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PROTO: Interview with Director Nick Pittom + Trailer

Nick Pittom’s first film, PROTO, is a 15 minute sci-fi short film that was shot at a real robotics lab in Denmark.  It immediately caught our attention, as it stars a computer-animated humanoid robot that wouldn’t look out of place here on Plastic Pals.  It turns out that was no coincidence – Nick is a fan of the site and used it to research his film’s subject.  We caught up with Nick over email to learn more about him and his film.  A trailer follows the interview.

Plastic Pals: Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Nick Pittom: Hey, I am Nick Pittom, 30, and I am a film maker from the UK.  I started with video and VFX when I was 15, playing around with one of the first commercially available digital capture cards. Myself and a friend, Chris Phillips, would place ourselves into X-Files and Terminator – or making our own version of the Matrix or whatever – stupid videos for fun. This continued through college, where I studied Art and Design and onto university where I studied Film and TV at Bournemouth University.

There myself and the same friend produced stupid programs for the Student TV station – for fun more than anything – which I think is what really made it all worth while: it was enjoyable. I was not really doing it for ‘art’ or for a career, but because I had a great time doing it. The course itself was good, giving me many opportunities to experiment with ideas.

I spent Uni making a really bad Zombie film (which is mandatory these days, I believe) and also a spoof of Power Rangers called Mighty Moshin’ Emo Rangers – which actually made it’s way onto MTV2 in the UK.

That sounds… interesting.  (Hey, if gory zombie movies are good enough for Peter Jackson, they’re good enough for any starting director!)

It was after Uni that I started to get serious about film making.  I knew that if I just kept making videos for fun I would need to get a real job and eventually would have no time to do what I enjoyed – so I better stop messing around. I had spent a year as a runner in Post Production and realised that there was no future for me there. At the time I had wanted to be a compositor, but realised that the work was actually in taking other people’s vision and bringing it to life. I wanted to bring my own vision to life.

So I left and started making music promos for bands – knowing that I would have the freedom to experiment with visuals. I also took on a variety of other roles: editor for music shows and live performances, motion graphics animation – I picked up a camera and shot weddings and later a series on Pimp My Ride UK – all of it to get as broad based experience as possible and to understand the entire process.

Later I went on to work on the VFX for a feature called Beacon 77, and small shots in short films for other directors. But at the same time I was always writing; short scripts and ideas. I read up on story and writing and spent years writing bad scripts that didn’t work. But I guess that’s the idea – to get good at something you have to first suck at it. Eventually I entered a competition for Ridley Scott’s RSA films to write a script for a short film advertising a Duracell phone charging system, which I won and got to see turned into a 2 minute film. I realised that I was not actually too bad at this writing thing, so got serious – and eventually came up with PROTO – which was the first script I had written I was truly proud of – and with my previous experience, was one I was both confident I could make and determined to see through.

Seems like all the pieces really started to fit together.  Judging by PROTO’s synopsis, were you going for a feeling similar to E.T. or Short Circuit?

I would say that’s pretty fair. Certainly that 80’s Spielberg feel became an influence, although I did not set out specifically with those films in mind. In fact it was the Neill Blomkamp short film Tempbot that was the biggest inspiration to make the film – although the two films are very different. Wall-E is actually the film most people compare it to, due to the silent robot protagonist and ‘love interest’, but again there was no conscious decision to make PROTO similar.

I hadn’t heard of Tempbot, I’ll have to check it out.  Speaking of other robot shorts, have you seen Ruiari Robinson’s short film Blinky?  It seems PROTO is the polar opposite of that film.

It’s funny – I actually saw the trailer after I had started shooting test shots – and only saw the whole film a little while before the shoot. It was massively inspiring to see that a short film with a CG robot could be a success and spurred me on to make the best film I could. I know he spent a LONG time on the post of that film and BOY does it show. The scene in the rain? Wow. Blows me away that that is all CG. Amazing work.

I would say it is indeed pretty much the opposite film :) Perhaps one day they can have a double bill.

I like Blinky’s design but with PROTO, I feel it looks even more plausible.  It seems to take inspiration from a variety of real world robots…

Absolutely. In fact for the test shots a first version of the PROTO robot was made and was far more realistic than the final design.  Version 1 was made to be as realistic as possible as to what a robot might look like and took influences for every current robot I could find in development – but still be it’s own creature. Here are a couple of images of it:

The original PROTO robot, seen here, was modelled and textured by the amazing talented James Kearsley, who helped a great deal with pre-production on the film. You can check out his work here:

The re-design of the final version for the film had to take into account the new direction of the script – to make the robot more appealing and sympathetic. But I still was adamant that it should look like a real robotic device with practical working components.

In a way I feel we must have followed a design process that robotics companies also undertake to make their products more customer friendly. For the redesign I was able to work with Stefan Fjeldmark, a Danish director (“Help I’m a Fish”) and animator, who helped craft the new, more appealing design. A long time collaborator, concept designer James Wetherell then took this and created the final design for the CG artists to build from. He also designed the original version.

Those early renderings are very cool, both it and the version that ended up in the film look more polished than many actual robot designs (I could see a company like Aldebaran Robotics licensing the design to replace the look of their Project ROMEO robot…)  You mentioned to me that Plastic Pals was a great resource during the making of the film, could you elaborate? (shameless, I know, but I couldn’t resist)

It became my primary resource for discovering what new developments were being made in the field of robots – at least the high-end consumer/product type of robotics that PROTO would fit into. I went back to the very first post and went from there – looking at every single image. I got a LOT of material, but more than that I was pleased to see that many of my instincts for what would look good were also borne out in reality as actual robots, not just something that would fit my notion of what they ‘should’ be like.

That is incredibly gratifying to hear, as that was sort of the intention behind the site.  I come from an artistic background and the robots of Tomotaka Takahashi (ROBO-GARAGE) really got me interested in not just robots, but the look of them.  And I wanted people to be able to refine their designs, whether for films, video games, or actual robots by looking at what else is out there and learning from it.

How did having a digital character affect the filming and budget?

I am not sure if I can reveal the whole budget, but I will say it was a little over twice what a short film of this type would usually get.  Being an international co-production meant we filmed in Denmark (I am from the UK), and in doing so we got more budget. The CG characters were built and animated by a group called VERL (Visual Effects Research Laboratory) in Dundee, Scotland, who were attached to the scheme before I joined it. This took about a quarter of the budget.

In terms of how it affected the filming I would say completely, from top to bottom. Two years ago when I started writing I was aware it would be a CG character in a real world setting and integrated that into the planning for every part of the film. I prepared a great deal before the shoot, with shot lists and storyboards, working out every single stage to ensure I would not be wasting time on set working it out as I went along. In many ways a CG protagonist saves time! You need only get the backplates you need – empty shots – and then place them in later. You can imagine the time this saves in getting the right performance! When working with actors I was pleasantly surprised how well they took to it, and got the needs of the production and worked to it. To be honest I found a CG protagonist to be a delight to work with!

I’m guessing you went into filming with storyboards to smooth the process along?

Yes. I found these invaluable. I used them as a shot list and crossed them off as I went. Many of the crew were surprised to see them, as most directors they have worked with have not used them on set, but they were great for illustrating what I was planning in each shot.

So how long was the shoot, and what did you learn from it?

(We spent) five days on location at a real robotics lab in Denmark called Robocluster. I had directed before (music videos mainly) and so I knew that you NEVER have enough time and you ALWAYS run over.  But this was a unique experience for me. End to end I learnt SO MUCH about the process of film making. I had not worked with actors really and I learnt a great deal of how to work with them during the experience – but it was not just the specifics – it was in general a process of osmosis… soaking everything up, from the re-drafting of the script, to crewing up, to casting, to grading… My brain was squishy and full by the end.

That was a smart move, and probably saved you a few bucks.  But I’m unfamiliar with Robocluster.  Tell us about that.

Our production manager Julie Lin Milling found the location after we had decided to shoot in Denmark. I was simply amazed that such a perfect location, with big robot arms and industrial farm robots would even exist! They also work on medical robots and there were some great machines that cameo in the film. More info here:

Did the people at Robocluster offer any technical advice before or during shooting?

They were absolutely open to any questions I had and provided lots of great info and knowledge about the machines that appear in the film. But they also understood the necessities of story and film making and were not too picky about the actual characters!

When I began to research the script and robots in general I called up Prof. Chris Melhuish at the Bristol Robotics lab who was kind enough to give me some info and feedback on ideas and later Huosheng Hu at the University of Essex was kind enough to allow me to film test shots there, and explain the robots they had.

Ok, so now on to some silly questions.  What are some of your favorite robots (both real and sci-fi)?

Real: Bigdog is amazing – really shows that realistic, adaptive movement is simply inevitable. Asimo of course is the iconic one. The Multiple Kill vehicle is a sci-fi nightmare and therefore of course also awesome. There are actually a great many I like: AILA is lovely, and quite similar to Symphony in PROTO. PaPeRo is just adorable. The Keepon (which I would love to own) is just awesome and cost effective fun. DARWin-Op is such a great, simple design, and indeed one of the touchstones for PROTO’s. As a final choice I would say the durable robotic arm seen here is an amazing piece of technology. I can see that on the robot overlords of tomorrow. Truly terrifying. Awesome.

I do NOT like the robots that try to look human. They always fail, but manage to be terrifying at the same time.

Fictional: Huey Dewey And Louie from Silent Runnings, The transformers (original cartoon), Iron Giant, the Terminator, ED209. The Telebugs. Wall-E and Eva of course. The iRobot robot. Box. I used to like Johnny 5, but really he grates on me these days ;)

I completely agree with you on the “realistic” robots.  Oh, and from what I understand there’s a Short Circuit reboot in the works and it will feature the same Johnny 5 design.  I think that’s a mistake given all the advances we have seen in the past twenty years since the original was made.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Syd Mead, but I definitely think he should revisit the concept.

Finally, what are your plans moving forward?

Write more films, sci-fi mostly. Make them!

Awesome!  Thanks so much Nick for taking the time to answer our questions, and good luck with the upcoming film festivals!

PROTO will debut at a variety of festivals around September, but for now we can all enjoy the trailer that was launched earlier today.


You can keep track of the film’s status and Nick’s projects via the source links below.

[sources: PROTO website] & [PROTO @ Facebook] & [Nick Pittom’s portfolio]

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