Sun Shiqian is a robot artist who builds shape-shifting machines like the ones in Transformers.
Growing up in a small town in China, Sun Shiqian’s family couldn’t afford toys. So when he was bored, he would fashion toy robots out of cardboard, inspired by the machines he saw in TV shows like Gundam and Transformers.
When he went to college, he worked part-time to save up for a $130 Optimus Prime toy model. Years later, he would build his own.
“It’s what I dreamed of as a kid,” says Sun, now a robot engineer. “Over 20 years later, I got to make a real life-size one. That was surreal.”
In his massive studio in Dalian, northeastern China, Sun, 34, creates the kind of shape-shifting machines made popular by robot franchises such as Transformers.
Along with a life-size G1 Optimus Prime, he’s also created his own version of the Iron Man nemesis Iron Monger and a fully operable robot suit based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he says. “It feels like destiny.”
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Sun started making robot sculptures while studying at China’s renowned Central Academy of Fine Arts.
Today, he works with movie production studios and gaming companies to build robots for promotional displays.
In 2014, Sun was commissioned to build a giant Bumblebee to promote its new Transformers movie.
The 23-foot-tall statue stood outside Qianmen, the former front gate of the Imperial City in Beijing.
The display stirred controversy in China. Some took issue with the placement of a foreign pop culture icon in a traditional landmark.
“This affected me a lot,” Sun says. “I realized that there were no recognized Chinese robots.”
So he set out to build his own, incorporating traditional Chinese elements into his designs. “I hope to use robots as a way to spread Chinese culture,” Sun says.
He has one series of robots based on the Chinese zodiac. It includes a shape-shifting dragon, a motorcycle that turns into a rat, and a robot chicken.
“We hope to unveil a corresponding zodiac robot each year,” he says.
In 2017, Sun led his team in building a giant robot suit based on the legendary Monkey King.
“I hope that when kids nearby grow up and move out, they will say that when I was a kid, there was an amazing factory where a man showed me how to make robots.”
The 15-foot, 5-ton mech can be controlled by a human riding inside, and is the third of its kind in the world after the Kuratas in Japan and MK II in the U.S.
When he’s not busy designing robots, Sun is organizing workshops for children in the local area.
“I hope that when kids nearby grow up and move out, they will say that when I was a kid, there was an amazing factory where a man showed me how to make robots,” he says.