Right from the opening voiceover I could tell that Eli Sasich – writer/director of the 20-minute indie science fiction film HENRi – grew up reading the same books as me. Anyone who talks about positronics and names his female lead Dr Calvin clearly knows his Asimov, and who else but a devotee of Philip K Dick would tackle a storyline in which a robot questions what it means to be human?
HENRi tells the story of a lonely soul trapped inside a disembodied human brain that’s being used to run the control systems of a spacecraft. Through the course of the film, HENRi – whose name is an acronym standing for Hybrid Electronic/Neuron Responsive Intelligence – gradually evolves into an autonomous being. Meanwhile, lost memories of HENRi’s forgotten former life are beginning to resurface, challenging this curious entity to make sense of what – or who – he truly is.
It’s a simple, affecting tale told eloquently through the use of a remarkably expressive animated robot and some stunning miniature sets. The film has a majesty that belies its miniscule budget, thanks to Sasich’s uncompromising vision, some top-drawer cinematography from Tim Angulo, a rich score by Kevin Riepl and solid voice and cameo performances from Keir Dullea and Margot Kidder.
According to the ‘making of’ documentary that accompanies the movie, 90% of the robot scenes were achieved by integrating a CG character into the practical model sets, with a minority of shots being nailed by using a quarter-scale rod puppet. It was Sasich’s original intention to make the whole movie using the puppet, but disappointing results prompted the switch to CG. It’s to Sasich’s credit that he bit the bullet and did what was needed to make the movie succeed. And succeed it does, with its robot lead delivering a genuinely moving performance.
HENRi is just one of many independent creative projects funded through the Kickstarter website. As a sci-fi short placing heavy emphasis on traditional, practical techniques, it’s in good company, having much in common with Phil Tippett’s Mad God and the recently launched Harbinger Down, a creature feature from ADI’s Alec Gillis.
Projects like these are important for the skills base of the movie industry. While I don’t personally buy the argument that practical effects are better than CG (please, let’s respect all the tools in the box, guys) I think it’s important that such undertakings are supported and funded, because they may be the only way to ensure that the old techniques survive.
Maybe some of the current detractors of CG could take a leaf out of Eli Sasich’s book. With HENRi, Sasich has demonstrated integrity with his original desire to create a film with a traditional look and feel, yet shown enough smarts to embrace digital solutions when it was clear his vision demanded it. The result? A fine short film that promises even finer things to come. I’m looking forward to seeing where Sasich’s journey takes him next.