Robot Dreams’ director founded an animation studio just to adapt a graphic novel he loved

Robot Dreams’ director founded an animation studio just to adapt a graphic novel he loved

In 2018, when director Pablo Berger was thinking about his next movie, he happened to crack open one of his favorite graphic novels, a short, wordless story about a dog and a robot, best friends who are separated and drift apart. Berger had read Sara Varon’s Robot Dreams before, but the reread caught him off guard.

“This time, when I got to the end of the book, that last act, I was so moved by the story, it brought me truly to tears,” Berger told Polygon in an interview ahead of the film’s limited theatrical release. “I was so shaken by the story. Right there at that moment, I thought there was something very special about the book. That’s when I decided to adapt it and make an animated film — even if it was something new for me.”

Varon’s book is a surprisingly poignant look at the ephemeral nature of friendships, and Berger was determined to capture that in his movie. He’d written and directed three celebrated, successful live-action feature films — Torremolinos 73, Abracadabra, and Spain’s 2012 Academy Award submission, Blancanieves. But making an animated movie would be different. Very different.

“I was truly very frightened about starting the production,” he says. “But I like challenges. It didn’t block me. It really excited me, the fact that it was something new.”

An animated dog and a robot walk through a busy New York City street. Image: Neon

But despite his lack of experience, Berger’s Robot Dreams captures the book’s surprising poignancy, while using the extra space of a feature-length film to expand on its central relationships. It’s set in 1980s New York City, in a world populated by anthropomorphic animals. When one of them, Dog, feels lonely and isolated, he orders a robot companion. And after a whirlwind summer together, bonding over Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September,” they become best friends.

But an outing to Coney Island leaves Robot powered down and stranded on the beach, and when Dog returns to rescue him, he finds the beach closed for the rest of the year. The remainder of the movie follows what happens to the two of them in their time apart, and how they forge new connections while never forgetting each other. It’s a lovely reverie on friendship, and the space we hold in our hearts for those we left behind (in this case, pretty physically and literally).

Following a limited release, Robot Dreams was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, alongside Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Nimona, and The Boy and the Heron. The movie finally debuts in American theaters this summer, starting with a small release in New York City on May 31. Berger is excited to see his movie gain more traction after its surprise Oscar appearance, especially since it’s a story he is so passionate about. That passion was what fueled the production, despite the challenges for a first-time animation director. And there were some big challenges. Originally, Berger was set to work with Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon (Wolfwalkers, The Secret of Kells) for Robot Dreams. But production hit a snag during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Berger had to pivot.

“Suddenly, we had to create our own studios in Spain,” he says. “So we called them pop-up studios, because we had to create them from scratch. We had to find the offices, buy the computers, hire animators and artists from all over Europe, and create a pipeline. So that was really hard.”

An animated dog and a robot walk hand-in-hand on a snowy sidewalk Image: Neon

Berger quickly learned some key differences between production on a live-action movie and an animated one. For one, there are no individual department heads for hair and makeup or camera on an animated movie; it all falls under the art department. And there are no actors in a movie without dialogue; the animators handle all the “acting.”

“At the same time, I had to achieve the same goal,” says Berger. “Three-dimensional, emotional, believable performances.”

Berger tells us that in his live-action work, he talks with actors and looks deep in their eyes in order to draw out the most emotionally truthful performance he can. And with Robot Dreams, he wanted to take the same approach — just a little bit adjusted, of course, since there were no actors to make that connection with.

“When I was looking at the animation of the drawings, I looked at the pupils of the characters,” he explains. “So basically, to bring a truthful, believable performance that could move the audience, that the audience could have empathy for Dog and Robot.”

An animated robot and a dog sit under a bridge in New York City, looking at the sunset. Image: Neon

Berger says he enjoyed every minute working on Robot Dreams, and he would happily do another animated film in the future. There’s a lingering prejudice, especially in the United States, against animation, seen primarily as a medium for children’s movies. But Berger, like Guillermo del Toro and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller before him, is a firm believer that animation isn’t a genre.

“Animation is just a way to tell the story. And animation is not only for kids. There are so many great animated films that could be for kids, but could be for adults,” he says, citing the likes of Persepolis, The Triplets of Belleville, and Studio Ghibli’s filmography. While Robot Dreams is family-friendly, Berger says his studio never made any compromises in the filmmaking process in order to appeal to children. In fact, aiming at a specific audience was the last thing on his mind.

“I like to make an analogy with film. Films, for me, they are like a lasagna. And there are different layers. Every audience gets a different layer,” he says. “In a way, it looks back to when I was a kid and I saw the same film as my parents. Some of the films that are released in the last decades seem that they’re catered for [just] cinephiles, or for commercial [audiences], or for children. I think [Robot Dreams] really is for a very wide audience.”

Robot Dreams opens in New York City on May 31, and will eventually roll out into theaters nationwide.