ROBOT DREAMS: Pablo Berger Talks Nostalgia in Animated Love Letter to New York

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
ROBOT DREAMS: Pablo Berger Talks Nostalgia in Animated Love Letter to New York

Spanish director Pablo Berger, known for his black-and-white silent film Blancanieves and Abracadabra, has ventured into a new realm with his latest project, animated bromance with melancholic pang Robot Dreams. The silent film, nominated for best European animation film, explores themes of friendship, loss, and nostalgia through the story of a dog and its robot companion.

We meet in the center of Berlin; Berger arriving is animated and full of energy, willing to discuss any subject matter. When discussing the transition to animation and the essence of Robot Dreams, Berger expressed his desire to create a film that appeals to a broad audience.

Although the use of anthropomorphic animals in the animation might suggest a family-oriented film, and it indeed caters to that demographic, Berger emphasizes that there are layers in the story that will resonate more profoundly with adult viewers, especially the topics dealing with nostalgia and moving on in life.

"I aimed for this film to resonate with cinephiles," Berger remarked, somewhat unexpectedly. His intention was to create an experience that is enjoyable for both children and cinema enthusiasts, offering entertainment and depth to a diverse audience. Berger's approach highlights a dual aim: to delight a younger demographic while engaging more seasoned viewers with nuanced storytelling “because they both want to come to cinema and have a good time”.

Fables and Adaptation

"My films are essentially fables," explains the director, emphasizing the importance of simplicity in storytelling. "The core story must be straightforward enough for even a 7-year-old to follow, though it can be embellished with complex layers and baroque elements," he adds.

Robot Dreams is an adaptation of a graphic novel by Sara Vachon. Berger points out that Vachon's narrative is written from an adult's perspective. He even offers to fetch the original graphic novel from his hotel room, highlighting his dedication to the source material.

Berger then delves into the backstory of the graphic novel. Vachon, he notes, has a profound affection for dogs. The inspiration for the story came from a personal experience where her dog fell seriously ill, leading to a difficult decision to euthanize the pet. This experience left Vachon feeling a sense of abandonment, despite making the right choice.

"What captivates me about the story of Robot Dreams is its exploration of friendship and the process of dealing with loss through memories," says Berger. This theme is central to the film, reflecting Berger's ability to weave emotional narratives into his work.

The Miyazaki Connection

Accustomed to live-action filmmaking, Berger discusses his approach to animation. "Finding the right cinematic language for Robot Dreams was a unique challenge," he says. Despite not being an actor, Berger's extensive experience with skilled actors informed his direction of animators, pushing them to achieve a sense of authenticity in their work.

He emphasizes a restrained approach to emotional expression in his animated film. Berger frequently advised his team to avoid exaggeration, a common trope in the genre. "Our film is emotional, but we consciously avoided overt displays like excessive tears," he notes, opting for subtlety.

Berger also shares his passion for comics and animation, a hobby he enjoyed with his daughter from an early age. He also admires the non-verbal storytelling techniques of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati. His interest extends to Japanese animation, with favorites including Speed Racer and Mazinger Z.

Reflecting on the mid-70s as a significant period in animation, he highlights Heidi and Marco. Berger acknowledges the influence of Studio Ghibli, especially Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. "Their work is extraordinary," he says. “When we were making Robot Dreams, we were always looking to Japan for answers”.  His connection to Japan, through his Japanese wife and his time spent there, has influenced his work on "Robot Dreams," blending "Spanish energy with Japanese discipline".

The discussion veers to screening Robot Dreams alongside Miyazaki´s The Boy and Heron on the festival circuit, which also happened at Austrian festival Viennale. He sees himself as the apprentice in the shadow of the “master” Miyazaki, likening it to a scene from Fantasia with Miyazaki as Merlin and himself as Mickey Mouse.

Animation Shop

Berger mentions how quickly they gained financial backing for Robot Dreams. He attributes this to his longstanding relationship with his producers, dating back to his work on Blancanieves.

Berger explains, "Blancanieves was a high-budget silent film that initially found little interest. My next film, Abracadabra, was a crazy naughty comedy.With Robot Dreams, my producers, much like supportive parents, were encouraging yet unsurprised by the concept. They were immediately captivated by the script."

The Spanish director emphasizes his belief in the script's paramount importance, likening it to a "treasure map." This approach, coupled with a French co-production and support from CNC, ensured swift financial support.

However, the project faced challenges with the onset of the pandemic. "To overcome these obstacles, we established our own animation studio," says Berger. His producers played a crucial role, investing in equipment and recruiting renowned animation director Benoît Quainon to Spain for two years.

One of the significant challenges was finding 2D animators in Europe, as Berger was keen on in-person collaboration rather than remote work. "We all worked together in the same space, wearing masks. It was vital for us to build and maintain a strong team spirit," he explains.

Delving into the production process, Berger outlines the roles of two key departments in their animation film studio. The art department, comprising about 20 members, was responsible for character design and background creation. In contrast, the larger animation department operated independently, focusing on animating the characters. This division of labor highlights the collaborative and specialized nature of the film's production.

the significance of photos and videos in Berger's creative process, particularly in background and character design. A pivotal contributor to this process is Berger's wife, Yuko. Her collaboration with the animators extended beyond artistic guidance to a crucial role in music editing for their latest film.

Her experience living in the city during the relevant period provided invaluable insight. This expertise was especially beneficial to the art director, aiding in the accurate depiction of visual elements like settings and wardrobe.

Berger elaborates on the division of labor within the animation team. He explains that the animators primarily focus on character animation throughout the majority of the project. It is only in the final stages that the character animations are integrated with the backgrounds, culminating in a cohesive and complete visual narrative. This step is crucial in realizing the full vision of the film.

Whipped Cream

Berger dismisses the notion of a strategic approach to the film's success. "There was no strategy to ensure this film would be a winner. We were driven by our passion for the script and had the necessary funds. Our focus was on collaborating with the best talent available."

He highlights the importance of having a skilled art director, Jose Luis Agreda, in his transition from live-action to animation. "As a live-action director, having a talented animation director and an exceptional art director is crucial. I personally don't draw, but with their expertise, I had strong support on both sides."

Berger shifts the conversation to the importance of music in his film. Securing the rights to Earth, Wind & Fire's song September was costly, even for just whistling the tune, but the director insists on the integral role of music. "Music is the voice of the characters in Robot Dreams, which I consider a musical," he says.

He explains the film's use of both diegetic and non-diegetic music, noting the significance of diegetic music in portraying New York's diverse soundscape of the 1980s. This includes various genres like Latino music, punk rock, hip hop, jazz, bucket drumming, and indies like Talking Heads. The sound design also involved recreating New York's auditory landscape, from alarms to bells, making it a complex task.

Berger shares that Robot Dreams is his love letter to New York, revealing that the protagonist's apartment is modeled after his own former residence in the city, down to the address and neighborhood. He mentions retaining the essence of the graphic novel's story while adding his own visual humor, hidden references, and elaborate details.

"The story is the cake”, and all the visual gags, Easter eggs and “baroque details” which he brought on the screen are whipped cream. “And I like a lot of whipped cream on my cake,” he says with eyes widening.

Robot Dreams won the award for the best European animation at the 2023 European Film Awards.

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