Tech going wrong is a well-trodden path in movies, but it usually ends up putting the fate of humanity at risk, instead of being mined for wacky buddy comedy. Animated adventure Ron’s Gone Wrong, from Arthur Christmas co-director Sarah Smith and co-writer Peter Baynham looks to fix that.
This is the story of young Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), a sweet, nerdy lad who worries that he’s being left out of the social circles at school, but never wants to invite people over to his chaotic house, where his dad is busy inventing and his tough-but-loving grandmother Donka (Olivia Colman) is tending to her goats and chickens – when she’s not busy cooking up giant vats of soup and dancing on the kitchen table to her favourite Bulgarian tunes.
When Ron’s Dad gifts him the hot new gadget that has swept the nation (and the world), the BBot, Barney is delighted. Finally, this is his chance to fit in and be just like everyone else. Only Barney’s Bot is very much not like the others, and Ron – R0NB1NT5CAT5CO to give him his full serial number/name – turns out to seriously glitchy. Yet Ron (Zach Galifianakis) might be exactly what Barney needs to help him connect with the world. Here, Empire talks to co-directors Smith and Jean-Philippe Vine about the original idea, how the movie is a reminiscent of Her* and why Ron is sort-of, kind-of a little bit Borat…
Sarah Smith:I think the original thought of wanting to do something like this came to me when I was watching a screener of Her, the Spike Jonze movie. And I felt like we had to do that movie for kids, because kids are so immersed in the online world, and they have no filter for whether they’re being sold to or whether anything is truthful and they’re deeply influenced by it and it really affects their self-esteem as well. We wanted to come up with a way of basically having a walking, talking iPad and at the same time, there are all these companies that are trying to exactly make this. The reality is that all the ones that are out there in the market, when you see the adverts, they can’t get up and down stairs. They’re always shown on wooden floors, I notice! And mostly they seem to have a face that’s an iPad that gives you recipes, and it’s not very convincing. But we were kind of able to take the aspiration for what people are trying to make and make it real the idealistic version of what a kid would hope could exist, the iPad that comes out with you and is your friend and knows everything about.
Jean-Philippe Vine: One of the things we really wanted to do was, you love those Apple ads which are so almost aspirational tech worship in their tone and to be able to throw a curveball to the audience, to kick off that way and really sell this gorgeous, really desirable device and then throw it to our main character who really wants the thing, and that gave us a great high place to fall when he finally gets his own, malfunctioning one.
A Design For Life
Smith: The concept of it came pretty whole fairly early on. Somebody did a concept where all of the limbs folded into itself and JP was working to make it have a super-friendly, appealing, cute shape, right? But then, the work was in the details.
Vine: Obviously the functioning B*Bot is all pixels, it’s all screen, so we can make it incredibly slick animation, but with Ron, we wanted all that cool hardware, but all his facial graphics is blocky, it’s like MS-DOS, the most basic software that could possibly run. But for an animation nerd, that’s a gift because we’re using blocky pixels, we could slide his face all over his body, so sometimes when Donka picks him up, his eyeballs appear between his legs, or wheels! It’s a lovely, elegant shape, but it’s an incredibly versatile shape. Sarah and Pete were very strong in the beginning that he’s got to be broken, certainly when we first meet him, so it’s that feeling of janky, barely able to roll in a straight line, which animators love, they love that kind of detail work.
Smith: The thing that every child believes is that they’re the hard done-by kid, the last one to have a phone. For some reason all our children think they’re the last one, why does everyone else have one but me? And then this poor kid, not only is he the last one to get one, but he manages to get the idiot malfunctioning one. The film was written by Pete Baynham with me and one day he said, ‘what if Borat was your little kid cousin who came to live with you in the form of Ron?’ so that was part of the inspiration too!
You’ve Got A Friend In Me
Smith: I think there are two things that we’re trying to deal with. One is how children’s relationships have changed in a world in which they’re trying to put versions of themselves online with profiles and so on, the sense that you need to live up to something and that you’re looking at everyone else’s life and it looks better than yours. So we’re partly trying to deal with the difficulties for relationships in a social media world. And the other thing is bringing it back to something really, really simple, a classic experience of everyone whose kid comes home each day and says, ‘I have no one to play with at recess. I stood on my own and everyone else had friends but me.’ It breaks every parent’s heart, but you remember the feeling yourself and you carry that feeling into adulthood, you go to some party and you feel like everyone else has got their social life down but you, and social media magnifies that, which is what the film is looking at that.
Vine: Another key thing that we tried to express is you see Ron evolve from almost nothing into a distinct personality of his own, through the course of the movie. And what Barney expects is a personality that will complement him and will like what he likes, and Ron evolves differently and we’re really trying to say essentially that a healthy friendship allows for difference and actually celebrates it, and conflict can be done in a healthy way in a good friendship. That’s part of a real messy, healthy friendship. That’s important to us because children are under pressure to find friendship groups that like them, that like what they like and it’s, ‘no, you know what? A rich friendship is really about difference in personality. Different interests but shared trust. Shared affection.’
Zach To The Future
Smith: Zach is not precious and said, ‘just tell me how you want me to do it!’ And he got into the spirit of Ron. Probably one of the best scenes we love in the movie is a scene where we had him and Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Barney and is an amazing actor, we had the two of them together as Ron and Barney and they were bouncing off each other and we were able to keep in all of that lovely improvisational stuff and get that naturalism. But Zach is an absolute delight, he’s hilarious and charming and made Ron such a super character. I think we were lucky to have him.
Vine: He was funny, because it was a process to find that neutral but cheerful voice. And he said, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever had a director ask me to give less emotion as much as you guys did!’
All Hail Olivia Colman
Smith: She’s the most delightful person to work with – somehow, the most talented are always the easiest and most helpful. She was prepared to experiment with going crazy big and over the top, or super real and was prepared to work for us to find the level that we wanted Donka at. She threw herself into the part and would jump and puff and gave so much detail that was brilliant for the animators to work off of.
Vine: We got her dancing in the booth, didn’t we? She just went for it in the big dancing scenes on the table and we couldn’t believe our luck that we’d got her in straight after winning an Oscar and we were getting her to dance around to Bulgarian music.
Smith: But the great thing about Olivia is she is this incredible Oscar winning actress, but she started in comedy and has absolute comic bones and instincts and responds to that beautifully.
Smith: The hat? He’s got a Bulgarian grandmother! She knits it for him and he loves it, he has it for the rest of the movie. That is the wonder of digital production that hat, because it’s the most realistic, chunky knitting I’ve ever seen created out of pixels, it’s a triumph of DNEG’s work and the design team!
Vine: We also gave him a bum bag at one point, because all the other robots carry tonnes of data and he literally has a bum bag with some notes in it. As analog as possible, basically.