LIFE Productions producer Sam Khoze looked to cast a robot for his film at several robotics companies until he found Erica, the creation of Osaka University roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who modeled her after images of Miss Universe finalists. Erica now stars in “b,” a $70 million feature film in pre-production. Erica possesses realistic human details, but one of her greatest strengths is immunity to COVID-19. Her walk and voice give her away as an android, so she will, therefore, perform most of her scenes sitting down.
The New York Times reports that Ishiguro dreamed of robots so real that people will forget they’re not human and even trust and feel affection for them. He debuted Erica in 2015, “the most advanced of the dozens of androids he had produced over his career that have performed in plays, sung in malls and even delivered the news.”
Erica was originally set to star in a Tony Kaye-directed project, but scheduling issues prevented it from going forward. After Khoze met Erica, he pitched the idea of a robotic lead actor to BondIt Media Capital chief executive Matthew Helderman, whose company made the 2017 Netflix movie “To the Bone.” (Belgium-based Happy Moon Productions is also backing the film.) Helderman was convinced after phone calls with Ishiguro and Osaka University assistant professor Kohei Ogawa.
The script, written by Khoze, visual effects supervisor Eric Pham and Tarek Zohdy, features Erica as an “AI woman” named b “who can surge into the body and mind of any human host … [and] follows her creators’ efforts to gain control of her as she becomes self-aware.” So far, no director or human actors are attached to the film.
In the meantime, Erica is learning how to act. “It was like teaching a child why we respond the ways we do,” said Helderman, who noted that the team gave her more than two years of daily sessions. Erica memorized her lines immediately but, “it took her months to grasp the concept of not just reciting a line, but speaking it softly or in full voice depending on the context, and bolstering the words with body language.”
Erica can also, to a degree, improvise, but just not “nearly as clean a performance as a practiced sequence.” Her biggest challenge will be to avoid rejection by human audiences who could find her creepy, falling into what roboticist Masahiro Mori dubbed the “uncanny valley.”
Engadget reports that Erica learned how to perform via method acting techniques, with Khoze explaining that, “in other methods of acting, actors involve their own life experiences in the role.” “But Erica has no life experiences,” he said. “She was created from scratch to play the role. We had to simulate her motions and emotions through one-on-one sessions, such as controlling the speed of her movements, talking through her feelings and coaching character development and body language.”
Some footage has already been shot, and producers of “b” expect the rest will be shot in June 2021.