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Your Shot

Your Shot: The Striking Short Film That Highlights the Flaws of Robot Caregivers

LBB Editorial, 7 months, 2 weeks ago

CLM BBDO and director David Wilson on telling both sides of the story of a woman’s relationship with BEN, a ‘robot companion’

Your Shot: The Striking Short Film That Highlights the Flaws of Robot Caregivers

In the age of everlasting connection and technology, you’d be forgiven for thinking that humans were less lonely than ever. But in reality, loneliness is on the rise. In France it affects 5 million individuals - that’s one in every eight people. To target the problem, robot companions are being introduced to people’s lives, helping them in their day-to-day routine, and generally trying to keep them company. But as with most technology, robot companions have their shortcomings. Yes, they can assist with structured, everyday tasks. But robots can’t - yet - replace human interaction.

CLM BBDO set out to highlight that for French charity the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (SSVP) in this remarkable short film, entitled ‘BEN’ (Bionically Engineered Nursing). It’s directed by David Wilson, who had a poignant connection to the subject matter at hand.

LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with him and CLM BBDO creatives Emile Martin and Charles Dessaux to find out more.


LBB> David, why was this job something that appealed to you? 

DW> I don’t connect to a project because of a brand, or prestige. I connect to a project because of the possibilities of the script. However, what most appealed to me about this script was that it came in at a time in my life when I was very lonely. I had just moved back to London from Los Angeles. I had gone from living in a shared house, and being in a relationship, to living by myself as a single person. There’s a lot of coping mechanisms I had to learn quickly in order to live by myself successfully. It meant that I could relate to the need for a companion (robot or otherwise). My ability to explore that mindset when developing this script was very therapeutic for me.


LBB> And why was David Wilson the right director to bring this idea to life? 

EM&CD> Probably because he wasn't! We mainly knew David through his – awesome – work on music videos, not short films. That’s what excited us. We couldn’t wait to see how he would bring his touch to the project. I remember the first thing we told him when he picked up the brief: “We love your work, but we have no idea how it can fit our project. And that’s perfect!”. A few days later he sent us a note that got everyone on board.

David is the kind of director you want to pitch on all your campaigns, you know he’ll surprise you. His work is all about sensitivity and subtlety, he’s got this ability to master and challenge a project without denaturing its original concept. It was an intense and amazing collaboration, where we tried to give him maximum freedom.


LBB> What did the research process involve for this film? What were the most surprising facts you discovered? 

DW> The research process involved a lot of self-exploration as well as a lot of reading. The majority of the reading involved learning about the development of carer robots in Japan. It was fascinating to read how they had improved elderly people’s quality of life. I wanted to understand all of the benefits. The last thing I wanted to create was a one-sided film. If nursing robots are currently being used, why? And how are they successful?

I learnt how they can aid the elderly, physically and emotionally, really well. However, it became clear that this was always in addition to human companionship, and that’s where I found the key to the film.


EM&CD> We did a study about the relative relationships of French and Japanese people to technology. It was conducted online during the summer of 2016, with a sample of 650 people.

What we discovered is that the French and Japanese are not so different in their relationship with technology. Of course Japanese are more mature. For example, when we asked “Do you think that a robot can help a person take care of their daily chores?” 88% of Japanese thought so, compared with 59.9% of French people. But, they all agreed (62% all together) that a robot couldn’t help prevent loneliness in a human being.


LBB> Why is the rate of loneliness going up? 

EM&CD> There are several explanations we can observe: a lot of people suffering from loneliness are over 70 (in France, between 16% and 25% of elderly people feel lonely). Most of them have lost their partner or have children living far away and suffer a loss of autonomy. Next to that, multiple studies demonstrate that technology is actually a strong factor of isolation.

Loneliness keeps growing and now affects 1 in 8 people in France. We have never been as connected and as lonely at the same time.


LBB> At the end of the film, it’s said that companion robots like B.E.N. are actually being introduced in real life. Can you tell us a bit about them and how they work? 

EM&CD> Companion robots are a big thing right now. Nao, Asimo, Pepper, Romeo and Co have been widely introduced and tested in various countries. Designed and programmed to fit our daily lives, their artificial intelligence aims to identify and reproduce human emotions - as much as it can.

Nowadays, robots relentlessly make the headlines. During the week we launched the campaign, Toyota introduced its own companion robot called Kirobo, Karl Lagerfeld put robots on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week and Japan floated the idea of a Robotic Olympic Games for 2020.


LBB> Given the two different sides to the robot and the film, the design of B.E.N. must have been particularly important. Who did you work with on the design? What did the design process entail? 

DW> I worked with Mathieu Haas on the original concept, but then most closely with Bruno Villedieux as the robot went into fabrication. The two key components that I wanted to communicate with the robot’s design were compassion and strength. I wanted to create a robot that was ‘huggable’ with soft fabric and a friendly face, but also have a strength and stability of being able to lift someone out of bed. 


EM&CD> B.E.N.’s design was obvious and incredibly complex at the same time. We needed a realistic robot that the audience would accept at first sight but that was also ambivalent enough so the audience could move from a positive to a negative view of him as the story goes on. He had to be able to look emphatic and reassuring, as well as cumbersome and awkward depending on the situation. The intention was pretty clear, but there were infinite ways to realise it.

David Wilson came with the inspiration of Disney’s Big Hero 6. A robust but comfy, friendly creature, mixed with current companion robots’ looks and features. We gave him a human size though, for scenario purposes (imagine Claudine dancing with Nao, 23 inches tall).


LBB> What inspired you to tell the story in that way? To show the positives at first before following on with the robot’s shortcomings?

EM&CD> Because it is the way we consume technology today. It’s fascinating, sexy, promising… and as soon as we get how it actually works, we spend time trying to trick it and disclose its limits (remember Siri?).

But technology and artificial intelligence get better and better at imitating us, sometimes able to make us neglect the value of human interactions. Spike Jonze outlines it perfectly with Her. We (most of us?) know from the beginning that something is wrong about this man-machine relationship. But we all get charmed at some point (yeah, Scarlett’s voice helps a little bit), before the story flips and reveals the absurdity of the situation. We wanted the audience to experience this emotional rollercoaster with subtlety.

Despite B.E.N.’s shortcomings though, the campaign doesn’t aim at trashing technology. It invites the audience to step back a little bit and take the time to question if progress – as fascinating as it can be – is legitimate in every situation, especially when it’s purely social, such as loneliness.


LBB> David, how did you bring B.E.N. to life? 

DW> Through the incredible work of Bruno Villedieux, the fabricator. Bruno worked tirelessly for two months creating B.E.N. by hand. We cast Anne Eyer in the roll of B.E.N. three months before the shoot, allowing Bruno the ability to craft the robot around Anne’s figure. Every component had to finely balance a sturdiness, without being too heavy, and allow enough flexibility for Anne to move inside. It was incredibly difficult. All of B.E.N.’s movements had to be communicated in advance of fabrication. Creating B.E.N. physically meant that we had to lock down all of B.E.N’s actions months in advance of the shoot. If we then needed to deviate from this brief… tough! We were blessed to work with an extremely cooperative client and agency to allow us to work in such a disciplined way.


LBB> The whole spot is very mellow - there is no big crescendo moment when the action of B.E.N. turns, instead it’s much more understated. From a directorial point of view, why was this the right approach for this film?

DW> The flaw of the robot is emotional. Why would a carer robot with a technical flaw (a malfunction for example) be in mass production? And why would it be an issue? After all, these things are fixable. It became very clear that if this film were to be successful we needed to communicate how fantastic the robot seems at face value… how, if the family of the older lady (Claudine) were to visit, they would love B.E.N. and see him as a fantastic asset to Claudine’s life, and that there was no problem.

The people that are at the most vulnerable are those that don’t speak up. The big crescendo is Claudine saying that she "just needed a moment” that morning. The inability for the robot to see this being Claudine’s cry for help is the crux of the piece. Only humans can really connect to the subtlety of a vulnerable person. I strongly felt that the most powerful way to communicate concern for Claudine would be to show that her inability to ask for help could last indefinitely. She would suffer in silence when, to the outside world, it would seem like everything was great.


LBB> What were your aims with the overall aesthetic of the spot? 

DW> The aesthetic was a very fine balance. Myself and the agency had a very clear vision of Claudine’s life and surroundings. The house was to reflect Claudine’s history but not over power the viewer’s connection to her present state. The cinematography needed to complement the pacing of the film, and therefore having the aesthetic of a feature (Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was a big reference for us). I felt this was vital to trigger the viewer into understanding the slower pacing immediately.


LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them? 

DW> The trickiest component for me was the time it took to create this project. It’s very rare for a project to take so long to complete, and continuing an engagement and a passion for a project when it entered into its 10th month of being in my head was hard. The project moved slowly, but at no point did I care to drop the ball (and neither did the agency). Keeping with this project right till the end was a bit of an endurance for a five-minute piece of content, but I’m so glad we got there.


LBB> What is SSVP’s stance on companion robots like this? Do they see any use in them now or in the future? 

EM&CD> SSVP doesn't stand against technology but stands for humanity. It has always believed in recruiting volunteers to fight loneliness. Speaking up about the rise of companion robots was the occasion to share SSVP’s point of view from a new perspective, to challenge public opinion and generate engagement.

There's no doubt that technology is great in many ways, even against loneliness (Skype, WhatsApp...). But as always, it’s a matter of balance. Can (should) companion robots replace the emotional link between a human and another? Technology and humans rarely creates debate. Technology in place of humans is another question.


LBB> How has working on this campaign affected you personally? 

DW> The most personal response came from my Grandmother who cares for my 90-year-old Grandfather. She wrote a very simple email saying how much she enjoyed the film, but also ended the communication with “we could do with a B.E.N.” 

This was very powerful for me to hear this. The reality of having assistance and help is so vital for so many people, and I’m really proud that this film doesn’t dismiss how B.E.N. can enhance a life… it just can’t replace human compassion.


EM&CD> We knew that SSVP was an effective association all over the world. With this campaign, we are simply, humbly sharing a point of view, opening a conversation and, most importantly, bringing a part of the solution: recruiting volunteers. If the message hits home, it can make a serious difference in some people’s lives. Pretty motivating.


LBB> What has reaction been like to it in France? 

EM&CD> We are more than happy to see that people rarely just watch the film, they actually react to its message. On social media, users aren’t just commenting on the video, they’re debating together, proving how much this topic is engaging and current. Most agree, others disagree. And that’s exactly what we were looking for: creating an opportunity to challenge public opinion on how technology affects our lives today.


LBB> Any parting thoughts? 

DW> I’m happy to say I’m not feeling lonely any more!


EM&CD> This interview was written by a robot.


Emile Martin & Charles Dessaux are Copywriter and Art Director at CLM BBDO

Genre: Digital , People , Strategy/Insight