Pablo Berger never imagined he'd make an animated film — but then he read Robot Dreams.

In his native Spain, the filmmaker is known for live-action features like 2012's Blancanieves and 2017's Abracadabra. But when he picked up a copy of Sara Varon's 2007 graphic novel, about the friendship between an anthropomorphic dog and his robot companion, Berger was so taken with it that he knew he needed to turn it into a movie. After receiving Varon's blessing, he set out to make his first animated movie.

"Because the only way to do it was with animation," Berger says. For his screen adaptation, the writer-director set the story in a 1980s New York populated by other anthropomorphized animals. Dog, lonely and looking for connection, orders a robot friend from a late-night infomercial. The two quickly become inseparable, until a trip to the beach suddenly separates them. And so, Dog and Robot attempt to find their way back to one another, in a film that is both heartbreaking and healing.

Robot Dreams premiered more than a year ago at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, before receiving a Best Animated Feature Film nomination at this year's 96th Oscars. In the interim months, the film played in theaters in international territories; now, it is finally arriving Stateside. Looking back, a grateful Berger tells A.frame, "It's been a rollercoaster ride."

A.frame: It's been a long road to get here. When you reflect back on this entire Robot Dreams experience, where does your mind go first?

Just a big smile. Memory is selective, thank god, so it stays with the positive about this experience — and there's been so many positive things. It was five years of hard work. It all started in 2018, when I met Sara Varon in New York. We met for coffee and I said, "Sara, I want to adapt your graphic novel and make a hand-drawn film." Right away, she said yes. She had seen my film Blancanieves, which is also wordless, and she [had] loved it. After that, it was a lot of hard work to finance the film, put the crew together, create an animation studio, and all of the other complexities of a production, but the positive things weigh so much more. I'll definitely make another animation film sometime in the future, because I enjoyed a lot of the medium.

Your previous work is all live action. Did you know you wanted to make an animated film at some point, or was it not until you came across Sara's graphic novel?

I never, not even once in my life, thought that I was going to make an animated film. I love animation. I consume animation. And some of my favorite films of the last 20 years are animated. It was only that I found Sara Varon's graphic novel, and that book moved me so much, especially the ending and the themes that it deals with: Friendship, the fragility of relationships, how memory helps to overcome loss. That's the only reason I made an animated film. I like challenges. I like risks, so I have producers that push me to go further, and I knew they were not going to be scared to do an animated film.

I feel like the more common transition is from animation to live action. You went the opposite direction. What was it like learning a new medium? Was there any trepidation about stepping into that world?

There was so much to learn. I don't know how many making-ofs animation films and extras on Blu-rays that I watched, and I read so many books! I had to learn very fast; I had to learn Animation for Dummies! In live action, a director is as good as his crew, and I got a great art director, a great animation director, and I worked with some of the crew that I work with in live action, like my composer Alfonso de Vilallonga, my sound designer Fabiola Ordoyo, and my editor Fernando Franco. So, it was a combination of both worlds. But I realized that it didn't matter if I am talking with a director of photography or an art director, I talk the same way. A director has to know what he wants, how he wants to visualize the scene, how he wants the film has to look, and he has to be able to communicate ideas. If there's one big difference, it's that in live action you work with actors, and in animation you work with animators. But in the end, the animators become the actors in your film. And my goal is the same: get good performances. My obsession was to get good performances with animated characters.


Knowing that not everything is adaptable from one medium to another, what did you see in Sara's novel that felt translatable and could hopefully make for a great film?

The graphic novel is simple, but not simplistic. It was one artist working for one year, and it has such a heart, such a soul. I like to use music metaphors, and it's a beautiful melody. For me, as a live action director — and now an animation director — I feel like I'm a jazz musician. So, I get this stanza, this melody, and I keep the melody when I want to, but then I improvise and add characters, scenes, make it more elaborate. In a way, the graphic novel is acoustic, and the film is symphonic. The graphic novel is small, and the movie is bombastic. But the melody, the soul, the themes are the same.

When Sara Varon saw the film for the first time at the Toronto Film Festival, she was in tears at the end. We hugged, and she said, "I love it. You told the same story in such a different way." I think that's the key, that it's the same story but told in a very different way.

Sara's graphic novel does not utilize any dialogue, and you chose to do the same with your movie. Why was that important for you?

Ten years ago, I had made a dialogue-free film, Blancanieves, and it was such a satisfying experience from a creative point of view. I like the idea that cinema is visual storytelling —writing with images. For me, that's pure cinema. So, to do it again was a pleasure. I wanted to repeat the experience of Blancanieves but, at the same time, make something that was completely different. That's where the animation part comes in. I had an animation director inside of me and it had to come out; I had to get out of the closet. And I had the patience, I had the appreciation of the technique to do it.

This is such a sweet and emotionally affecting film, and audiences might not expect that from an animated film about a dog and a robot. What was your approach to making sure that you captured so much heart within this story?

I think Robot Dreams is like a Trojan horse. On the surface, it could look like, "Oh, it's an animated film. They're cartoons." Because there is a prejudice against animation, that it is just for children. So, maybe your guard is down as an audience. And suddenly, little by little, the adult is regressing and becoming a child. And then, when their guard is completely down, it hits them. Because the film is dramatic. There is a lot of emotion involved in it. You thought it was just going to be a fun, light animated film — and it is fun and light — but it's also dramatic and emotional. It talks about real issues that adults confront in life: breakups, loss, these tragic moments that happen and you have to keep moving on.

Pablo Berger poses with his wife and 'Robot Dreams' music editor Yuko Harami.

You talked about how the ending of Sara's graphic novel stuck with you all these years. Without spoiling the ending of your movie, in terms of where and how you conclude Robot Dreams, is there a message you hope to leave the audience with?

I like the idea that the audience completes the film. I don't think the director should spell out the ending. I don't think that the film should be so detailed that everything is so, so clear. I like the idea that the audience puts so much of themselves back into the movie. Hopefully they think about loved ones and maybe some of them identify with Dog, and some of them identify with Robot. More than answers, I think a film should raise questions.

But if you ask me not as a director but as an audience, how do I feel about Robert Dreams? As Pablo Berger, I think it's a film that gives me hope. I think it's a satisfying ending that talks about moving on, about keeping the memories of people that were part of your life, and about how you are who you are because you met them. I think it's important to hold onto the good memories of people that touch you, but you have to move on at the same time. So, in a sense, I see myself as every single character in the film. I've been Dog, I've been Robot, sometimes I've been Rascal, sometimes I've been Duck. And I'm saying the names of characters and people who haven't seen the film are maybe going to say, "What is he talking about?!" But if they watch the film, they will understand what I'm saying. In relationships, sometimes you can be different characters.

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