Interview with Christoph Rainer| “Requiem for a Robot”

| March 11, 2014

An alcoholic robot with daddy issues roams around NYC in Christoph Rainer’s short film Requiem for a Robot. Made at Columbia University, the film eschews high tech VFX and instead presents us with a Bender-like hunk of junk that seems straight out of a Gondry film.

Watch the film:

REQUIEM FOR A ROBOT from Glaciar Films on Vimeo.

Requiem for a Robot screened as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts. We caught up with Christoph over email to talk about drunk bots and A Silver Mt. Zion.

Hi Christoph. Tell us a little about yourself and your film Requiem for a Robot.

I’m a bearded, 2-meter Austrian, who just loves to make movies more than anything. My short film Requiem for a Robot is an extremely cheap and silly (robot) coming of age film.

Requiem for a Robot

Requiem for a Robot

 

The film has a very evocative sound design. Where in the process, from start to finish, did music and sound design become a driving factor and how did it affect editing decisions?

Most of the music in my film is written by my incredibly talented composer, David Furrer. Only the final track in the film is by the Canadian band A Silver Mt. Zion. For the grand finale of my film, I always had their track in mind and shot it accordingly for this piece of music. In general, sounds and music are extremely inspiring for me and define the films more than its look. I always think that: with imagery, you reach people’s eyes, but with sound you reach their soul!

"Requiem for a Robot"

Requiem for a Robot

Ok, so we have an addicted robot with daddy issues, yet living on daddy’s dime. Failing, or at the very least floundering, family dynamics seem to be a recurring theme for your films. Could you speak on that?

Yes, it actually really bothers me. With each film I intend to make it not about ‘my’ family dynamics again. But as soon as the film is finished and I see it for the first time through the eyes of an audience member, I always realize it is much more about my own family than anything else. I hope I will get over this at some point.

Tell us about this robot. The costume’s crudity is key to the film’s enjoyment, almost like seeing the strings of a puppet. Yet, even with its monotonous voice, we start to develop an emotional tie to the robot. Can you talk a little about this?

Since I did not have any budget for the film, I knew that I had to make the look of the robot a virtue out of necessity. So my producer, Max Haslberger, and I just recycled cardboard boxes, old plastic cups and delivery plates with silver spray. But we also borrowed two big, old lenses from a friend, because we knew that the eyes will be the key to connect and feel with the robot. People often say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. We wanted this to be true for our robot as well. And in the case he doesn’t have one, we wanted to see the lack of it in his eyes.

 

"Requiem for a Robot"

Requiem for a Robot

I have to nerd out on this: how did you create the LED mouth?

The LED mouth was actually just a silly T-shirt that we taped inside the cardboard box.

http://www.led-fashion.com/index.php/cat/c1_LED-T-Shirts.html

It was a very simple solution and allowed the great actress inside the robot, Iris K. Shim, to talk freely while the LED shirt was reacting to it.

I’m sure as of 2013, you’re getting this a lot, and I apologize, BUT what did you think of how Spike Jonze’s Her handled the idea of sentience in a modern age? What can tales of self-aware AI tell us about ourselves in the 21st century?

I think Spike Jonze handled that beautifully and created all sorts of interesting reactions from the audience. For me, AI is always such a phenomenal tool to simulate and mirror our own species. Eventually we have to ask ourselves, how do we differ from those artificial creatures? What makes us special? What makes us human? And what does that even mean?

I think this mirroring effect brings up an infinite amount of crucial questions [that] everyone has to face for themselves.

"Requiem for a Robot"

Requiem for a Robot

Your ending requires elements that are well out of your control to occur while filming. How does a student even begin to coordinate such a shot?

The final shot in the film was a pure battle against nature. Or at least that’s how me and my collaborator slash girlfriend at that time, Claudia Wölfl, experienced it. It was just the two of us with two cameras and a bunch of fireworks. It was New Year’s eve, so we had to shoot at exactly midnight to get the most background fireworks on screen. We were running out of time and it was also cold as hell. Furthermore, a harsh snow wind kept blowing the robot away. At one point, me and my girlfriend were already panicking, we just poured gasoline all over the robot without noticing that my girlfriend had a lot of gasoline on herself. The entire undertaking was stupid and reckless – there are really no other words for that. But all of a sudden, when we already had given up, everything just came together and both cameras were capturing the tragic ending of the film. And the best part of it: nobody got hurt! I still can’t believe how it all of a sudden worked out magically. It felt like a miracle. I am eternally and deeply grateful to Claudia!

What training did your film program provide you with to best tell your story and how has it influenced you as an artist? How are you different now?

I had the privilege to do my bachelor degree in directing at the Viennese Filmacademy in Austria, where Michael Haneke tried to teach us something about filmmaking. In retrospect, the Filmacademy seems like an artistic arena for each [student’s] personal quest to find his voice. The main question often seemed to be, who are you as an artist in our world and what concepts do you have to offer? Even though I think this is an extremely important focus, I realized that this approach often ended in technically and conceptually well executed films which had little to no emotional impact on a broader audience (no need to say that I speak out of my own experience here.

With a Fulbright scholarship, I was able to pursue my master degree at Columbia University in New York. Their film program left the artistic progression more to each student and just made sure that each of us received the full tool kit of filmmaking to perfectly execute our ‘visions’, but also communicate them to an audience. I feel that I’ve learned a lot about how to not only ‘speak’ to an audience, but actually how to be ‘understood’ by them. I think that’s what every human being desperately wants: not only to be heard, but eventually to be understood. Even though the awful truth is that it is never completely possible. All we have left is the profound attempt of trying.

I think the teachers at Columbia have a very good understanding of the basic and efficient tools of audiovisual storytelling. They are eager to pass them on to each student, but even more than that they want to be able to understand, where each student wants to go eventually and share the right tools at the right time with them. I benefitted a lot from the mix of those two film programs!

Filmmaker Christoph Rainer

Filmmaker Christoph Rainer

Any advice for fellow filmmakers?

Just three basic rules:

  • don’t burn your girlfriend!
  • don’t let money ever stop you! (I think my film is a good example: it cost $200 and won $20,000 at the Toronto Film Festival! A huge budget will never make an audience care! Never!)
  • don’t listen to anybody’s smartass advice, especially not mine!

Christoph Rainer is a filmmaker from Austria. Currently, he is attending Columbia University in New York City.

Requiem for a Robot screened as part of Cinequest’s Shorts Program 8: Student Shorts” film showcase on Tue March 11 @ 1:30PM, Wed March 12 @ 9:30 PM and Fri March 14 @ 9:15 PM.
All screenings at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose.

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