University of Washington doctoral student Hawkeye King walked upstairs to get coffee on an ordinary spring morning in 2012. Blake Hannaford, his adviser and a UW electrical engineering professor, was ahead of him in line.
“Did you hear about the Hollywood thing?” Hannaford asked.
King recalls saying, “No, but I’m in.”
That’s when King almost dropped his coffee.
“‘Ender’s Game’ is one of those iconic sci-fi books,” King explained. “When we got back to the lab and told people, everyone’s jaw collectively dropped.”
The movie “Ender’s Game,” starring Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield and directed by Gavin Hood, is based on the 1980s military science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. The movie opens Nov. 1 in theaters across the country.
Within a month of getting the call, King and then-UW bioengineering doctoral student Lee White packed up their lab’s surgical robot and flew to New Orleans. The students would be the sole operators of the robot during filming, and they also needed time to prepare its exterior to look less like a lab machine. The students helped to decide how the robot would operate to make it look as realistic as possible, King said.
“We were really part of the creative process of getting the robot on the set,” he said.
Less than a week later, they were filming on the movie set, a New Orleans NASA facility that builds rockets. King and White sat just off-set behind a curtain, where they used several computer monitors and controllers to move the robot’s four arms as it simulated brain surgery on one of the lead characters. The students ran the robot for more than 14 hours, and King still remembers feeling an intense pressure to perform. A day of filming is astronomically expensive, he explained, and each minute on the set counts, especially when producers, actors, directors, movie backers – and even caterers – are all keenly watching.
“We were petrified that something would break, that the robot would screw up,” King said. “Everything had to be working perfectly from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the set.”
At one point, King and White, now a medical student at Stanford University, controlled the robot during a close-up shoot. For several minutes, everyone watched as the students maneuvered the robot’s arms around and behind the actor’s head. King remembers “sweating bullets” and having to ignore swarms of Louisiana mosquitos attacking his legs and arms as he worked.
In a scene around the movie’s 58-minute mark, Bonzo Madrid, one of the main characters who is played by actor Moisés Arias, was critically injured and suffered brain trauma after a fight with Ender Wiggin at the battle school. The UW robot simulates opening Bonzo’s skull to operate on his brain. The scene deviates from the book’s plot, King said, and nearly all of the main characters are present.
King and White used a nonverbal signaling system to communicate as they operated the robot in tandem. It takes two people to move all four of the robot’s arms. The robot’s hands and wrists stayed locked in place and out of sight during filming, because those components are unrealistically large to simulate fine-tuned brain surgery. The robot’s hands were hidden behind Arias’ head and the actor held an emergency “off” button to press in case of a close call.
After the close-up shoot and more than 14 hours of operating, nothing broke or malfunctioned.
“At the end of the day, I asked the props director how we did,” King recalls with a laugh. “He said, ‘Let me put it this way, if they didn’t like it, it wouldn’t get a close-up.’”
Hannaford’s lab developed the first Raven surgical robot about 10 years ago after the U.S. Army expressed interest in technology for remote medical care. A next-generation Raven II was built through National Science Foundation funding and collaboration with Jacob Rosen of University of California, Santa Cruz, and sent to seven research universities, including the UW. This past summer five more universities purchased robots for research. Hannaford and Rosen recently spun out a company called Applied Dexterity to build future robots.
The Raven robots aren’t yet used in clinics for surgery, but that is the eventual goal, he said. Universities are mainly using them to design and test new hardware and software for tele-surgery procedures. The robots are designed to have state-of-the-art motion control and to fit in a standard operating room. A similar robot called the da Vinci is currently used to perform minimally invasive procedures such as appendix, gallbladder and ovarian cyst removals.
After a week hanging out with the movie’s props team, exploring New Orleans and even joking around with Harrison Ford, the UW students returned to campus, where they had to stay tight-lipped about their robot’s stardom for more than a year. For King, who plans to graduate this year and has spent his entire doctorate working on the surgical robot, it’s a memorable way to finish his degree.
“It was a really fantastic experience,” he said.