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Being practical with John Rosengrant

Though the robot boxing film “Real Steel” may have looked initially like a cross between “Rock’em Sock’em Robots” and the “Transformers” franchise, it actually offered an intimate father-son story with dazzling special effects that forgoes the flaws of the “Transformers” series.

It’s no secret that a major part of the film’s success came from the computer-generated effects and actual robot animatronics used to bring robots like the underdog Atom to life. John Rosengrant, who spent years working alongside “Jurassic Park” effects legend Stan Winston, had a lot to do with the creation of those effects as he led a 50-man crew in creating the robot animatronics on “Real Steel.”

On Tuesday, the day “Real Steel” was released on DVD, it was announced Rosengrant and other effects artists had earned an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects.

Rosengrant started a virtual conference with members of the press off by emphasizing his sense of accomplishment with the effects work of himself and his team on “Real Steel.”

“My favorite part of ‘Real Steel’ was bringing the characters to life and hopefully developing iconic ones,” he said.

Encouraged by executive producer Steven Spielberg, who’s long favored mixing practical effects with computer-generated ones on films like “Jurassic Park,” “Real Steel” director Shawn Levy and fellow producers approached Rosengrant’s Legacy Effects to bring the robots to life along with computer effects house Digital Domain.

“Shawn Levy, the producers and the team over at Digital Domain led by Erik Nash, we all went into this with a team mentality that we are going to help each other and really make it believable – even in shots where it wasn’t going to be practical and it was going to be (computer-generated),” Rosengrant said.

Yet Rosengrant, who worked with Winston on blockbusters like the “Terminator” and “Iron Man” films, said a love for practical effects has been with him since youth.

“Ever since I was 5 years old, I wanted to make monsters,” he said. “I was an art major in college, but I really wanted to do this type of special effects. I moved out to California to pursue that dream, and Stan Winston hired me on the first ‘Terminator’ and gave me that opportunity.”

Winston, a legendary effects artist who earned the respect of filmmakers like Spielberg and “Avatar” helmer James Cameron, would inspire Rosengrant to carry on the craft following his death in 2008.

“I worked for Stan for 25 years until his untimely passing,” Rosengrant said. “With my three other partners that ran Stan’s shop, we formed Legacy Effects in his honor and to carry on his legacy.”

Rosengrant had nothing but kind words for Winston, crediting him with helping him develop a grounded realism in his approach to special effects, as well as elaborating on his want to create iconic characters in films like “Real Steel.”

“The essence of Stan’s legacy is that he taught me that our job is to create characters,” he said. “It’s not so much special effects, but more so to create a memorable character. Stan was a makeup artist and a fine artist, but he originally came to Hollywood to get into acting, so I think he really stressed the performance aspect.”

Rosengrant has several upcoming blockbuster projects on his plate, including “The Hunger Games,” “The Avengers,” “Life of Pi” and “Neighborhood Watch.” Serving in various special effects capacities on each, Rosengrant said his craft is here to stay – even after the advent of CGI.

“Animatronics effects still have a very important place in this type of filmmaking,” he said. “Some of the young filmmakers don’t have any experience with the practical side of visual effects, but once they see what it can bring to their film, I think they embrace it.”

As for the filmmaker who initially recommended Rosengrant for “Real Steel,” among Spielberg’s upcoming works is a hotly anticipated adaptation of the humans-versus-machines novel “Robopocalypse.” When asked if he would lend his animatronics prowess to the project, he replied coyly, “Spielberg’s ‘Robopocalypse’ would be an amazing project to be part of.”

Towards the end of Rosengrant’s virtual chat with press, he remarked on the recent Academy Award nomination, perhaps encompassing his enthusiastic nature and work ethic.

“It feels pretty damn good,” he said. “Hats off to my terrific crew and all their hard work.”

Though his teams of effects artists are in high demand for many of Hollywood’s biggest films, Rosengrant assured press that much like in his choice to do “Real Steel,” a good story is the key.

“I love when we can help create a character that is integral to the story,” he said. “It’s first and foremost a good story that touches the audience. If we can do a great job with effects to bring that story to life, then I feel like we’ve made a great contribution. That’s the key to a great movie. All the special effects in the world won’t make a good movie if there is not a good story behind them.”

DreamworksStudios’ “Real Steel”is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, Digital and On-Demand.