Sci-Fi Shorts: A Boy And His Meddlesome Robot Star In Paraphernalia

Plus a Q&A with the writer/director.

By David Wharton | Updated

There’s one thing you notice after writing for GFR for a while: there is an amazing number of really cool science fiction short films out there. Whether conjured up by experienced pros or determined amateurs, these films have benefitted hugely from advancing tech that allows filmmakers to realize their wild ideas without a feature-film budget. With so much out there, GFR is launching this new recurring feature, Sci-Fi Shorts, to highlight some of the bite-sized science fictional brilliance out there. With each installment, we’ll post a different film, and then include a brief Q&A with the minds behind the films. Today we’ve got a really sweet and charming flick from writer/director John Williams. The Q&A has spoilers, so be sure to watch the film first!

And now, here’s Paraphernalia, the story of a boy and the robot that simply will not leave him alone…

First up, could you tell me what inspired the idea behind Paraphernalia?

The story was inspired by a friend of mine (but not a child) who needed dialysis treatment four hours a day 3-4 times a week. She described the situation with the machine in her life as a sort of ‘love hate relationship’, she hated being so restricted by needing the machine but also appreciated that without such technology, she would not have been alive. This became the story I wanted to tell, but my approach was to not be so literal, so using a child and playing with the idea of personifying the dialysis machine into a robot became an exciting idea to convey the same heart of the story.

Once you were inspired by your friend and you wanted to tell a story sort of based on her life, did you toy around with other approaches before you settled on the boy and the robot? And once you had figured out that story, did anything change significantly between that first inspiration and the final product?

My first visualisation for the story was to make it about a boy and a monster, then I heard Spike Jones was in post production for Where the Wild Things Are so I scrapped that idea. Apart from some minor details the story stayed true to the original concept, I wanted the end of the film to have to have heart and empathy to capture the true story it was based upon.

I thought the idea of having the robot look like a dialysis machine was brilliant, especially because the recognition that looks like something medical is there the whole time, but it doesn’t immediately give away the ending. Did you try any other major designs or was the dialysis machine look there from the start?

I searched for a while to find a suitably ‘retro’ dialysis machine to base the robot design on. The one that features in the end scene where the boy wakes up to see it at the end of his bed is the real thing! (Although it was from the ‘80s and would probably kill anyone who tried to use it now.) Once I had this (and the colour was great also cause all the others i’ve seen are white or gray) the robot design was very much based upon this.

How much of the robot is practical, as opposed to CGI? I’m presuming the times we see him walking are the latter, but were there other moments that were easier to do as CGI?

I made half the physical robot = 2 working arms and the body. In the finished film probably less that 20% has the physical robot in as it was quite cumbersome to move and operate but the textures were really helpful in making the CGI one look authentic. I do a bit of VFX supervising and I always push to get as much real stuff in as possible, I find it helps grounding things in reality and helps deceive the audience like a good magic trick.

There’s always the old adage about “Don’t work with kids or animals.” Was it a challenge to direct Elijah, given that he spends the whole movie interacting with essentially a prop or a CGI character that isn’t there?

Working with Elijah was fantastic. He’d never acted before but I could see he had something very natural so we meet up for a few workshops and helped him get used to the character and the concept of speaking to something that’s not there, in fact, due to kids imaginations doing this may be more natural to them than adults. Like any kid his age he had a load of energy on set but as soon as we called ‘Action’ he became super professional which was actually very inspiring.

Between Paraphernalia and your feature project, Here on Earth, you seem to like telling science fiction stories. What appeals to you about the genre?

I have a couple of bigger projects that seem to fit into a science fiction theme but as much as I love the genre, the stories I love to tell are often drama in disguise. I discovered from a young age that animation and genre is like wrapping paper, it looks great and draws people in but what is inside needs to be even more fulfilling.

Finally, are there any particular sci-fi writers, directors, shows, movies, etc. that influenced you as a filmmaker?

The first movie I ever saw and was E.T. I think that says it all:)

GFR sends out a big thank you to John for participating in our first installment of Sci-Fi Shorts Theater. You can find out more about John and his work at his official website.