Writer/director Sarah Smith and writer Peter Baynham discuss Locksmith Animation’s debut feature film, an animated comedy about the budding friendship between a middle-school boy and his defective robot, hitting theaters October 22.
For decades, animation studios have been fascinated by human relationships with robots and technology. From personalized healthcare companions like Baymax in Big Hero 6 to humanity’s humble and romantic savior WALL-E, stories about robots and artificial intelligence as the best things we could ever have routinely make it onto our big and small screens.
But Locksmith Animation was one of the first to propose that defective technology might also be humanity’s “best friend.”
“Personally, I always want to make films that feel like they have something to say to my own kids, and to my friends’ kids, and speak to all of the stuff that we're trying to figure out as parents,” says Sarah Smith, writer and co-director with Jean-Philippe Vine and Octavio E. Rodriguez on Locksmith’s first feature film, Ron’s Gone Wrong, which hits theaters this coming Friday, October 22. The 3D/CG animated comedy features an all-star voice cast including Zach Galifianakis (A Wrinkle in Time); Jack Dylan Grazer (Shazam!); Olivia Colman (The Crown); Ed Helms (The Office); Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom); Rob Delaney (Deadpool 2); Kylie Cantrall (Gabby Duran and the Unsittables); Ricardo Hurtado (The Goldbergs); Marcus Scribner (Black-ish); and Thomas Barbusca (Chad). It’s produced by Locksmith and 20th Century Studios.
Writer Peter Baynham adds, “And what I love about Ron is he wants to help. But he can't. He can’t actually do these things. But he tries, and I think that makes you love him.”
Ron is the dysfunctional, yet lovable robot co-star of Smith and Baynham’s new film; the story begins when middle-schooler Barney is gifted with a B-Bot, AKA “Ron,” by his father. Excited to finally get his own B-Bot and join his classmates in their all-consuming digitally connected world of video recording, gaming, and social publishing, Barney’s enthusiasm quickly evaporates when his own, personalized “Best Friend Out of the Box” robot turns out to be a dud, unable to properly function. And, much to Barney’s dismay, Ron’s also a bit of a safety hazard.
Originally set on returning his malfunctioning robot-friend for a better model, Barney has a change of heart when Ron goes comedically ballistic on a neighborhood bully. As the film progresses, the pair begin to learn more about each other as Barney becomes even more determined to save his friend from the B-Bot store owners intent on destroying their “can’t possibly be faulty” creation.
“We watched every movie with robots for references, but we also watched E.T. and all those movies where it's what I call, ‘The one boy and his dog,’ kind of film, with that sort of special relationship,” explains Smith, who worked with Baynham before on Arthur Christmas. “We particularly like the idea that Ron is a bit wild, a bit rogue, and out of control, especially for Barney, who's cautious and keeps to himself. And suddenly he's got this thing that's completely out there that will go up to strangers in the street and say, ‘Please be Barney's friend.’ Ron takes Barney on a journey.”
But while Ron and Barney’s relationship might be akin to that of a boy and his dog, Ron’s personality was actually inspired by faulty, and frustratingly enthusiastic technology from generations past.
“One of Ron’s really good early references was when we talked about the Microsoft paperclip that would pop onto your screen and go ‘Hi, can I help you with that? It looks like you're writing a letter!’” remembers Smith. “It was that sort of slightly annoying, perky, generic, straight out of the box voice, full of exclamation marks. And certain people will recognize the older modem, fax machine sound when [Ron] first wakes up. That’s definitely a joke for people over a certain age.”
And it was that incredibly annoying but eager-to-help “90s computer desktop assistant personality” that inspired both Ron’s least appealing trait and most sincere attribute. “Only four percent of what’s supposed to be downloaded into Ron actually gets downloaded,” says Baynham. “But that’s what people love about him. He's got nothing, but he gives it his best. By the end, you feel there's a huge bond between the two characters.”
Smith adds, “This poor kid [Barney] just wanted one of these things that everyone else has. And when he gets it, it's a complete disaster. Of course, all the other kids have these amazingly cool, personalized bots and the idea that you get that generic one seemed like a really funny beginning. They have to sort of start from the ground up and learn about each other. They come from a place of opposition, but the best relationships do, right?”
Even Ron’s B-Bot design - while modern and slick - was derived from the idea of a broken TV; the team started with the concept of a workable B-Bot and then stripped away all the fun perks that are meant to come with the device. “The first thing we designed, our starting point, was this super cool bot that does work,” explains Smith. “JP [Vine] obviously worked on that a lot, as did Aurélien Predal, our designer, and a brilliant German designer named Till Nowak, who if you really wanted to design a B-Bot, I’d get him to do the real one.”
She continues, “And then, once we had that, we knew that Ron was basically like an old television version of that with a blank screen.”
Ron’s character also provides a welcomed “blank slate” and clean simplicity compared to the film’s futuristic world of sensory overload, where every kid’s B-Bot is not only liking, posting, downloading, gaming, and fashioning every color combination known to man, but also re-skins in real-time to visually represent its owner’s personality.
“Our movie has an incredible amount of graphics because Ron’s world does, and suddenly we were seeing it all happening [visible to everyone] on the bots themselves instead of privately on the kids’ phones,” says Smith. “For a long time, it felt like the production around me was in denial about that. I kept saying, ‘You know, we're going to have to figure out how every kid has a bot, and all those bots are relevant to that kid, and they're all moving in sync with each other, but also some of them need to be interacting with social media and some of them should be sending messages.’ And they'd be looking at me like, ‘Shit.’”
Smith notes that one of the film’s beginning shots, when Barney walks up the stairs to the school, shows a variety of background character students sending messages and liking posts on their B-Bots. According to the director, there were four animators working on that shot for several weeks. “The complexity of all the crowd animation, and then you add the B-Bots in as well, was off the charts,” she says.
But as complex as the film’s graphics were – including shots showing B-Bots linking to form a large, monster bot – the depiction of robots as the epitome of personal, socially connected technology speaks directly to the present-day realities Ron’s Gone Wrong aims to portray.
“Everyone's living this thing,” says Baynham. “It's not just kids, and it's not just adults. Everyone is living through this explosion, this revolution of technology and social media. I remember when my first daughter Ruby was born, and I saw a kid, back in the day, with a CD ROM in a restaurant, and I said to myself, ‘Ruby's never going to be on one of those things.’ And of course, cut to literally three years later, and we’re handing her an iPad.”
Still, despite its addictive draw and the faulty programming that can come with old and new technology, Smith and Baynham hope that viewers walk away from the film understanding technology’s importance in our lives and its role in maintaining relationships. “I think we all have a weird, bittersweet relationship with technology,” says Smith. “I mean, imagine if none of that existed when the pandemic happened and how isolated and lonely it would be.”
Baynham adds, “That world of technology and social media isn't going anywhere. And it shouldn't go anywhere. It's just about trying to find a healthy relationship with it.”