'Ron's Gone Wrong': How they made Disney's new animation in the UK under lockdown (exclusive)

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·7-min read

Watch: New trailer for animation Ron's Gone Wrong

Any parent will be familiar with the conversation. There's a new trend or product doing the rounds at school and their child is claiming to be "the only one who doesn't have it". In the case of new animated film Ron's Gone Wrong, this is taken to the most extreme degree in a movie produced under adverse circumstances during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown by a fledgling British studio forged in the fires of Aardman Animation. 

"It's an IT department heroism award we need to give. In those two weeks, they had to figure out how to move a pipeline straight into everyone's bedrooms and we were one of the first films that did that," co-director Jean-Philippe Vine tells Yahoo Entertainment UK, reflecting on the movie's superhuman production efforts. 

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For the film's middle school protagonist Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer), the new trend with which he's obsessed is a highly advanced personal robot. It's every craze of the last two decades — from trading cards and Tamagotchis to Fortnite and TikTok — all rolled into one, sleek package.

The movie's title character, voiced by The Hangover star Zach Galifianakis, is Ron — an adorably flawed and badly damaged B-Bot acquired on the cheap by Barney's dad. The android's high-tech functions are, it has to be said, not exactly working at their peak. Naturally, Ron's problems lead the company behind him to want to deactivate their malfunctioning machine, just as he and Barney are finding a way to bond.

Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) bonds with a malfunctioning robot in 'Ron's Gone Wrong'. (20th Century Studios/Disney)
Barney (Jack Dylan Grazer) bonds with a malfunctioning robot in 'Ron's Gone Wrong'. (20th Century Studios/Disney)

Ron's Gone Wrong is due to stage its world premiere as the Family Gala at October's BFI London Film Festival and is the debut feature from UK-based studio Locksmith Animation. Vine's co-director Sarah Smith founded the company with Julie Lockhart after the duo worked together at Aardman, when the former wrote and directed festive animation Arthur Christmas. Smith also served as an executive producer on Aardman's seafaring comedy The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists.

She describes her background as being in the "bad boy comedy" world of British TV shows like The League of Gentlemen and The Armando Iannucci Show has helped shape a love of "underdogs and idiots" in her animation work.

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"Lots and lots of British comedy is about the underdog. It's not as slick and cool," she adds. "We always talk about the difference between Friends and the aspirational comedy you get in America, and then Dad's Army. I think actually the aspiration [for Ron's Gone Wrong] was to be global — to bring an originality and a voice to it from all of our different backgrounds, but for it in the end to sit in a world of global movies."

Sarah Smith worked for Aardman, including as director of the 2011 festive film 'Arthur Christmas'. (Wendell Teodoro/WireImage)
Sarah Smith worked for Aardman, including as director of the 2011 festive film 'Arthur Christmas'. (Wendell Teodoro/WireImage)

Much of Ron's Gone Wrong's home stretch was completed during the coronavirus pandemic, which hit during the busy "animation crunch" period of the process. 

Smith adds: "A lot of others went on hold. But because we're a small-ish company without a huge budget and not giant studio resource behind us, we had to figure out how to just push on through."

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Vine and Smith say the movie's depiction of Big Tech shows both the best and the worst of the industry, with Rob Delaney's evil capitalist and Justice Smith's idealistic inventor serving as a sort of Jekyll and Hyde duo behind the B-Bots. "We weren't deliberately trying to aim any slingshots at Silicon Valley," says Vine, adding: "We're trying to really look at friendship through the lens of social media and how we see ourselves through it."

'Ron's Gone Wrong' sketches a tender bond between man and malfunctioning machine. (20th Century Studios/Disney)
'Ron's Gone Wrong' sketches a tender bond between man and malfunctioning machine. (20th Century Studios/Disney)

Smith admits: "The truth is that we probably started with quite a Black Mirror attitude, because you're sort of worried for your kids about what world they're living in.

"But then your kids educate you. To our kids, it's not a worrying or frightening or disturbing world. It's a natural tool of communication and knowledge. To them, it's opening the door to the world. They're not afraid or worried about it. It is a hopeful thing, but there are also downsides and issues that humanity has to get to grips with somehow."

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Smith says one of her key inspirations for the movie was the Joaquin Phoenix drama Her, which caused her to declare that "we have to make that film for kids". Vine, meanwhile, cites Steven Spielberg's 1980s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial as a touchstone, along with Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me and Brad Bird's tender animation The Iron Giant.

'Ron's Gone Wrong' is inspired by many other family films, including 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'. (20th Century Studios/Disney)
'Ron's Gone Wrong' is inspired by many other family films, including 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'. (20th Century Studios/Disney)

"I'm still amazed by the fact that we had to make an animated film, we had to design a robot and we had to design a social network at the same time that were all plausible," says Vine. The directors say they were keen to craft a portrayal of social media that would be mostly immune to aging, though Smith admits they would've built in something more like TikTok were they to make it again now. 

She says: "What we did was stick with the more generic things that feel like they will be with us forever — your profile, the number of people you're connected to, likes, friending, curating yourself. Those are things which feel common to all types of platforms as they evolve. We definitely were aware of trying to protect against future tech. I remember debating that we had to figure what kind of words would still be with us. We had a lot of hashtags and we cut it out."

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The movie benefits from a starry voice cast, with Olivia Colman taking on the role of Barney's Bulgarian grandmother just weeks after winning an Oscar for her performance as Queen Anne in skewed historical comedy The Favourite. Galifianakis, meanwhile, arrived at recording sessions in Hollywood fashion — via seaplane.

Smith says Colman was "wonderful" to work with, although she admits to nerves about asking an Oscar winner to dance around and do a broad accent — especially after a first day mishap. She says: "We did a little bit with her, which we often do. We do a bit of recording and then we go away, put it against some footage to make sure it's working and then we come in again. 

Zach Galifianakis provides the voice of the title character in 'Ron's Gone Wrong'. (20th Century Studios/Disney)
Zach Galifianakis provides the voice of the title character in 'Ron's Gone Wrong'. (20th Century Studios/Disney)

"We realised that we had got her to do the wrong thing. Totally our fault, not hers. We had pushed her in a direction and it didn't really work. That was the bit where I was like: 'I don't know how to tell Olivia Colman that wasn't right'. She was so gorgeous I could have just cried and kissed her. She was like: 'Oh, was it rubbish? What should I do?' It's such a dream when actors are like that because it gives you permission to just be human. She was lovely. She just adapted, found her own version of it, made it her own, took it in a new direction."

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So with Locksmith's first film on its way into cinemas after a turbulent, pandemic-hit production, the studio has a Christmas tale on the horizon in the shape of That Christmas — based on Richard Curtis books — and an original musical movie as well. There will be plenty more from this new British animation house.

Ron's Gone Wrong premieres at LFF on 9 October and is released in UK cinemas from 15 October.

Watch: Locksmith Animation reveal lockdown work on Ron's Gone Wrong

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