‘Robot Dreams’ Director: The Problem with Most Animated Films Is the Characters Overact

Filmmaker Pablo Berger (“Blancanieves,” “Abracadabra”) had never made an animated film before. He’d never even considered it until he read Sara Varon’s graphic novel “Robot Dreams.” Having recently lost his best friend and mother, the story of friendship and loss spoke to him on such an emotional level that he decided to adapt it — and learn how to make an animated film.

He spent two-and-years on animation education, but wanted to bring something from his previous directing experience: working with some of the best Spanish actors. Said Berger while on the Toolkit podcast, “In most animated film, [the characters] tend to overact.”

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Berger began by working with a small animation team led by art director José Luis Ágreda and character supervisor Daniel Fernández Casas before “an army” of animators brought his vision to life.

“I started saying [to the animators], ‘I’m going to treat you as actors, you are my actors,’” said Berger. “They rarely spend [this] much time with the director. For them it’s common that the director talks with the animation director and they’re remote. I’m so used to working with actors, I wanted them to be next to me.”

Berger doesn’t believe there should be a difference between animated and live-action performances. A director needs to trust the story to provoke the emotions and, with a great script and actors, less is always more.

There is no dialogue in “Robot Dreams,” although you don’t notice at first with the rich sound design and soundtrack. Berger had the animators watch the films of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd to study how these early film performers expressed themselves with minimal gestures. It was always about underplaying rather than caricature. While Berger said Keaton’s deadpan facial expressions were key, “Robot Dreams” was ultimately inspired by the Little Tramp.

City Lights
“City Lights”

“Chaplin was there all the time. I told all my crew to watch, specifically one film that set the tone for me, ‘City Lights,’” said Berger. “If you don’t cry at the end of ‘City Lights,’ you’re dead. You have no emotion. Don’t go see ‘Robot Dreams.’ Chaplin, he really invented what now we call the dramedy in cinema, tears and laughs. And I think that’s what life is.”

“Robot Dreams” qualified for the 2024 Oscars and was nominated for Best Animated Feature in March (losing to “The Boy and the Heron”), but is now getting a full theatrical release. It opened successfully last weekend in New York City and will expand Friday, June 7.

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