In “Ron’s Gone Wrong,” the first animated feature by UK-based Locksmith Animation (in theaters only from Disney/20th Century Studios), the titular malfunctioning robot (voiced by Zach Galifianakis) and socially awkward middle-schooler Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) struggle to understand the difference between interpersonal and virtual friendship. Thus, for director Sarah Smith (Aardman’s “Arthur Christmas”) and screenwriter Peter Baynham (the “Borat” movies and “Arthur Christmas”), this high-tech, boy-and-his-dog coming-of-age story was an opportunity to explore the impact of social media on children.
“It is very much about the process to curate yourself and put some image of yourself out there,” said Smith, who was inspired by “E.T.” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” among others. “Like many kids who feel inadequate, they’re the ones that haven’t actually really cracked friendship. And the joy of Ron is that he is a complete tabula rasa, who’s only got four percent of his programs downloaded. And he learns everything from first principles, and he doesn’t automatically agree and he doesn’t automatically like Barney. So you create a situation of comedy opposition, in which they have to learn about each other from first principles and find each other in that wonderful, messy, one-to-one way.”
For Baynham, it was important to explore social media interaction in a relatable suburban setting rather than a futuristic dystopia. “You want it to be now, because that’s when all of this is happening for kids and for adults,” he said. “We’re in such an entitled world where everything is on demand, and, obviously, in this movie it’s friendship that’s on demand. So Barney’s been given this device that he’s been told is gonna be his friend, is gonna find him friends, he doesn’t have to work for it. But then he gets this thing that’s not connected to the internet. It’s a device that doesn’t understand what it means to be a device.”
There was the challenge, though, of working with six-time Oscar-winning VFX studio DNEG (“Tenet”) on its first animated feature and getting comfortable with a new pipeline. “It was very much like that bit in ‘Wallace & Gromit’ where he’s laying the track while also being on the train that’s catching up to it,” Smith added. “But they worked hard in giving us something that was stylistically heightened but delivering a lot of emotion in subtle ways. And so you’re going from big, fun, physical comedy with Ron to subtle eye movements with Barney, and that tells you a lot about the design and the rig.”
DNEG’s approach to the robots (known as B-Bots) was delivering their performances (aside from their arms and wheels) via different animated skins, which varied from superhero, to bunnies to squirrels, among other design variants. “By developing a rigging system that would drive the different expressions of the skin textures, animators were given full control of both the geometry of the B-Bots (body, arms, wheels) and the skin texture,” said DNEG VFX supervisor Philippe Denis. “This, in turn, provided a means to bring about a satisfying performance where body and skin could be animated simultaneously — in the same way a human character is animated, with a combination of body poses and facial expressions — and reviewed in animation dailies.”
This required creating a library of posed textures for each skin of the B-Bots, and developing a rig that would drive the different poses. This was achieved through the collaboration between rigging, animation, motion graphics, and surfacing, along with lighting and compositing for final integration.
However, Ron, as a defective B-Bot, did not require the same elaborate skin texture as the fully functioning counterparts. Instead, he was made to look basic: all-white with only a face consisting of two eyes and a mouth plus some relatively simple graphics used when required by the story. “To emphasize the fact that Ron was a malfunctioning Bot, we added a level of pixelation to his facial features, which were fully controllable by the animators,” added Denis. “This feature added to Ron’s character, helping expose his state of mind for a given scene. Additionally, this differentiation helped add to his charisma and endearing quality. Once again, it was critical for the animators to have full control of the face system in order to make the best acting choices possible.”
Added Baynham: “I think there is something so visceral about Ron [with that plastic and slight translucence] that you could reach out and touch him.”