You can achieve storytelling with inanimate objects.
Before I begin this essay, I should be clear—George the Robot, star of my new short sci-fi comedy System Error, is definitely a real robot.
He would be very distressed if he knew I was out there talking about him like he was something I came up with and faked for a film. It would seriously send him spiraling into existential despair. Besides, he lives at my house.
But, for the sake of argument—let’s just say he was a prop, a fully practical effect used to depict a character I’d been working away at for years. In that scenario, maybe I could share some insights into what it’s like trying to craft a truly emotionally-driven story about mental health when the protagonist is a largely featureless box.
How can you engage an audience when your star is an inanimate object?
Never work with children, animals, or robots
My name is Matt Vesely. I’m a filmmaker (and sometimes stand-up comedian) from Adelaide in South Australia. I work with a company called Closer Productions. We make television and films across a variety of genres. My day job at Closer is in development, as I continue to develop myself as a writer and director. I’ve made a number of shorts, and System Error is my latest.
It was selected for Tribeca in 2020 (just before the world ended) and has been picked up for online release by DUST, on YouTube, Facebook, and their own platform this week.
System Error is a story about George, a lonely, immobile robot that works in a convenience store, as he tries to edit himself in order to make a friend. You can watch it right now!
The film was financed by the South Australian Film Corporation—we’re very lucky in Australia to have access to government grants to make works like this—and was produced by Closer and Kirsty Stark of Epic Films.
It was designed to be a proof of concept for a series I’ve got in development called Overheater, a kind of dystopian romantic comedy set in a world ruled by safety-obsessed aliens and their shitty, box-like computers.
Developing the story
The big question I got when I was shopping around the scripts to Overheater was, “How are we going to care about this robot character?”
George is a refrigerator-sized box, with an eye and a credit card slot, who works at a convenience store. He can’t move, he doesn’t have a face. He’s kind of like HAL, if HAL was less a homicidal maniac and more a depressed wannabe stand-up comedian looking for a friend.
The truth is that while I’ve made a lot of comedy, I’m really a sci-fi nerd. I love 2001, Blade Runner, Alien. I grew up watching way too much Futurama. I’m also really passionate about advocating for mental health. I draw upon my own experiences of anxiety and depression in my writing, and I wanted to make a fun, welcoming, inclusive film about those themes, not a bleak downer. The idea of using the simple metaphor of a robot’s corrupted code for the things I felt were broken inside of myself was really appealing to me—as a filmmaker, as a comedian, as a nerd, as a weirdo.
Of course, working in low-budget short films means you’ve got to be realistic about what you can achieve—and so the big dumb robot was born. It was going to be a challenge, but I thought that if the audience felt something for a box, then that was what was going to make the film memorable.
How to build a better bot
George’s look was designed by me, using a pen on a scrap of paper, and then principally by visual designer/editor/animator/guru Raynor Pettge, who works at Closer as well.
We were inspired by HAL (obviously), the gonk droid from Star Wars, and a lot of Futurama (always Futurama). George was deliberately conceived to be very simple: the comedic, ramshackle tone of the world meant that he needed to be a practical robot. Glimmering CGI just wouldn’t have the same level of lo-fi warmth we needed to emotionally engage our audience on a small budget.
We then still had to work out how to build the damn thing with next to no money. No ILM or Weta Workshop for us. My producer Kirsty stumbled upon our savior, Robb Props and Cosplay. Stephen Robb is an engineer based in Adelaide, but on the weekends and at night he doubles as a maker of insane props and costumes for pop culture conventions—light up, animatronic weapons, and armor.
The size of George was an issue—that’s a lot of sanding and paint—but from a technical perspective, Stephen was all over it.
George is made of a combination of foam, laser-cut MDF, and 3D printed pieces. His eye is a pretty basic LED in a clear dome, but we had the option to change colors and have him flicker when he was breaking down. The piece de resistance was his mouth—a series of LEDs connected to a waveform analyzer that allowed us to run his dialogue through the robot on set, so his mouth would light up in real-time with the voice. No animation at all. It all adds to the crappy charm of the film, and importantly, a character we really needed an audience to empathize with. Just that simple amount of specific reactivity goes such a huge way to making him feel alive, despite the fact the rest of him is mostly black paint.
Stephen built him over a couple of months in the sweltering Australian summer, and we really can’t thank him enough. He even came out to set one day when George malfunctioned and did some hasty repair work. He pulled open George’s control panel and started snipping at a clutch of haphazard wiring like he was dismantling an IED. Cool.
George the Robot Is a Diva on Set
Performance is such a key for all films, and especially comedy. Acting for and with a big black box proved a challenge.
George is voiced by Juno-award nominated Canadian comic Nick Nemeroff (you can see him here on Conan). In fact, I wrote the character for Nick, who is a friend of mine, is absolutely hilarious, and kind of sounds like a robot. A really friendly robot.
In an ideal world, we would have flown Nick over to be able to perform and improvise on set as George, speaking directly into his waveform analyzer, but alas, flights from Canada to Australia are very expensive. So Nick and I recorded his dialogue over Skype. I cut it up, put a robot effect on it, and then had the lines ready to go on my laptop on set. I could sit behind the monitor and “perform” George as the takes were running, triggering the lines on iTunes which then ran through a $2 audio splitter into both George and a set of speakers our sound recordist brought to set, so everyone could hear him. Having written the script, I knew it inside out, and so could perform George’s timing opposite real-life actor, David Quirk.
David plays Sid in the film, a human who comes into the convenience store and tries to strike up a conversation with George—and George sees an opportunity for a new friend. David is one of my favorite comedians in Australia, and we were really lucky to have him on board.
I love working with comedians as actors. They always make really subtle, interesting choices, and David was no different. He’s so good in the film, but it must have been a real challenge just acting opposite a recording. It doesn’t allow a lot of room to move or improvise, but David really took this ridiculous situation he found himself in seriously.
David was up for having a relationship with this box, but we needed the audience to have one, too. There were a few tricks that I found were pretty helpful in that regard.
Keeping the box in frame
Obviously, there are only so many ways to shoot an inanimate object. But those choices, and when you use them, are so so important. For me and DP/editor Bryan Mason, the key was having the way we shot George change over the course of the film. The timing of all those ideas was critical.
In the first scene, George is yet to edit his code and is very robotic. So, quite simply, his shots are all static. Plain mid shots for the most part. Simple tricks like jumping out wide, to see him as a small figure surrounded by a cluttered, rundown shop, help communicate his isolation without his face having to move at all (or even exist).
The first time the camera moves is at night when George begins to come up with an idea. That simple, slow track in provides him with a lot of agency, largely because of the contrast between how he was shot in the opening.
Toward the end of the film, George begins to break. His voice shifts, he smokes, his eye flashes. And from there, the film goes hand-held.
They’re all really basic filmmaking tricks, but by very deliberately changing them through the course of the film, it gave George’s character an arc. We can’t see George change, outside of some very basic lighting effects, so we used the camera as a way to make George’s arc external.
The sweet sounds of madness
I have a love/hate relationship with sound design in filmmaking. I love it because the possibilities are limitless, and I think it really is the secret sauce that elevates a film into new emotional heights. I hate it because the possibilities are limitless, and it’s the secret sauce that sends my anxiety through the proverbial roof.
For System Error, the sound was a vital component of making George feel alive. I worked with my good friend and excellent Adelaide-based sound designer Leigh Kenyon to try and build a real sense of character for George. He hums and clicks like an old computer, and his sound effects are literally made of old computer parts. We recorded and sourced old hard-drives firing up and searching for files, CD-ROM drives breaking, and chucked a little refrigerator hum in there for good measure. We wanted him to sound like you remember computers in the 90s sounding—like nascent technology that was only just working, as mechanical techniques met the digital. Pieces of crap.
But my favourite part of George’s sound design is his performance. We used the modulation of these sounds throughout to communicate his emotional state, as a sort of replacement for facial expressions. His hard drive spins up faster when he gets excited; it chugs when he’s asked a perplexing question; it slows to a halt when he’s sad; it sounds like it’s completely shafted when he starts to break.
His “performance” in this sense is all down to Leigh. I gave him that idea, without any specifics, and he ran with it. I agonized over and redrafted with Leigh many parts of the sound design, but this element was one that Leigh nailed so well that it hardly changed from the first draft.
I still laugh when Sid asks, “You’re a real dedicated employee then, aren’t ya?” and George’s computer just goes, “Chug-chug-chug,” in confused response. Nobody else does, but I do.
George’s internal world
A big element to consider while scripting was how to evolve the audience’s access to George. With the help of script editor Stephen Cleary, I came up with the idea of seeing George literally interact with his code via DOS-like command prompts. It’s like we’re reading his thoughts. It’s not the most original idea, but it’s a fun one that allows for not only jokes, but creative computer-based solutions to showing how George is feeling without literally telling the audience through on-screen text. The metaphor for “edit FIRMWARE.sys” is not very subtle, but it’s effective.
Again, when it came to making the film, it was about having this linear sense of escalation to this visual element as well.
Animator Raynor Pettge is a 90s computer kid like me (although he’s got more of a Linux flavor), and he built most of the VFX and animation in AfterEffects. There’s a lot of great detail in there—the screen is curved like a CRT monitor, with scan lines that eventually become a rolling refresh. The text blurs the further you get from the center of the screen like you’re seeing it through glass. It’s really cool.
And then, again, the way we “shoot” this stuff changes through the film. It’s a static wide for most of the first scene we see it, and then we move into close-ups as George becomes obsessive. The screen moves slowly from blue to red as George’s demon appears, and we use extreme close-ups and canted angles that feel like we’re looking at a physical screen to help communicate George’s fraying emotional state.
These were simple ideas we could use to help provide cues to George’s arc that the audience takes in on a more visceral, instinctual level, even in this much more literal embodiment of George’s thoughts.
Make a film about an inanimate object today
So far, people have really responded to George—the character more than the film. He’s very sweet-natured, I guess, and gets to a fairly relatable truth about self-worth. I even did a live stand-up show with George on stage at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, and George got way more compliments than I did. People were cheering for him from the audience, and yelling out “oh no” when he took a darker turn. And that’s without any of these filmmaking tricks.
But, when converting that character to film, it was super important to find a way to elevate him, to feel closer to him, in a cinematic experience. It’s a very small, cheap, and simple film, but I think some of those little choices we made went a long way to making George a character people can still fall in love with.
I hope you fall in love with him too!
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