Building a robot is a feat of engineering and science. Building one who captures the hearts of audiences and sells the central relationship of a film? Now that's movie magic.
This was the challenge facing the team behind Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Netflix's new holiday musical from writer-director David E. Talbert (Almost Christmas). In the film, out now, toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker) is struggling to overcome his grief when his granddaughter Journey (newcomer Madalen Mills) comes to visit him. When she discovers abandoned toy robot Buddy 3000 in his workshop, she realizes that finishing this long-discarded invention might be the key to breathing life into his once renowned toy shop and repairing familial bonds long broken with his daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose).
Buddy 3000 — named after one of Talbert's favorite musicians, Outkast's Andre 3000 — is a timeless and irresistible holiday toy. With a steampunk-inspired design and big expressive eyes, he has something magical about him, with his ability to fly and talk. When Talbert first conceived of the robot, he wanted to bring to life something that captured the spirit of the robots and creatures he'd fallen in love with as a kid.
"I grew up with R2-D2 and Short Circuit, and the Lost in Space robot, [Robby], and then most recently, I fell in love with WALL-E," Talbert tells EW. "And he's not a robot, but I loved E.T. I love his eyes. I love how childlike E.T. is, so I wanted to throw all of those into like a gumbo, into a pot, and then mix them all together. That's what Buddy 3000 is."
Talbert drew from his favorite films in creating the friendly toy, but he also looked closer to home and his biggest inspiration: his 7-year-old son, Elias. Only 4 at the time Talbert was gearing up for production, Elias made an indelible impact on Buddy. "I asked him, 'What do you think he should look like,?' And he started drawing this stuff," Talbert recounts. "When he sees it he's like, 'I did that. I drew Buddy.'"
Elias David Talbert/courtesy David E. Talbert
The final design of the robot ended up paying special tribute to Elias and another very important person in Talbert's life: his great grandmother. "I had the words Elias 260 put around both of his eyes," Talbert explains. "Elias is my son's name. And 260 is the address of my great grandmother. It's a full circle moment. The most magical in my life was my great grandmother. She treated me like there was always pixie dust floating on me. The most magical now in my life is my son Elias. This robot is about me coming full circle with my childhood now to my son's childhood."
With these most pure-hearted of roots, Buddy 3000 was on his way -- but now Talbert and his crew, including the props team and the visual effects department, had to work out just what defined Buddy, from how he moved to how he expressed himself.
By the time Eric Guaglione, the VFX/Animation Supervisor, came aboard, Buddy's core design was already locked in. But that still left a lot of questions. "It was getting to know Buddy and trying to figure out exactly what his role was, what his age was, how he should move," Guaglione notes. "Was he meant to be a little bit freaky as a robot, or was he meant to be really adorable? There were a lot of questions up front."
At first, Guaglione and his team experimented with the notion that Buddy was a toddler. His team took videos of their own kids at home, using them as reference to hone in on the childlike essence. But Talbert felt the earliest renderings veered too young and clumsy.
"It dawned on me that Buddy was the brainchild of Jessica when she was a little girl, that she wanted to have a playmate," Guaglione says. "In some ways, it's more like a kid that mimics you. Like when you're really little and you play and you kind of imitate each other."
Still, how do you make a hunk of metal cute? "In animation, we often talk about the word appeal," adds Guaglione. "In the case of Buddy, what we were aiming for was something that embodied the childlike essence, the innocence in all of us. As an adult, we look at that and find our inner child. It warms us up to him instantly. It's that sense of innocence, that sense of curiosity and discovery like, 'Hey, do you want to come play with me?'"
Buddy's design is also heavily steeped in the film's Victorian steampunk aesthetic. He looks weighty and is made of heavy-duty metal with rivets. There was a physical prop version of Buddy on set for the actors to hold and move, as well as what Rose refers to as a "Buddy double" to help with eye placement. Animators turned to that physical version of Buddy for guidance, which led to a give and take between the two versions.
"He does have a very robust construction, so we wanted to make sure that we implied that weight in the way that we animated him. When we moves around, he's quite sturdy," says Guaglione. "We had to make sure that we couldn't deviate too much from what was on set. That being said, a prop-maker doesn't necessarily think [about] how does he sit down? Or how does he move his legs? Or can he scratch the top of his head? It never occurs to anybody to think of that. In some cases, they had to make some very small modifications just to ensure that we could have him perform and not be hindered by the way he was made."
What really makes Buddy tick is his core, the final piece that Journey and Jeronicus must make work, to get Buddy up and running. It fits into his chest, a metaphor for the broken parts of Jeronicus' heart, and a glass panel gives audiences a glimpse into all of Buddy's machinery, as well as emanating a glowing light when he's operating.
"I wanted to show the brilliance of Jeronicus Jangle and the intricacies [of his work]," says Talbert. "In the script, I wrote that the center has a million gears within gears turning simultaneously independent of each other. And when I wrote that line, it seemed a really a poetic line, but how do you bring that to life?"
It was Guaglione who devised the solution, after getting his watch repaired. "He said, 'My watch broke the other day, and I took it in, and they opened it up,'" Talbert recounts. "'There were these amazing gears that were in there. They were all moving independently and seemingly simultaneously.' He said, 'What if we mimicked the look of the inside of a watch?'"
That left the challenge of animating the heart of Buddy, in which Guaglione says they took care to include an "infinite" amount of detail to mirror the intricacies of the physical prop. "There was a lot of discussion about how does it wind up? How fast does it go?" he says. "They explored a lot of different ideas about how the light ramps up and what color it would be. Would it change color depending on his mood like a mood ring? They tried a lot of different things, but in the end, simplicity was key. It was just trying to have something that felt lovable and warm."
They say the key to a person's soul is their eyes, and that rang true for Buddy too. Particularly because he doesn't have a mouth. Initially, Buddy's design included a mouth, but after showing early animation renderings to his son, Talbert scratched it because it made the robot more creepy than cute. "We showed a little animation of a mouth moving and he was afraid," Talbert recounts. "He got scared."
The absence of a mouth meant that body language and his eyes were the only ways Buddy could communicate nuanced emotion, creating an added challenge. Buddy's eyes mirror the parts of a camera with aperture rings and shutters creating the effect of eyelids, an iris, and pupil. They leaned heavily into crafting performance detail through Buddy's eyes and small movements in his body. "What was probably the hardest part of all was there was no way to indicate like a subtle smile or [anything like that]. We as humans are accustomed to seeing these little micro-expressions we make. We couldn't necessarily distort or bend the metal," explains Guaglione. "If you couldn't see that he was smiling, or that he was happy, then you would have to see something in his body movement like a little happy shudder or something."
Talbert and the production team went back on forth on whether Buddy would even have dialogue, struggling to figure out what he would sound like and how he processed speech. Eventually, they settled on the final version where Buddy seems to partially play back words and sentences he's already heard. That still left the question of what he should sound like.
"We had all these voice actors coming in to voice Buddy," notes Talbert. "[We had to figure out] what does he sound like? Does he sound like gibberish? Like RD-D2 and someone has to decode it? Or is he slow and deliberate like Wall-E and E.T.?"
The answer, as these things so often do, came in a bit of serendipity. Tobias Poppe, one of the film's sound designers and editors, made a scratch track for Buddy using his own voice. "He said, 'Oh, I was just playing around, it was just something for you to listen to,' and I was like, 'Wait a second. That's not playing around. That is IT.' And he became the voice of Buddy."
All of these factors came together to create the one-of-a-kind Buddy 3000. Though he might not stay that way for long — considering he is a toy Jeronicus specifically invents for the holidays. Talbert reveals there are plans to make toy versions of Buddy, alongside potential stage adaptations and screen spin-offs. "I am gearing up for a Broadway run for Jingle Jangle, so that's when we will introduce the Buddy 3000 toys," he teases. "We're thinking, if this one does well, of spinning off Jingle Jangle into other versions, so Buddy 3000 is definitely going to have to be a toy by next Christmas."
One that could melt even the coldest of metal hearts.
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