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Interview: Jamie Shourt, Moviegoer Magazine, January 1982

Heartbeeps Index


Behind the Scenes: Heartbeeps' Littlest Robot

For a futuristic fantasy that stars Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters, special effects wizard Jamie Shourt created a robot with charm, personality, and a dashboard for a chest. page 6-7

Spare the Parts, Spoil the Child. Sparks fly between romantic robots Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters in Heartbeeps, and the result is a little bundle of---hardware???

He's just 180 pounds of metal, plastic, and wiring, but a 42-inch scene-stealing robot named Phil may just emerge as the most lovable character in Heartbeeps, an offbeat new science fiction flick, that stars humans Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters. In this robot romance set in 1995, Kaufman and Peters star as Val-Com-17485 and Aqua-Com-89045, two automatons who meet and fall in love at a robot-repair facility. The mechanical lovers decide to explore the outside world together, and they escape in a stolen truck filled with spare robot parts. Later, they abandon the truck, and build Phil to carry their spare parts. But in touching nuclear-family fashion, Aqua and Val come to think of Phil as their baby. To create Phil, producer Michael Phillips and director Alan Arkush brought in mechanical-effects designer Jamie Shourt. Both Phillips, producer of The Sting, Taxi Driver, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Arkush, director of Rock 'n' Roll High School, had admired Shourt's work on Silent Running. He had designed and built Huey, Dewy, and Louie, the three waddling robots who kept lonely astronaut Bruce Dern company in the 1972 film. Those robots had personality that came across on screen, and Arkush wanted Shourt to give Phil the same robotic warmth.

Phil needed to be more than lovable, however. According to the script, he had to maneuver over all types of terrain, and do everything from picking a flower and drilling out a lock to cutting through a fence, and pulling a little wagon. Shourt originally signed on to Heartbeeps as a consultant whose job was to find an existing robot that could be adapted to play the role of Phil. But no such robot was available, and ordering one would cost more than $1 million. What's more, delivery couldn't be made for at least a year, and there was no guarantee that the finished robot could perform as Arkush and Philips specified.

So the task of building Phil fell to Shourt and his company, Shourt Works Limited. Not that they weren't up to the challenge.

In the years since Silent Running, Shourt had compiled an impressive list of credits--building the X-Wing fighters Luke Skywalker and company flew against Darth Vader's Death Star in Star Wars, and creating various special effects for such movies as Airplane, Altered States, The Blues Brothers, The China Syndrome, and Star Trek [ The Motion Picture, #1 in the movie series ].

But Shourt Works Limited really faced two separate challenges in designing Phil: One was in creating a robot that looked as if it were assembled out of spare parts, but could still react and show expression. "My staff and I started by drafting a 'paper' concept in a series of 12 meetings," says Shourt. "We used everything we could think of--old robots, toys we liked, ---for fitting, and trying things out."

They decided to use a section of the dashboard form Val and Aqua's stolen truck, giving him a built-in ashtray, lighter, radio, and a basis for his name, too: Phil is short for "Philco," the manufacturer of the radio they use. Phil's musical voice plays over the radio, and was provided by The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia on electric guitar.

Shourt found other ways to give Phil a thrown-together look and a personality: "He has a 'Swiss-Army knife' right arm, and his head turns and bobs up and down,"

Shourt reports. "All in all, he's a cute fellow." The second challenge in building Phil was to put together a tough, servicable robot beneath that funny exterior. Shourt Works Limited's biggest problem here was finding the right combination of existing gear trains, drive mechanisms, and battery systems.
Ultimately, Phil had the agility to climb a 15-degree hill, and the strength to go through a wall.

That's not to say that Phil worked flawlessly. Once, in the throes of a short circuit, the radio-controlled robot went completely haywire, careening down hallways, and through doors. He finally had to be roped like a runaway calf.

Still, Phil is an impressive accomplishment, a robot Shourt could not have built 12 years ago, when he got his start in the effects business, by simulating the 1969 moonwalk for CBS Television. ( His partner at the time was Douglas Trumball, the special-effects wizard behind 2001 and Close Encounters, who directed Silent Running. )

Phil embodies much of what Shourt learned over the years about computerizing special effects. "The breakthrough was the increased commercial use of micro-electronics and miniature computers in such things as digital wrist watches," Shourt notes. "That brought down the cost, and made it feasable to use that technology in film. Now we can use microcomputers and printed circuitry to build all kinds of wonderful creatures."

A man who lives for his next project, Shourt is unsentimental about his creations, and rarely keeps them as souvenirs. "You can spend so much time caring for things of the past that you clutter your brain and leave no time to work in the future," he explains. But Shourt isn't unsentimental enough to be immune to Phil's charm. At one point, during the filming of Heartbeeps, he was away from location when he got word that Phil had fallen off a truck and smashed his Plexiglass head.

" It was like receiving a call in the middle of the night that one of your children has been injured," Shourt remembers. "It had the same effect."

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LINKS to info about Heartbeeps and cast, crew

Complete Cast, Crew, and Company of Heartbeeps

LINKS to other articles

Starlog #53 Robot Creators Charles Arrigo and Jamie Shourt Interviews

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