Artoo in Love: guerilla filmmaking Cadillac style

Autodesk inaugurates its new robotics lab at Pier 9 with screening of Artoo in Love by Evan Atherton

Autodesk is building a robotics lab at Pier 9 and its first inaugural event was a screening of the movie Artoo in Love by Evan Atherton. The movie is a sweet three-minute short about the love life of an R2D2 robot. First time filmmaker Atherton worked as an intern at Autodesk before he finished up his degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. As he was going through the process, Atherton began to realize he had another love, filmmaking and he began to think he might like to work in special effects.

The cast of Artoo in Love at Pier 9 (Source: JPR)
The cast of Artoo in Love at Pier 9. The robot arm in the background was called on to double as Artoo’s arm as the robot paints a picture of his beloved.  (Source: JPR)

Luckily, Atherton went back to work at Autodesk where if you happen to be a young, determined filmmaker with the right friends, you can make a movie on a very low budget. He’s currently working in the Office of the CTO in Applied Innovation, and, as it turns out Atherton is a Star Wars fan who builds R2D2 robots in his spare time. As he talked to people about his ambitions in filmmaking, Atherton said he was challenged by friends to stop talking and make a movie. The subject of his project was reasonably easy to come up with, an R2D2 robot of course, and as Atherton started playing around with storyboards he came up with his cute little tale of doomed love between an R2 robot and an unfeeling mailbox.

The film preview at the new Pier 9 space went well. Atherton’s friends and co-workers were enthusiastic, but even more promising, the film was accepted by the Sonoma Film Festival and it played to a solid crowd who lined up to see the movie. It’s not every first film that gets such a reception but then not that many first films are shot in 5K with the help of robot arms, drones, and a crew of R2D2 builders. By connecting with his Autodesk network of friends, Atherton was able to snag the help of the professional cinematographers at True Mvmnt including Wesley Walker; VFX help from professionals Landis Fields and Pete Billington; and the helping arm of David Thomasson who helped with programming a talented robot arm for a scene of Artoo painting a picture of his beloved. Through the TrueMvmnt people, Atherton got access to high resolution Red cameras. And of course, there are drones, Autodesk has drones and in fact the head of the robotics lab Maurice Conti acted as drone driver on the shoot.

In the world of hobbyists and makers, there is a solid core of people who have build R2D2s. That was surprising, to me at least, but once you accept that given, it’s not so surprising to find out there are a lot of them in the Bay Area. Obviously, right? R2D2 was born here. Early in his filmmaking adventure Atherton met Grant McKinney who supplied him with his working movie star and introduced him to other builders who helped with the making of the movie. If you need to know, by the way, the largest R2-D2 builders club is Astromech, an international community. The site features photos of other R2s and tips for building your own.

The future of filmmaking

An engineer and sci-fi fan with a future in filmmaking if he wants it, Atherton may not be typical of the young filmmakers who have been struggling to make their movie, but he is a harbinger of young filmmakers to come. Maybe there haven’t been a lot of filmmakers who have gotten to make their first film in 5K using new Red cameras and programmable robot arms and drones, but he represents a new generation of filmmaker who will have access to the tools of filmmaking that are cheaper and more powerful than tools used by professional filmmakers a generation ago. Atherton also had access to content creation software like Maya and he works with Fusion designing his robot pals and for the odd job on set. The cost for tools like this is declining, even for people who don’t also work for Autodesk.

Digital filmmaking is here and it is solidly accepted. When Atherton’s friends told him to go out and make a movie, he could, and he made a fine movie.