In Charlie Stewart’s animation, two AI assistants chat in an abandoned space base
Space is a lonely, lonely place to be. Sitting somewhere between two recent science fiction classics – the heartbreaking ending of Spike Jonze’s 2013 romantic comedy drama Her and Ridley Scott’s 2015 survivalist The Martian – London-based animator Charlie Stewart tells a tale of artificial intelligence, space travel and our human need for connection and community. In While You Were Sleeping, he uses the clever narrative device of two AI assistants (much like your Siris and Alexas) who converse with each other in their users’ absence, all accompanied by a lighthearted, synth-driven score by Caspar Leopard reminiscent of a waiting room of a futuristic spa.
Charlie hopped around the film industry before settling down on animation as his core practice. “I’ve worked all sorts of different jobs – I started out in VFX, working on the Harry Potter films and Prometheus among others then went freelance as an editor,” Charlie tells It’s Nice That. “I’m glad I had such a circuitous route to where I am now. The different jobs I took each taught me something about storytelling, working in a team, organisation, creativity and its limits.”
He’s drawn to animation by the fact that you’re really only limited by your creativity in the discipline. “If you can conjure it in your imagination, you can figure out a way of realising it on the screen,” he says. “The process is therapeutic. I also love the variety you see, especially these days when experimental animation can have such a wide audience and the entry barrier is much lower.” Between commercial and commissioned works that he picks up to pay the bills, Charlie wanted a project he could call his own, to hone his creative voice that could serve as inspiration when working on other client projects. “It’s so true that the client work you do is fed directly by the personal work, and I felt at that stage that I didn’t have enough of a creative well to draw from,” he says.
So on the hottest day of summer last year, Charlie started with a script, something that would “convey the lazy, listless days that are a happy product of an unbroken summer.” After reading an article about two AIs who developed their own language after they were made to talk to each other, he decided to make this concept the focal point of the film. “There was something quite sweet about that, but also spooky,” he says. With our strange ability as humans to form emotional bonds with inanimate objects as small as a pencil with googly eyes, it’s no surprise that we’re captivated by their conversation in the film.
Sure enough, these elements became the building blocks for the film, finding a whole different meaning in its setting of outer space. Set on the 40,532nd day of sunshine, the film provides visual clues helped along by the narration of two zealously helpful AIs to spur on the story. We see broken radio dishes, sand overflowing from blocky tenements and door signs with missing letters that all suggest an abandoned space base on a Mars-like planet. It’s up to the viewer to connect these dots and decide for themselves what exactly happened to the two astronauts, but the suggestion is that, as loneliness took over, the two decided to watch a final sunset together with what remains of the world, other planets, and other forms of intelligence.
“Normally when I write, the idea spirals out of control and becomes too large for me to tackle, so my intention was to write something small enough to actually be able to complete,” Charlie says. Paring down the script and removing overly complex storylines, he ended up with the animation that runs barely past the two and a half minute mark. Though it took him a while to find someone to score the film, the collaboration turned out to be fruitful, the slightly upbeat and atmospheric score stops the film from turning fully dystopian and trasnforms it into the captivating space story that we can see today.