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Robot Dreams, a romantic animation about loneliness in 80s New York

“Instead of using a camera, I use hundreds of artists doing hand drawings,” Berger says. “It’s basically the same. I’m not a cameraman and I’m not an art director, but I know what I want, and I know how to communicate it.” He explains that, in live-action, he instructs the performers to not overact, and to instead communicate through their eyes. “With the animators, I look at the eyes of Robot and Dog. If their eyes don’t tell me the truth, I keep working on it. Honestly, I talk the same way to actors and animators. I tell them to trust the story, and not think they’re here to save the scene.”

After growing up in Spain, Berger studied filmmaking at NYU. Thus Robot Dreams is filled with Berger’s own memories of New York in 1984, as well as inspirations that range from Martha Cooper’s photography to films such as Stranger than Paradise, Desperately Seeking Susan, Hannah and Her Sisters, After Hours, and Liquid Sky (“a very Dazed film – it has aliens and models!”). He also considers it the closest a movie has to come to what he envisioned in his head. “I’ve only made four films in 20 years. I love detail. I can spend so much time trying to find the perfect colour, the perfect shot.”

Even on a live-action feature, Berger notes, the most storyboarded scene still faces numerous variables. “On live-action, the director is like a clown on top of a wild bull,” he says, miming the action. “But on an animation, it’s like you’re on a horse, in control. Every shot on this film has my fingerprints. Every pupil movement, I was involved in that decision.” It was also his insistence for the film to be animated in deep focus. “I wanted the line to be alive, and in 2D. Imperfection, for me, is perfection.”

During awards season, Berger has been participating in talks and events with directors at other studios like Sony and Pixar. Over dinner, he and fellow nominees would swap anecdotes. “They had envy of the complete control I had on my film,” he says, “and I had complete envy of the budgets that they had.” Funnily enough, Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Spies in Disguise) held talks with Sara Varon in 2008 about potentially turning Robot Dreams into a 3D feature. I ask Berger if he can envision himself working in blockbuster animation – he has, after all, just spent months networking in LA?

“For me, what’s important is control,” says Berger. “I’ve made four films with complete freedom and final cut. I had offers [in the past] to make big-budget films in America, but I decided to make smaller films with more control.” He praises Yorgos Lanthimos and Jonathan Glazer as directors he’d emulate if he went to Hollywood. “I want to surprise the audience with my next project. It could be animation, it could be live-action, it could be a documentary. I just want to do something I haven’t done before.”

Despite Robot Dreams premiering almost a year ago, Berger still expresses excitement over the film’s gradual rollout. While doing Q&As, he’s even had viewers tell him it reminded them of a parent. “That’s what’s great about cinema,” he says. “The audience makes the film for themselves.” I admit that, on first viewing, I thought Dog and Robot were friends; the second time, the hand-holding felt romantic. “There’s a fine line between friendship and love,” he says. “What is friendship? Romance is just friendship plus sex? You don’t need sex anymore? It’s up to you how you see the film.”

Robot Dreams is exclusively in UK cinemas from March 22

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital”

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