg, one hip, one arm, one pelvis, and one head/body. Even each of the three gun barrels are completely identical to each other.

One of these things is just like the other.
One of these things is just like the other.

This holds true for many of the other parts, too. I just have to make one, mold it, and cast as many as I need!

With that little time-saving revelation in mind, the next thing I need to do is decide on what sort of materials to build it out of.

If money wasn’t a factor, I’d just 3D print all of the pieces and call it good enough. Very rough math tells me that printing something of this size on my Objet30 would cost somewhere around eleventy-billion dollars. So that won’t work.

If time wasn’t a factor, I’d spent the next couple of years mastering a few new skills and form the entire thing in sheet metal using an English wheel and planishing hammer. Given the fact that I’ve only got two and a half months to get the whole project done, I suppose I’ll have to mostly stick to what I already know.

A couple of years ago I built myself a good size vacforming machine, but the main body parts are just a bit too detailed, complex, and large to get away with vacforming them. Also, given the scale of the project, making silicone rubber molds for the bigger parts will burn through my limited budget in a hurry.

The solution: in order to cut down on weight and keep the costs relatively low, I’ll be going with traditional fiberglass construction, much like a small boat. I’ll be making prototype versions of the largest parts mostly out of Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) and auto body filler. Once they’re finished as smooth and shiny as I can get them, I’ll build fiberglass molds and use them to lay up fiberglass parts. There may end up being some supporting structure inside, but the fiberglass will do a pretty good job of holding itself up.

So now that I’ve decided what I’m going to make it out of, it’s time for the really hard question: just how big do I make it?

Making a replica of something you’ve seen on the movie screen presents a unique set of challenges. Lighting, lenses, and camera angles can serve to make things look bigger or smaller, tweaking shapes, and altering colors until it’s almost impossible to guess what the on-screen prop would actually look like in real life.

To prepare for this project, I’ve been collecting reference images for years. I’ve read everything I can get my hands on and pored over every behind-the-scenes image I can find.

A significant chunk of my hard drive is nothing but pictures of this one angry robot.
A significant chunk of my hard drive is nothing but pictures of this one angry robot.

The most helpful resources I’ve found are archive photos showing the original prop being built in a workshop in San Rafael, California. I’ve been going over those as well as screen captures from the DVDs looking for anything I can find in the background that I can use as a scale reference. There’s not a heck of a lot to work with and the age of the source material makes finding references harder.

Sadly, there’s not a single photo that shows a yardstick inadvertently leaned against ED-209 somewhere behind the scenes. Picking over my reference images, I’ve been looking for anything with verifiable dimensions. In one shot there’s a pair of 2x4s that are just a bit too blurry to be useful. There are plenty of images with people standing around the screen-used prop, but without knowing their exact heights, I still can’t be sure. The best I’ve managed to figure is that the life size prop was somewhere between 6’7” tall and 8’1” tall.  That’s quite a range.

More recently, I acquired an action figure made by NECA which is surprisingly detailed and accurate. According to everything I’ve found, it’s supposed to be 1/10 scale and it stands about 8-1/2” tall. To get an idea of exactly how big it would be if it turned out to be 1/10 scale, I printed a full-length photo of myself scaled down to 1/10th of my full height. At 5’7” tall, I’m a bit on the short side. At this scale, Ed would be about six feet and ten inches tall. Here’s miniature paper me standing next to him:

This Ed is too small...
This Ed is too small…

So I printed another version of myself scaled to 1/11th of my full height. At this scale, Ed is very nearly eight feet tall:

This Ed is too big.
This Ed is too big.

The figure is advertised as being the same scale as their 7” Robocop action figure. A quick online search revealed that Peter Weller, the star who originally played Robocop, stood 6’1” tall. Assuming that the Robocop costume added an inch or so to his height, that means that a 7” version is 1/10.57143rd of full size. The ED-209 action figure is about 8.5” tall. If I scaled it up by a factor of 10.6, it becomes 7 feet and six inches tall. That sounds kinda right to me, so here I am scaled to 1/10.6th of my full height:

This Ed is juuust right.
This Ed is juuust right.

At 7’6” he’ll be too tall for normal doorways and possibly a bit bigger than the screen-used prop built for the film. But when you consider the fact that it was regularly filmed and framed to look as big as possible, I figure it’s a good idea to lean a bit toward the larger side. If it felt big in the movie, I want it to feel big in real life.

With that in mind, I set to work taking measurements off of the action figure with a pair of calipers, multiplying by 10.6, and cutting out pieces and parts. Here’s a couple of shots of early progress:

Taking measurements with Vernier calipers



ED Lower Leg Progress 14
Not too bad for a day’s work.

A basic understanding of geometry and some simple trigonometry is indispensable when you are trying to recreate an exact angle and you don’t have any real blueprints to work off of. Not all of the parts are especially easy to get to with a pair of calipers, so at some point you have to get a bit creative with math. If you were one of those obnoxious kids who spent all of high school asking “When are we ever going to use this in real life?” it turns out the answer is: “when you decide to build a giant robot prop, you idiot.”

So now I’ve taken the first steps toward building this monster. In my next installment, I’ll be going into greater detail on the assembly of the prototypes and explain the process of making a fiberglass mold. In the meantime, here’s a couple of teaser pics:

12604984054_780c982703_o Ankle Detail Progress

I’m also posting progress photos in the MAKE Flickr pool.

More details to come as this project comes together, so stay tuned…

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At a very young age, Shawn learned that the surest way to get the coolest toys was to make them yourselves. Now he makes costumes and props for films, promotional uses, and the occasional private commission. You can read more about his projects and scattered other adventures in his blog.

View more articles by Shawn Thorsson


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