Monday, November 21, 2011

Introducing "J, Robot" - Japanese Culture Meets Humanoid Robots

HRP-3 android
Traversing the interwebs can take one on rather unexpected journeys, and it is on one of these digital travels that Red Dot Diva got to know San Francisco-based videographer/ producer Michael Garrigues.

For one thing, the project that he has been working on was a rather unique documentary on Japanese humanoid robots. It was an interesting visual trip behind the scenes about robotics that promptly reminded Red Dot Diva of "Transformers" and "Astro Boy" and the various sci-fi stories and movies, like the classic "Blade Runner" and well-loved "Short Circuit" to the more recent "Artificial Intelligence". Oh, and which scifi geek can forget the myriad of robots wandering about in the "Star Wars" universe, and those ominous Cylons or "toasters" from "Battlestar Galactica"?

Michael Garrigues has been in the film business for a long time and is currently the owner of Foglifter Media, a company providing video production services in Northern California. He has produced various environmental education videos, event videos and local television, and has also been involved in screenplays and casting.

Red Dot Diva has caught a couple of previews of Garrigues' documentary, catchily entitled "J, Robot", and was captivated by the engineering and science of the rather human-like robots that the Japanese have created to cope with their rapidly aging society. A problem not unfamiliar to the population right here on Red Dot Island.

After a few years in the making, the documentary is now in its post-production phase and Garrigues has decided to appeal for robot and documentary-lovers to be a backer for this special project through Kickstarter. (Kickstarter - for those who are not familiar with the name - is a platform for crowdfunding focused on creative projects.)

With its segments on the wondrous world of humanoid robots and insights to Japan's love affair with robotic technology - Red Dot Diva thinks that "J, Robot" deserves to be released in as many screenings as possible.

So she invited Michael Garrigues to talk about his work experiences and share his vision concerning "J, Robot".

Michael Garrigues at T-28 ceremony
Red Dot Diva: How did you first get interested in the art of film-making?
Garrigues: I began taking photos seriously when I was about 15, and stayed with it for some time. But I became more of a writer at University, writing plays and screenplays. I did study film and made some short films for school and helped others on their projects as well. In the 90's, I moved to New York and did script reading and story editing for a couple of independent production companies.

Red Dot Diva: And for those who are not familiar with you yet, share with us some of the interesting projects (other than "J, Robot") that you've participated in so far?
Garrigues: I came back to San Francisco and directed some plays written by others before I wrote and directed my own play "Waiting for the Inkie" - a cyber-family satire set in the near future where women have neither the time nor inclination to give live birth. A local newspaper reviewer called it "a darkly comedic look at humanity."

I also wrote and directed a short film "Shop Talk." I hired a singer and produced a George Gershwin song for the film, but I couldn't get synch rights to it to show publicly. So it didn't get festival play because of the copyright issues.

My first professional writing job was a multi-media script for a project called "Himalayan Journey." It was really fun as I wrote the storylines for multiple characters and came up with puzzle ideas. It was nominated for the Mobius award for Best Interactive Title. I also was a copywriter for Silicon Valley tech companies for a couple of years.

Red Dot Diva: How did the inspiration to begin the "J, Robot" documentary come about?
Garrigues: I went to Japan for a vacation and thought it was a cool and crazy place and wanted to come back to learn more about the country and its people. I decided that a great way to get into more depth on the place was to do a documentary.

Red Dot Diva: Have you always been interested in Japanese culture *and* robots?
Garrigues: One of my best friends in elementary school was Sansei Japanese (third generation). I think spending a lot of time with his family somehow influenced me very positively towards the Japanese culture. And I've always loved the food!

Red Dot Diva: What was the strangest experience you had on set (with the robots) while doing this film?
Garrigues: A few things. Shooting a life-size humanoid robot dancing to a traditional Japanese folk song in the Humanoid Robotics Group lab led by Dr. Kajita. Also, the head of a robotics lab got upset at me for only asking questions about humanoid robots (of which they've made plenty). He was mad that I wasn't interested in his robotic networks and other non-humanoid research. Needless to say, our interview with him was short.

The last thing I would share is recalling sitting on the floor of the NTT Docomo Lab of Shoji-san, framing up a shot of the Utsushiomi green-screen robot. I had this giddy moment of "Wow, I can't believe I was at my computer in San Francisco six weeks ago when I saw first saw a photo of this thing, and here I am shooting his furry green feet in Japan." I almost laughed out loud.

Red Dot Diva: What key things have you learnt about robots ever since you got involved in this documentary?
Garrigues: Humanoid robots aren't ready for prime time. It will be decades before humanoid robots will be sophisticated enough to move safely amongst humans. However, other robotic technologies are developing quickly, like networked robotic systems that would be the foundation for a Smart House. You know, where you get out of bed and say "Make my coffee" and it appears on the counter. Or if it's a cold winter day and you say "Start my car and turn on the heater" as you're heading to the garage drinking your freshly brewed-by-a-robot coffee.

"Red Cliff"/ "Sangukushi " girls at the T28 opening ceremony

Red Dot Diva: It has taken awhile to get the documentary into this stage of post-production. What were the main cause of the delays?
Garrigues: Funding and language. I lost a steady income as a live video-streaming site producer, and didn't have the money to get back to Japan for more interviews right away. And when I finally got the interviews, I would need to translate them and then have someone else work with me to cut out the quotes that I wanted. That was a long and tedious process as initially, I was relying on volunteer help who would graciously fit translations into their busy schedules. I also had to wait two years until the T-28 statue in Kobe was finished to shoot the opening ceremony.

Red Dot Diva: For folks who are interested to know how to get funding for their film projects, what kind of advice can you offer to them?
Garrigues: Have plenty of credit, and don't lose your steady job! But really, if I had this to do all over again, I would pick a topic in my own language and in my own country for my first film. Most people probably already have the common sense to do that. I didn't. Although I now have a first documentary that was fun and that's rather unique and I'm glad to have done it.

Also, don't worry about making money on your first project. Just finish it. I'm going to use "J, Robot" as a portfolio piece to hopefully get funding for my next project.

Red Dot Diva: What do you hope viewers of this film will take away with them?
Garrigues: I hope that viewers of "J, Robot" will begin to get an understanding of the cultural reasons and historical pressures that create the conditions for advanced humanoid robot development in Japan. Plus, I hope they are entertained while being educated. If they are intrigued they can dig deeper on the topic.

Red Dot Diva: Do you have a favourite "robot" TV show/ movie that you find particularly enjoyable? And why?
Garrigues: As a little kid I really liked the Japanese show "Tobor the Eighth Man". He was a crime fighting cyborg. I remember loving the show opening where he ties a giant dinosaur up with its own tail. I also loved the original "Robo-Cop" film by Paul Verhoeven, supposedly inspired by Tobor.

Red Dot Diva: Tell us more about how and when you hope to get this documentary out for the audience to enjoy.
Garrigues: As soon as I have the clearances from lawyers, I'll begin to submit to festivals - probably at the end of this month. But I will most likely self distribute on-line for DVD purchase and digital downloads. It looks like my European premiere will be at a Robot Arts festival in Prague this winter.

And Red Dot Diva hopes it doesn't just stop there. She would also like to see "J, Robot" swivel its way here for a local-based film festival or screening too!


To contribute to the "J, Robot" Kickstarter project, click to this page! Check out the video trailer there for a preview!

Also, do follow the "J, Robot" Facebook page for more updates!

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