Film

Robot Dreams director Pablo Berger on grief, loss and the Oscars underdog winning hearts everywhere

The unusual relationship between a dog and a robot seems an improbable foundation for a heart-warming tearjerker

Dog is baffled by the assembly instructions for his new robot pal in Robot Dreams

Dog is baffled by the assembly instructions for his new robot pal. Image: Robot Dreams

Dog is lonely. New York in the 1980s is inhabited by humanoid animals, much like Netflix’s hit show Bojack Horseman, and Dog desperately needs a friend. A commercial on TV shows a robot in a box and to the store Dog goes, coming home with his neatly packaged new companion. 

The unusual relationship between a dog and a robot seems an improbable foundation for a heart-warming tearjerker. And even more unlikely is that the relatively small budget animated film was up against industry titans Pixar and Studio Ghibli at this month’s Oscars.

Spanish director Pablo Berger is behind the underdog tale, Robot Dreams. Based on the novel of the same name by Sara Varon, it follows the unlikely pair as they drift apart, with Berger beautifully portraying the joy of friendship and grief of loss. 

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“If there is no emotion, I’m not interested in the story,” Berger says. “I made this film because when I first read the graphic novel, it brought me to tears at the end. It made me think of people who are no longer with me, people I lost. When people watch the film, they think about it too.”

Robot Dreams is a deeply personal film for the director, who homed his protagonist at the address he lived in New York in the ’80s. 

“When Dog looks outside the window, he sees what I saw. I was Dog. I was lonely in New York, but
I also found love in New York. I made friends, lost friends, and I lived. 

“I left the city because I wanted to continue my film career in Spain, so I know that particular loneliness when you have to start all over again.”

Robot Dreams
The happy pair. Image: Robot Dreams

Despite this being Berger’s fourth feature, it is the director’s first animated film, a medium that presented a whole new world of creative possibilities. 

“It opened my mind and my way of telling stories. I was able to pay homage to the Old Hollywood musical with thousands of tap dancers, something I couldn’t have done on a live action film with a European budget. With animation, there is no limit in where you can go with the storytelling.”

“When I moved from live action to animation, I asked: what can I bring to it? And the answer was my experience working with actors. The actors, in this case, were the animators.” He explains that the greatest challenge in the making of Robot Dreams was gathering a creative team in person while the world was still socially distanced during pandemic times. 

This proximity was vital to Berger, who believes the bubbling creative energy of a room to be a key element in the making of a film. “While actors work for two months in the shooting of a live action film, animators work for two years, so you get really close. Every success gets amplified.”

And success is indeed what Robot Dreams found when it landed a surprise nomination for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. In response to the announcement, the team behind Robot Dreams went viral on social media with their heartwarming reaction to the nomination (though it eventually lost out to The Boy and the Heron).

“It means more people are going to see the film,” adds Berger of the Oscar nom. “It’s not about the ego of the director. I’m a romantic and just want my work to touch and connect with as many people as it can, and I know a nomination like this helps.”

The Spanish director credits much of the film’s success to its willingness to not underestimate audiences. “If you respect the audience, if you challenge them, they will come to see your work. Robot Dreams is an homage to silent cinema and it has a very complex sound design. It’s like a musical. Audiences can make the film their own, it’s a sensorial experience where the audience can dream while awake.”

While animated films can still face the outdated perception of being made for kids, Berger is hopeful Robot Dreams will resonate with audiences of all ages and backgrounds. “[The film] doesn’t exclude anyone. It’s for cinephiles, for children, for families. 

“Kids have embraced the film because it talks to them – in a way, we are treating kids like adults, and adults can also feel like kids while watching the film.”

Robot Dreams is in cinemas from 22 March. Rafa Sales Ross a film and TV critic.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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