‘Roz was an important character to Lupita Nyong’o’: ‘The Wild Robot‘ creative team discuss the new trailer!

From DreamWorks Animation comes a new adaptation of a literary sensation, Peter Brown’s beloved, award-winning, #1 New York Times bestseller, The Wild Robot.

The epic adventure follows the journey of a robot—ROZZUM unit 7134, “Roz” (Lupita Nyong’o) for short — that is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and must learn to adapt to the harsh surroundings, gradually building relationships with the animals on the island and becoming the adoptive parent of an orphaned gosling.

With the release of The Wild Robot‘s second trailer, Nick L’Barrow had the chance to sit down with the films director Chris Sanders (How To Train Your Dragon) and producer Jeff Hermann (Kung Fu Panda 3) about creating the design of Roz, working with Lupita Nyong’o, and the lessons they’ve learned throughout their careers so far.

Nick: I’m excited to talk to you both because I’ve spoken with a few of your counterparts from Dreamworks for previous projects, and they’re always such fascinating conversations! I love animation, and one of the reasons why is that often I feel far more emotionally impacted by what I see in animated films, as opposed to real life dramas. What do you feel like it is about animation and larger-than-life stories that are such a great vessel for exploring deeper themes and emotions?

Chris Sanders: That’s a really interesting question. You know, my dad had this thing he’s say to me: “You put a photograph up on a wall, and you look at it, and think, “neat”. You put a painting on a wall, and you can look at it forever and always see new things”.

And he always pointed out to me that it communicated with you in a different way. And I would liken that to the way an animated film communicates with an audience. It does get to a realm where it’s becomes more difficult to figure out exactly why that is…

Jeff Hermann: I think part of it- I think you’re exactly right and onto something. I think the more accurate details you have in an image, the more it’s kind of telling you something, as opposed to allowing you to immerse yourself into it.

I think animated films allow you to more easily project yourself onto those characters, because you’re looking at a created image that isn’t bringing any other baggage with it. When you’re looking at a real person or a real actor, you may know more about those real world details of whatever it is you’re looking at. And it’s harder to separate that.

But in an animated film, it’s pure. It doesn’t have anything else associated with it. So you can really immerse yourself into it and find yourself becoming those characters.

Chris Sanders: It’s interesting, you walk around Disneyland– and even though I love Dick Van Dyke and all of his films, no one is walking around wearing Dick Van Dyke on their shirt. They walk around with Stitch, and Mickey Mouse. There’s just like a direct line into your heart with those guys.

Nick: I feel like that attachment we feel is also in the ability to discover new worlds visually. And from a visual standpoint, we see a few brief shots in this trailer of this, sort of, utopia that Roz comes from. There’s the tall white buildings and drones flying in. I’m curious to know what the conversations were like with the creative team of not just creating your vision of a future, but also one that would fit into this world?

Chris Sanders: Oh my gosh, yeah! So, as a writer and director, you have a conversation with Raymond Zbach [production designer on The Wild Robot] and his team about how the place Roz comes from really should be the exact opposite of where she wakes up. 

The island is chaos, and danger, and bad weather.So where Roz comes from, it needs to be this sort of Epcot, if you will. Like this planned futuristic place that I saw in the paintings of Sid Mead.

And you say that, then next time you come into a meeting, they’ve done this! They’ve done all these things. The level of talent and inventiveness around ou in a studio like DreamWorks… you can’t say enough about it.

The guy who designed Roz, we were fiddling around with how Roz should look. Because in Peter Brown’s book, it is both specific and vague! He has a very graphic style, and it has very strong silhouettes on silhouettes. So, she’s humanoid, he explained why that was, but we fiddled around with exactly what she should look like.

I did a lot of drawings, but one day I came into a meeting and they said, “we have something to show you”. They clicked a button, and there was Roz. And she was perfect in every way. She was simple, but extraordinarily appealing. She was futuristic, and she looked like a robot, but like no robot we’d ever seen before. They just nailed it. It really was a gift to the production.

Jeff Hermann: One of the other things too, with creating the world in which Roz lives in, and the future world from which she came from, was we took a cue from the books. And the books are very deliberate about making sure that you don’t associate this world with any particular time or place. 

So, we purposefully avoided pop culture references and things that might make you start to associate it with any particular era.

Nick: It’s interesting you also bring up the design of Roz, because watching the trailer, I got the idea that she was a robot unlike one we’ve seen before, especially in her movements. Was her agility and the way she moves around space something that evolved once her design was presented to you?

Chris Sanders: The team of designers and the team that rigged the robot, they all worked together to try to create a creature, a being that would always surprise us with the way she moves and would always have surprises that will reveal as the film goes along.

They were very careful to literally put pivot points and things that could spin, and turn, and expand, and shrink, and doors that would open. She became endlessly interesting.

Nick: How then did the design and movements and all this creative thought put into Roz inspire the decision behind how Lupita Nyongo would then voice her? From the trailer, it seemed to me that Roz’s voice starts very stilted and robotic, but becomes more human as the story went along.

Jeff Hermann: Oh, yeah! And that was part of the reason we had many conversations with Lupita for quite a long time, before she ever stood behind a microphone. Because she had those very same questions of how does Roz use her voice in a certain way.

When you’re doing voice acting, you have to put more into your voice to convey the things that your body can’t, because we can’t see them. And she was concerned of how to approach that when she’s playing a character that has to start out with no emotion in her voice!

So that was a difficult journey that she put great consideration into. But between the conversations she and Chris had, they found a great way for her to have that evolution of her voice through the film.

Chris Sanders: We had the privilege, both Jeff and I, were in every single recording session with Lupita, and I was that everyone could have seen what we saw. Watching her work, she really took this whole thing very, very seriously.

Roz was an important character to her, and I would credit her for being the architect of that character. She took the lead in finding that voice. And it’s a very subtle thing that goes on because we learned early from our sound designer, Randy Thom, that the state of the art, purely computer generated voices, sound 100% human. So that freed us from worrying about trying to make her sound electronic in any way.

We could guarantee Lupita that we wouldn’t be putting her voice through a filter as a way to shortcut getting that sound. That meant it was 100% her task to create the subtle transition that Roz goes through throughout the film.

Nick: I want to wrap up on this question, and it’s one I like asking filmmakers. Jeff, if you look back to when your were working on films like Pocohontas, or Chris, your work on Little Muppet Monsters

Chris Sanders: Oh, wow! [laughs]

Nick: I’m here with the deep cuts! What’s one thing you’ve learned from those experiences that has been a constant and stayed with you all the way up until right now, working on The Wild Robot?

Chris Sanders: Wow. You ask really good questions!

Jeff Hermann: These are really good questions you asked.

Nick: Thank you! I really appreciate that.

Chris Sanders: I don’t know if this is the best answer, but every project I’ve worked on from the beginning till now, I work in a place where my growth as an artist is always encouraged, and I’m around people who I learn from every day.

There are so many amazing artists and engineers around me. Artists, writers. So that opportunity and encouragement to learn and grow from the beginning till now and beyond is constant.

Jeff Hermann: I’m just going to extend off of that answer. Basically that this is a collaborative medium more so than many other things that I’ve witnessed. Because of that, you know, we’ve all learned to be open to answers and solutions, and ideas coming from anyone, anywhere, anytime.

That is how these movies truly get made, and how they become as great as they are. It’s because we surround ourselves with so many talented people, all of whom are able to contribute ideas along the way, and that just always improves the process.

Thank you so much to Chris and Jeff for their time, and to Universal Pictures for organising the interview. You can watch the new trailer for The Wild Robot above, and check the film out when it releases in cinemas on September 12.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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