Director Jean-Philippe Vine and co-director Octavio E. Rodriguez talk about the making of Locksmith Animation’s debut feature about a socially awkward middle-schooler’s budding relationship with a faulty personal robot, now in theaters.
With the October 22 release of its debut feature film, the funny and touching Ron’s Gone Wrong, UK-based studio Locksmith Animation has added their voice to the ongoing discussion regarding the role of technology in our increasingly AI-mediated lives. In the story of Barney, a socially awkward middle-schooler, and his relationship with the eponymous B*Bot, Ron – a digitally-connected device that’s a few bits short of a byte – the filmmakers touch on a number of hot-button issues, while exploring the true nature of friendship (and of course providing a lot of laughs).
We spoke with director Jean-Philippe Vine and co-director Octavio E. Rodriguez about what led them to present this particular story at this time, and the route that they took to get there.
“We felt it was super timely,” Vine begins, “because a lot of us are parents, and the story originated really out of our children's lives being so different from ours when we were growing up. Their sense of self, their friendships are being filtered through a device of some kind a lot of the time. And so we wanted to talk about friendship as it’s filtered through social media and ask whether that could be the foundation for deep, complex, rich relationships.”
In addition to the big theme of digital devices and social media’s roles in our lives, Ron’s Gone Wrong also deals with such issues as one-parent families and their effect on kids, and the immigrant experience in America. Asked how he managed to integrate these weighty concerns without coming off as preachy, Vine acknowledged that it was a delicate balance, one with which he was intimately familiar.
“That was one of the key notes we got when we used to be with Fox,” he recalls. “Emma Watts [past production head at Twentieth Century Studios] used to remind us to make sure that we weren’t giving medicine to our audiences. The key thing here was to keep Ron and Barney front and center, keep their relationship front and center, and then have other things follow.”
In fact, the one thing that remained constant and helped keep things in perspective over the course of a years-long development process was the dynamic between the two principals.
“Elements of where the story was staged and how the drama unfolds changed significantly as we went through the storyboarding process,” Vine says. “But in every version of our film, the central relationship between Ron and Barney stayed the same. It really helped us tell a good story.”
“For example, we had some epic set pieces,” Rodriguez adds, “that just didn't feel right in certain places. What was actually at the heart of the sequence always came through, but we had to go through the iterations because some went to layout and had to be staged differently. But the story itself, the core of it, pretty much stayed the same. And we're very fortunate that we had those bones.”
As for the design of the film, the creators wanted to define two distinct environments: the super-slick world of Bubble, the company that produces the B*Bots, and the more prosaic, messy, and tactile world inhabited by the protagonists.
“We specifically wanted the corporate world to be the coolest version of Google and Facebook and Apple fused together, and elevated into an animation universe,” Vine explains. “And actually, one of my favorite experiences on this movie was working with Nathan Crowley, the live-action production designer who designed Interstellar and Dunkirk, who wanted to come and make an animated film in London. And he gave us a big conceptual framework on which to hang our design language and our color language. And Aurélian Predal, our other production designer, is a genius colorist and an absolute master of animation imagery. So there was a really good fusion there.”
While both Vine – whose credits include Inside Out, Cars 3, and the TV series Shaun the Sheep – and Rodriguez (Coco, Incredibles 2, SpongeBob SquarePants) have worked pretty much exclusively in animation, we asked whether they ever would have considered making Ron’s Gone Wrong as a live-action or hybrid film. And, if not, what about animation made it the right choice for their story?
“Well, robots are kind of a gift for animators,” says Vine. “There's a visual element – in terms of their skins and their versatility – but on a fundamental level, it's about comedy and it's about rhythm. And those are things that we as animators can just create, and really fine-tune. There’s kind of a slapstick element that’s just going to work so much better in an animated movie. And we do have some pretty massive images, things like the cloud at the end of the movie. We can create a giant world.”
“Or the zombie bot?” adds Rodriguez. “Come on. That would have been a little bit harder to do in live-action. And also the action sequences with Barney – I mean, are we really gonna throw a kid down an elevator shaft and see what happens? No, we're not going to do that. But it was pretty amazing for the acting, and just a crispness, as J.P. would say.”
No that making the film was without its challenges. In discussing aspects of the production that required the most work, Rodriguez returns to the set pieces, and in particular those with multiple characters (“and lots of crowds,” Vine reminds him).
“Yeah, the crowds,” Rodriguez affirms. “Plus the bots, and how each one was individual. We were trying to portray this kind of user-friendly operating system, and how each kid’s bot had its own specific skin and voice. And so we had to think about how these characters would sound, and how one would be unique to a gamer, and another to a science kid. But the crowds were one of the bigger things that we had to try to find a way to wrangle, and also make it feel like there's some secondary animation in the background. All that stuff came into play. It wasn't easy. It wasn't easy at all.”
“You have to remember,” Vine says, “that it was two start-ups that made this movie. And we were really aiming for a Pixar level, with less than half the budget. And to do that, you need a killer script and you need a story that you can rally around. But, as Octavio says, besides trying to tell a good story, we were also designing robots, designing a social network, and wrangling crowds. And these were two companies that had never done it before. So yeah, there were a few things.”