On May 9th, 1986, John Badham’s Short Circuit debuted in theaters nationwide. The family adventure film with a sci-fi twist starred Steve Guttenberg, Ally Sheedy, and Fisher Stevens as a group of humans trying to protect a sentient robot by the name of Number 5—as he’s known to the government agencies chasing him—who goes rogue after electrocution causes him to develop a sense of identity and the constant need for “more input.”
Short Circuit was a smash success upon its release, opening number one at the box office and eventually taking in over $40 million during its theatrical run in the spring and early summer of 1986. And while Short Circuit did as well as it did partly because of the actors involved, there’s no denying that it was the film’s robotic co-star that pretty much stole the film and became a huge part of mid-’80s pop culture as well.
To celebrate Short Circuit’s 30th anniversary this year, we recently caught up with Eric Allard, the robotics effects wizard who not only came up with the look of Number 5, aka Johnny 5, but also made sure that his mechanized creations would integrate seamlessly into the production of Badham’s heartwarming comedy. For Allard, Short Circuit was the film that kickstarted his burgeoning career, and he discussed how an earlier project involving robotics would catch the eye of Short Circuit’s producers and eventually garner him the task of creating the film’s mechanical star.
“I got my start in effects working with Doug Trumbull, and in 1983, he made a little movie called Let's Go that was made for an expo in Tsukuba, Japan. For the movie, I had to build PAL, a little anthropomorphic robot. Doug had a favorite illustrator he worked with who did some designs and sketched out all the functions of this thing. It was a three-wheel robot that had a boom-type back, with arms and a head. I basically built that thing from scratch and I had eight weeks to do it.”
“In doing it, it was important that we gave the thing the ability to emote,” Allard continued. “I was starting to get into robotic choreography at the same time because I thought that in the future, when people can work with robots and it gets to the point where they have enough intelligence, not only are they going to have to be able to move around in the same environments that we do, but if people are going to work with them, they're going to have to be like them, too. They have to have those tools they would need to emote—to smile, to react, to have their own personalities.”
“That was the premise of PAL, and the filmmakers of Short Circuit saw it at a demonstration where they were courting people since they were looking for people to build a robot. I got the call and they asked me, “Are you connected at the hip over there with Trumbull?” I said, “No, I'm not,” because I wasn't really. When I built the little PAL robot, they actually didn't even take me on rotation after that. So now these guys were saying, “Here, read this script,” which I got on a Friday.”
“I couldn't even use a word processor at the time, so I had my younger brother come over to help me put everything together. I just started scribbling out page after page of what I thought we needed, in terms of how many robots, what each robot would do, the components, their insert arms, where it was supposed to stop if you didn't need the whole robot, the number of stunt robots, how many need to be puppets, how many would be actual electronic devices—all that kind of stuff.”
“Then I went through the whole film and wrote down each scene and which element we would use, which prop, whether you started with electrical and moved to the close-up puppet—he reaches for a cup of coffee, grabs the coffee, cut to the insert arms grabbing the coffee—and just got the whole movie down like that beat for beat,” added Allard.
His preparations would pay off big time, as Allard soon discovered when he met with the producers behind the project the following week. “When I got into this meeting that next Monday, I handed them this packet I had prepared with all these extensive notes and planning pages. They just looked at me with these shocked expressions, like they couldn't believe that over the weekend I came up with this entire plan.”
“Then, I met John Badham, and as I understand it, when I left the room, John said, ‘That's the guy that's building the robot for my movie.’ I wish I had known that, and I wish I had known to have a lawyer at the time. This was new territory for me and it was my first big break. But it was a good one.”
Once he was hired, Allard jumped right into the design phase of Short Circuit, collaborating alongside Badham as well as with acclaimed artist Syd Mead and visual consultant Philip Harrison, and would soon find himself challenged in new ways during those initial weeks of planning.
“I remember early on, we all sat down in a room and John wanted us to start drawing robots,” Allard discussed. “And so I said to him, ‘Well, John, to be honest with you, I'm sitting here with Syd Mead and Philip Harrison, so it's a little intimidating. I'm not an artist like either of them.’ John said, ‘Oh, come on,’ and then he picked up the pencil and started drawing stick figure robots, so I figured I could at least do that. And as it turns out, I found out that day that I can draw pretty well [laughs].”
“So I came up with a couple of sketches of these robots, which I still have to this day. Even those initial drawings looked like Johnny 5 in the movie. They had tank treads and were thin and lanky with this can-type head. Syd Mead had a different approach, where he was doing a more spherical design that wasn’t anthropomorphic like my designs were. And I'll never forget, we were in a meeting with all the producers and Syd comes in and he has this jazzed-up version of his non-anthropomorphic thing, and John actually got a little upset.”
“John was still a perfect gentleman, but he said, ‘You know, Syd, we've been talking about these robots and Eric keeps showing us these little guys and I keep telling you I like this direction, and then you still bring me the thing I've been telling you to go away from. This is what I want.’ So he gave Syd the night to go back and rework the design for the final sales meeting, and then Syd was the last to arrive, which was a bit nerve-racking for the rest of us. But then he walked in and had his version of Johnny 5, which was a Syd-made version of one of my robots, and to me, that was just a great coup. I was hired for 25 bucks an hour to build a robot, and I got to be a big part of the design of it, which was a huge honor for me because I was still coming up in Hollywood at the time,” added Allard.
Once the design of Johnny 5 got the proverbial thumbs up from the higher-ups on the project, Allard worked on creating all the robots and various robotic extremities that would be needed throughout filming. He and his team had just 14 weeks to build and test everything prior to production beginning on Short Circuit.
Allard recalled the build process, saying, “We started off by creating two robots that were foam-core models used to define Syd's drawing, and we just went with a ‘design as we go’ approach. We created two ‘hero robots’ that were both fully animatronic, with movable fingers, grips, hands, arms, shoulders, head, neck, eyes, gizmos, and a drive ability—everything you could need. Then we had five robots that were just partially articulate, where only the hands, instead of the entire wrist and fingers, were molded. You could only really pose those.”
“We had eight that were stunt robots and what I was doing throughout most of this process was primarily handing off different aspects throughout the building process. I was overseeing the model maker who worked on various parts of the body, and I was making sure that the fabricators were making the eyes and everything would fit together. They could just keep working on the eyes while we were making the heads, knowing that eventually the eyes would fit because I was the one guy linking them together to make sure that they were going to be able to function like they needed to. Then you went down to where the arms connect to the shoulders, and I had to work with the shoulder guy so that he could understand what needed to be there, and then work with the arm guy, and so on.”
“Additionally, we also had two separate insert arms, which could be operated for picking up glasses and stuff in close-ups where you didn't need the whole robot there,” continued Allard. “We had three hero heads, which is to say that they were fully animatronic, and we had something like eight non-hero heads, which had limited stuff to them. We also had three puppet torsos, which had cable controls for the necks, the heads were still done by radio control, and the arms had wands that extended at the elbows—the puppeteers would operate them below the frame.
“Mind you, this was everything I came up with after that initial weekend of planning; there was no other planning after that. One of my strengths is that as soon as I see something, I immediately have a solution. I have the whole solution. After I read the script and I put it down, I knew exactly what we needed to do. I don't know why that is, but it is and I’m really proud of that.”
Allard credited his strengths as a planner to the era of filmmaking he was a part of early in his career, as the values instilled in him from working in the industry in the late ’70s have continued to fuel his success with special effects, robotics, and mechanical builds. “I came up in a era of filmmaking when you had to plan your shoot and shoot your plan. It's not like today. A lot of times you start your movie with incomplete scripts, and they're just making it up as they go along.”
“When I first got in the movie industry, you'd get a script, and maybe you'd get a few color pages that'd be dialogue changes and stuff, but they had pretty much figured out what they wanted to make. So coming from that, understanding filmmaking in general, what makes a good close-up, effects, and my whole robotic choreography philosophy were all factors as to why things went as well as it did on that movie.”
Things went so well, in fact, that Allard recalled that throughout the entire filming process for Short Circuit, the complicated robotics effects behind Johnny 5 may have only cost production two hours total due to malfunctions or other issues with the mechanical co-star. Anyone familiar with the horror stories behind other ambitious practical effects films (probably the most infamous stories out there involve the shark “Bruce” from Jaws) will realize what an incredible feat that is, and Allard discussed how his background in the military has been instrumental throughout his career in designing robotic effects that are not only memorable, but also work the way they need to for their respective projects.
“I was a Green Beret on the A-Team and because I am an ex-military guy, I refuse to create anything that doesn’t work the way it needs to,” explained Allard. “You have to be prepared for anything, so part of the reason we had so much success on Short Circuit was because we had 15 robots and weren’t relying on just one. I also put a really good team together, and we always had stuff ready if there ever was a problem. We changed robots and nobody would even know it.”
“Something else that really helped was the way I designed Johnny 5, where he's built like an aircraft. If you look out at the wing of an airplane when you're in turbulence, that thing is just flexing all over the place. Well, that's good because it's made to flex. If it weren't flexing, it would be breaking. So we designed the robot like that, with very thin aluminum cross sections, and that flexibility was key. In person it shook, rattled, and rolled, but somehow on film, he just looked really smooth.”
Even though Allard worked on numerous high-profile projects including Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible, Alien: Resurrection, Big Fish, The Matrix Reloaded, Spy Kids, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and has also created the Energizer Bunny, one of the most iconic advertising mascots ever, he did say that Short Circuit was probably the film that had the biggest impact on his overall career, and he shared his thoughts on why it still endures with original fans and newcomers alike.
“Short Circuit is probably the film I get asked about the most—it’s still a film that people love to talk about. So many people who saw it as a little kid 30 years ago are starting to have families now, so it’s become a generational thing. But they still love the movie, too. A lot of that is due to the robot, of course, but there are some great actors in that movie and they make it enjoyable, too.”
“I know there has been talk for a while about remaking it, but if producers used their heads and made a sequel that could have something in it for those who grew up with it, and then created something new audiences could like, too, that would be the best way to honor the original film. And, of course, keep the practical effects,” Allard added. “No one wants to watch a CGI robot [laughs].”
This interview is part of our Class of 1986 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films released thirty years ago. In case you missed them, we have links to our other Class of 1986 pieces, and to read more exclusive interviews and articles about flicks from ’86, click on the DEADLY Magazine cover image below: