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Robot Film Festival – 2011

  AWARDS  by Heather Knight

Here at Marilyn Monrobot, we specialize in the technological needs of up-and-coming robot performers and moviestars. They have talent. Sometimes. They have motors and sensors. Always. Little LEDs light up deep inside their casings, updating performance algorithms, when an enthusiastic audience laughs and applauds. Our star is Data the Robot. Sometimes he likes to break up with me on stage.

Riveting, brilliant,


short films!

It is always quite embarrassing, but these past several months, perhaps he has had good reason. Data started questioning his relationship with me, his programmer, because he was getting jealous of all the other robot videos that were flowing into my inbox for the Robot Film Festival. We announced the festival in early April (leaked via Bre Pettis on the Makerbot
blog), and over the next few months received seventy-five short film submissions from a diverse background of creators. Fifty films made it past our jurors, including the headlining film, Im here, by Spike Jonze. The festival took place July 16-17 in NYC at a futuristic venue called Three Legged Dog Art & Technology Center.

The Robot Film Festival brought together filmmakers and artists, engineers and hobbyists, for a two-day celebration of robots on film and in performance. Its pillars of success were the juried short films, live  performances, Botsker cocktail-party festivities, and the chance for participants to make their own
robot film onsite. First and foremost, it was a short-film festival investigating humanitys relationship with machines; all films included a robot as a main character or framing device of film.

The attendees made history (thats what I told them, anyway) for their participation in a narrative-driven analysis of our future.


The 3D-printed statuette depicts Retro, a young and reflective robotic character created by Valerie Schoman. Shawn Sims adapted her illustration into a 3D model and designed the cherry wood base, which was robotically milled with the award name and laser-etched with the title of the winning film.

They were part of an interdisciplinary community, which we will happily encourage to continue creating with each other. Even the team putting it together was a mix of artists and technologists. Magic Future Box, a theater production company that embraces technological innovations serving art, by Suzan Eraslan and Kevin Laibson, co-produced the event with Marilyn Monrobot. Video coordinator Marek Michalowski of BeatBots co-invented the Keepon robot used for research and play. Finally, Science House, which sponsored the Robot Films Workshop, is dedicated to supporting science, investing in both high tech companies and childrens programs in science.

By now, you are hopefully feeling really left out. In fact, lets just take a moment to mark your calendar for next year, July 2012. You back? Dont tell me. You scrawled a few notes on the film you hope to submit too? Excellent, well, lucky for you, all the films screened at the first-ever 2011 festival are available online! The bulk of them are on our Vimeo page (
videos). Dont miss our official opening video by Josh Ventura ( or the Festivals headlining film, Im Here, a robot love story created by Spike Jonze and available for your viewing pleasure (

f you havent seen these yet, immediately organize a screening session with all your best robot friends (okay fine, humans are allowed too). Dont forget the robotsized red carpet!

In creating a Robot Film Festival, we invited participants to leverage the power of entertainment to explore new memes for robotics. We  instructed them to imagine with abandon, unlimited by the constraints of current technological capacities, and leveraging a spirit of competition to explore applications for humans and robots together. One of my favorite films, Chorebot, immediately broke that last rule, exploring the relationship between a dog and his cherished bot.

Once we had the films, and honestly, I wondered where some of the talented people that submitted films had heard of the festival, there were three key ingredients to designing the first-ever Robot Oscars, affectionately dubbed The Botskers. Firstly, we had a varied and illustrious pool of judges, secondly, there was a kick-butt design for the awards (made by robots, naturally), thirdly, the performers integrated humanity and robotity in ways that knocks our socks off! (See photos and sidebar.)

Without further ado, I give you the winning films of the 2011 Robot Film Festival!

Botsker for Visionary Future
Moonrush: Jonathan Minard, Michael Pisano, Ben Saks, Phil Kibbe This category highlights inspiring possibilities for robots in our future. Moonrush fulfilled that vision with real world documentation of a Carnegie Mellon project to bring robots to the Moon as part of the LunarX Prize challenge, describing the motivations and symbolism behind such an effort that move us beyond the 1960s idealism of space exploration into a new age.

Botsker for Ethics & Impact
Chorebot: Greg Omelchuck, MoontowerVFX Winning films in this category catalyze a creative analysis of humanitys relationship with machines. With beautifully rendered visuals and a combination of real footage and CGI, Chorebot explored a unique vision of a dedicated house robot. The futuristic but believable rendition of the relationship between a dog and the Chorebot included uncomfortable reflections on our current relationships with technology, the main human character ignoring everything but his touchscreen.

Botsker for Best Story
Out In the Street: Mark Simpson, Nick Paroz, Sixty40, Superfad This category rewards films with entertaining and intriguing storylines, particularly those exploring original memes for Robotics. Set in the streets of South Africa, Out in the Street raises questions about identity and rising intelligence as malfunctioning robots begin committing suicide to avoid the  depersonalizing process of repair or replacement, achieving rapture. The realism of the shots cut between television news footage, street documentation and the eyeviews of the robots themselves.

Bostker for Most Uncanny
Saturn: 1stAveMachine Taking departure from the simplistic label of creepy evoked by the Uncanny Valley, we dedicated this category to films that provoke discord. The uncanny refers to something we recognize but that is strange; an object or being that creates cognitive dissonance due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed simultaneously. The film Saturn displays the transformation of beautiful woman into a  cyborg machine. This woman represents the future we are afraid of, but may not be able to live without.

Botsker for Scientifically Hardcore
Bio-inspired Flying Robots: Sabine Hauert This category celebrates both the artistry of filmmaking and the presentation of scientific innovation. The film Bio-inspired Flying Robots interweaves clips from nature with an engaging and understandable  presentation of their labs extensive innovations in flying machines inspired by exotic insects and everyday birds.

Botsker for Most Creative
Me and My Robots: Jay Kila, Ben Jacob Mack This category was all about special sauce, something extra to capture our imaginations and make us smile. Me and My Robots is playful rap song depicting the main human gangster and his two robot friends. It captured the spirit of the festival: playful, unexpected and depicting positive relationships with machines. It was not a high-budget production, shot entirely on a Flipcam (the camera we used in the Make Your Own Robot Film workshop also), but it was high in energy and had good verse, as his robots would say. 

Botsker for Best Picture
The Machine: Rob Shaw, Bent Image Labs Meticulously crafted, The Machine blew judges away  in artistry and construction. Though a surprise winner in that the main storyline involves a robot that takes over his windup world, it presents a powerful parable for human societys relationship with our planet. Being bigger, faster, and stronger has the ring of an Aesops fable: after  discovering the hollowness of conquering a now-desolate landscape, the robot recreates man,  re-beginning the cycle and leaving viewers unclear whether it will be a repeat or redemption.

Bostker Best Robot Actor
Absolut Quartet: Jeff Lieberman, Dan Paluska, Noah David Smith, Willie Mack This  was one of our most important categories, as it has no analog in the traditional world  of filmmaking. Rather than just celebrating traditionally human acting traits of deep  character or successful re-creation of a
role, we asked ourselves to identify a robotic performer possessed of machine charisma. Engaging its delicate, intricate and graceful room-size attributes, Absolut Quartet  made for a unique and powerful winner. It leaves the impression of dancing as only a machine can with metal, plastic, and springs.

Botsker for Best Human as Robot
Waiting For Name Assignment:
Alvaro Galvan, Carmen Simon Rubio Here we sought a film with a human playing a leading robot role in an outstanding fashion. Opening with an iconic scan of a heart-shaped barcode tattoo, Waiting For Name Assignment presents the struggles of a robot that briefly discovers the joy of caring and being cared for, highlighting the struggle between created and creator. With great tenacity and performance, we see a human with no props playing a machine decidedly mechanical, but sympathetic. What do we owe technology if humanity becomes its God? What does it mean to be human? Can a machine fall in love? This film raises those questions and more.

Audience Award
Operation DaVinci: Kelleher Guerin, Carol Reiley, Tom Tarantillo The audience tweeted  its three favorite films to @robotfilmfest, and after the tally, Science House awarded a Lego Mindstorm robot kit to the Johns Hopkins University creators of Operation DaVinci, an adorable film in which two friends decide to use a DaVinci surgical robot to play the childhood game Operation.

As a social robotics researcher myself, I know engineers take great inspiration from science  fiction storytelling to motivate the creation of new technologies. Not only do these narratives  make us excited about being engineers and building robots (e.g. Short Circuit, Back to the  Future, Terminator), but they can inspire the direction of our innovations by changing our ability to imagine contexts (Avatar, Wall-E, Astroboy) and form factors of technology (Star Trek,  Minority Report).

The first annual Robot Film Festival was an astounding success. There are fabulous original films, it has generated great interest in the larger community and, most of all, the attendees   had a blast. We look forward to continuing to expand perspectives on robotics with your help. Several cities have already invited traveling  screenings, so if you would be interested in hearing news about that or the final dates for next year, be sure to keep tabs on or follow us on twitter: @robotfilmfest.

Well my robot savvy friends, thanks for reading. Thats a wrap.

2011 Film Festival (watch the movies!),
Festival Opening,  Im Here (robot love story),

Words by Heather Knight