Animation Is Slow Motion: Pablo Berger on Robot Dreams


For years, live-action was director Pablo Berger’s playground, but he always had that animation dog inside him. His Oscar-nominated animated feature “Robot Dreams” let him release his bark.

Full of charm, soul, and warmth, “Robot Dreams” is a cinematic triumph in animation storytelling. It’s a poetic tale about the deep, loving connections we strike with others being tested by space and time—deployed under a colorful, expressive, 2D-animated lens in an anthropomorphic animal world set in NYC during the 80s. “Robot Dreams” subtly details the beauty of a New York that once was, when Kim’s Video was at its prime, boomboxes were the old Spotify, and the Twin Towers watched over the city in all its glory.

Based on the Sara Varon book of the same name, “Robot Dreams” focuses on a lonely dog, a Manhattan-based labrador who longs for a connection. After seeing an ad for a robot buddy on TV, he orders one. After its arrival and some required assembly, the robot comes to life and is full of buoyant curiosity. Right on the heels of the summertime, the two share a beautiful, eventful summer in the city: dancing in Central Park, watching fireworks on the Brooklyn Bridge, and playing Pong together. Their good times come to a halt after a Coney Island beach trip results in Robot’s joints rusting, being unable to move, and Dog not having the oil to boot him back up. Once he returns the next day, the beach is closed and Dog is unable to get back to his best friend. Apart through the fall, winter, and spring, Dog and Robot each undergo changes through space and time as they yearn with aching hearts to return to each other once more.

Told entirely without dialogue, guided by Alfonso de Vilallonga‘s jazzy score and the power of Earth, Wind & Fire’s funky tune “September,” “Robot Dreams” will have you in a puddle of tears, reminiscing about either a love that once was or a New York that isn’t around anymore. 

Right after the film’s release in NY and LA, Berger hopped on a Zoom call with to discuss the film’s relationship to music, capturing New York without relying on nostalgia, and his new skills after venturing into the animation realm.

This is such a beautiful New York story. I was at the Toronto Film Festival when I saw it, and seeing it on the big screen, watching all of the New York iconography in this beautiful story, washed over my feelings. It made me homesick.

Thank you. Look, I’m not a nostalgic person. Directors, we always have to look forward. My films are not nostalgic, but in all my films there’s a nostalgia for the ten years that I lived in New York. So if you felt a little bit of nostalgia for New York, that homesick thing, I’m happy to hear it. We really tried to make it very precise. Every detail the team worked to make it right for us. It was a period film, and it had to be New Yorkers who felt like, “Okay, this is New York.”

What was your first meeting with the book author Sara Varon like?

So, I was invited to be on a Jury at the Chicago Film Festival and flew from Madrid. I stopped in New York before going to Chicago. So I met Sarah at a cafe in the Lower East Side, Sara Varon. I found her email on the web, so I just contacted her and said, “I would love to collaborate with you on a project,” but I was not specific at all. So we had this meeting, and with a cappuccino in our hands, I said, “I want to make an adaptation of Robot Dreams. It was going to be a Spanish-French co-production. And she was surprised and blown away.

I explained the kind of thing I wanted to make and how New York would be a protagonist. She had seen a previous film of mine that has no dialogue called “Blancanieves.” So right on, we connected, and she said, “Let’s go for it.” And it was a great meeting. And then she gave me carte blanche. She said, “I made the graphic novel. Now you make the film.” She loved the script. She came to visit us but was not involved in the artistic decision. But she definitely has been going for the joy ride. She came to the Toronto Film Festival, she came to the Oscars, and this weekend she’s coming to New York, and we are going to do some screenings together at the Film Forum. So it’s great. I told the same story differently, and we both feel good about it.

Even though geographically, Dog is in the village and Robot is stuck at Coney Island, it’s not that far. Yet, time plays such a pivotal, significant role. Tell me everything about illustrating that aspect.

I think film is the art of time and manipulated time so that in one hour and a half you can spend one year of the life of two people. It’s amazing. It’s magic. And, of course, New York is about the seasons. So, to be able to show the four seasons of New York in the film was like a challenge. But we are delighted with the results. That’s one of the exciting things for an audience to see in the film.

When it comes to portraying the specific eighties timeframe of New York, you evoke nostalgia without overemphasizing nostalgia itself. You see things like Kim’s Video throughout; everybody’s got that ’80s wardrobe. Did you have a list from your experience that you ensured the animators considered?

Well, the thing is that my closest collaborator, Yuko Harami, was in charge of locations, research, and music editing and is also my life partner. We made four films together and lived in New York for ten years. We were the oldest of the team, and we were the New Yorkers. So, her input or information was definitely very important. So we had photo books, films, and our own photographs, but especially we had our own memories, so we were like the final approval if something was correct or not. And as you said, it was very important to not be too over the top because sometimes, when you make an eighties film, it seems too obvious. So we had to find this level of that. It felt like a time capsule, and we are very proud of how we represented New York in the eighties. I have lived in the East Village for ten years. Even the house that Dog lives in was our last house in New York. It was the same address: 13th Street between Avenue A and B. That was my last apartment.

And now it’s expensive!

Now, oh yeah. Oh, that’s the biggest change. I was paying $700. I left New York in 1999, and it was $700, $725 for a one-bedroom. Nowadays, you gotta multiply that by five, at least.

Because you don’t see that many 2D animated films these days within the landscape of animated cinema, was it always like an uphill battle to ensure this would be a 2D feature from day one?

Yeah, we never thought about making it 3D. And the thing is that when I was a kid, I grew up watching hand-drawn films in the sixties and the seventies. When I met Sarah, I said, “I love your comic book, and I want to make kind of a film that makes it feel like a comic book itself.” So it had to be 2D. But also I think that if you want to make something new, you have to look to the past. I still think 2D is excellent for representing human emotion because there’s something imperfect about the 2D drawings that connects more with our brains. There are many great 3D films that I like, but sometimes 3D is too perfect, too precise too. However, imperfection helped to create more emotional performances of the characters that appear in the film.

Given that you are already proficient in silent filmmaking, were there any difficulties in translating the live-action style to animation through your voice?

Well, it was a very natural process. I had an animation director inside of me. I think all my previous films, in a way, could have been made almost in animation. The thing is that because of all my films, I always spend one year on the storyboard. So, I always make the film in my head before I make it, and I’m very patient. So, I was scared when I started the process of making “Robot Dreams.” But very early on, I felt like, “Oh yeah, I was made for this.” I also like to work with animation; the animators like the actors.

Also, I like the idea that it was more like slow motion for a live-action director. Animation is slow motion. In a live-action film, you can never say, ” Oh, let me think, ” when they ask you a question, you can never say, oh, let me think. I’ll tell you tomorrow. You have to have answers right away when you’re on a set. But in animation, it said like, wow, why don’t we try this? Let me think about it—that part I love. And I didn’t have to wake up so early, so I’m sure I will make more animated films.

What was the experience like working on this film during COVID?

Well, it was really the hardest thing in making the film. We had to create two animation studios in Spain. We had to find animators all over Europe. For me, it was mandatory that even if it was COVID-19 times, I didn’t want to work with the animators remotely. It was mandatory that they came to work at the studio. So, of course, we were all wearing masks, but one of the big successes of the film was that we felt like a team, like a film crew. We were working in the same rooms. We were all going through the same issues. I could put my hand on the shoulder of animators and say, “Oh, good work. I like it.” So, definitely, we felt like we were doing something special for over two years. So it was really, really a major to go through Covid while making a film. And the film is very emotional. It’s a lot about emotion. So we had to be in the same space while making this film.

All these music cues that you play: “September,” even the river dance sequence, the score; they beautifully add rhythm to the movie. How did you ensure the specific songs and the jazzy score perfectly aligned with all the magic of the story?

The thing is, “Robot Dreams” is a musical. It’s a dialogue-free film, and the music could be the voice of the character. So the music is super important. Of course, the film’s main theme is “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, which is Robot and Dog’s song. Even the theme of the film is in the lyrics. “Do you remember the 21st night of September? Do you remember?” That’s the theme of the film. And the 29th of September, as you know, comes autumn, summer, autumn, and you know how important it’s in the story. There are elements. So that was a big thing. And, of course, all the different songs that appeared were punk, rob, hip hop, bucket drumming, street musicians, Latin music, and that’s New York. New York is a jungle of music and sounds, but if we had to make an original soundtrack, it had to be jazz. And we needed this kind of melodic, strong piano melody with Alfonso de Vilallonga. The music is one of the protagonists. And, of course, you need a music editor. And my music editor, Yuko Harami, has been working with me on my four films. And Alfonso de Vilallonga is the composer of my three films. I wanted to be a musician, not a filmmaker. So, “Robot Dreams” is an homage to music itself.

Now that you have jumped into both film, animation, and live-action, what skills have you equipped with this venture that you could hopefully take on for your next slew of movies, whether live-action or animation?

I listen more to my crew. I thought directing was to give orders, but I feel every film I make is more about listening to your crew and making the final decision. That’s one thing. And if I always believe in the storyboard now, I learned a new tool that is not only the storyboard, it’s the moving of the storyboard. Up to now, I have been making drawings with my storyboards. Now I make animatics. So, for my next live-action film, I’m going to make an animatic. I’m going to spend one year doing it. That was a big learning experience in making this film.


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