Sunday 3 October 2021

Ask Astrid

Digital assistants are no longer the stuff of Star Trek or Tony Stark's lake house laboratory.

Amazon announced Astro, an Alexa-based autonomous home robot, last week. The love child of WALL-E and an iPad is a far cry from my original Omnibot.

Tomy's programmable toy robot was an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Star Wars' R2-D2 during the Atari age. With its built-in cassette deck, remote control and tray, Omnibot hinted at future app-enabled devices such as Astro and Sphero.

Ambient computing is as cool as it sounds and broadly describes smart devices used in everyday life. From wearables to automobiles, there's no escaping this omnipresent technology and privacy threat therein.

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, explores the world of artificial intelligence (AI) and the trials and tribulations of filming during a global pandemic.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Despite months or even years of preparation, filmmaking doesn’t always go as planned. It’s impossible to anticipate every setback. Ask Astrid, a new sci-fi short filmed in Florida, is a case in point.

There I was merrily making movies with my friends, setting up what is known as the ‘martini shot’ – the last setup of the day – when a lady popped her head through a curtain of black velour onto the set and asked what we were doing. I explained and, off the cuff, asked if she wanted to help out?

Her husband barged in and shoved a cell phone in our faces, telling us to remove our COVID-19 masks and give him our names, threatening to call the police. He was right to be shocked – imagine coming home to find an uninvited movie crew in your living room!

I had arranged to film in this cranky man’s office via a management company. I had written permission to use the property, I had met with a representative and I’d visited the location twice during preproduction. But the company had neglected to tell the private owners of the office space.

The red-faced man asked me why we were making a film and that was a deep question for me. The reasons are many: creativity, the social aspect; we do it for fun, to develop our skills and give opportunities to actors.

I called the management company, smoothed things over with the owners and befriended them. My crew packed up its gear and left the office considerably cleaner than we’d found it. Most importantly, we finished the film.

In hindsight, I should have carried the location agreement paperwork in my hand all day in case we were challenged. But how was I to know we’d be interrupted? Every film has its surprises, and this was the shocker reserved for Ask Astrid.

Astrid (voiced by Power Rangers’ Ann Marie Crouch) handles surprises very well. She is an AI device that sits in your home, answers your questions, takes shopping lists from you and tells jokes. Unlike Alexa or Google Home, Astrid has human colleagues collecting your data and hitting you with targeted marketing… OK, maybe Astrid isn’t so different after all.

Ask Astrid is set in the near future where digital assistants have advanced enough to become almost human. Marcy (Megan Caulfield), an office worker, bonds with the machine and teaches it to become even more of a ‘person.’

Gadgets have been a longtime fascination with our generation, as we yearn for the high technology of films like Aliens and Blade Runner but fear the dystopia that could come with them. A machine-driven future looks lonely – Ellen Ripley and Rick Deckard live in solitude, no picket fences or garden parties for them. Ask Astrid explores our risky over-reliance on gizmos but also heralds their great potential; when Marcy and Astrid overhear a crime being committed, they work together in an attempt to save the day.

I was determined to tell this story even though production had ground to a halt in Florida due to COVID-19. In order to complete the film, I trimmed the on-camera cast down to one (Megan) but involved as many actors as possible by asking them to record their voices from home. They played the homeowners and customers that Marcy and Astrid listen in on. That way I could highlight their comedic and dramatic skills while focusing on Marcy and her relationship with Astrid.

With Marcy’s office as our central location, we had to get the look of the film precisely right. Director of Photography Kevin Almodovar lit the office space with blue and green hues, just the right side of future-gloomy. Set designer Brandon Alan Perdue mixed traditional mahogany furniture with future tech cobbled together from laptops, an intercom system and even equipment from an abandoned chicken farm, making the most of our limited resources.

Since hitting the circuit in May, the film has been screened twice at the Pensacon Short Film Festival and was part of the FantaSci Short Film Festival as well. Audiences have been intrigued by Ask Astrid’s concept and the execution. They appreciate the way the movie explores an all-too-plausible future and how humans handle a world where friendship is artificial but still existent. After all, what else are friends – mechanical or otherwise – for, if not to tell each other entertaining stories?

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