Robots of Brixton

Kibwe Tavares' sci-fi short is far from your typical architecture school project, but his eye for the intersection of class, race, and the built environment is all over this film.

Close-up of two robots' heads staring each other down, the one on the left with afro-like coils of hair and a headband, the one on the right in a police riot helmet.

There's no one fixed path to becoming an animator. Yes, for artists who've always known what they wanted to do, there are definitely more common paths, but just as often, animation is something people stumble into from another world entirely. At Quickdraw we've taught people who use animation as a complement to another artistic practice entirely, and to professionals in social work or medical research—people who are drawn to the medium by its versatility, its potential for storytelling and connection.

For Kibwe Tavares, animation was a response to questions he was asking while working towards a Masters degree at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL). Looking at how the built environment reflects issues of class and race, he hit on the idea of re-telling the story of the 1981 Brixton riot through a sci-fi lens. Taking what he already knew about modelling in 3DSMax, it was only natural to make the transition from static renders to animated environments. The result is a fusion of 3D animation, live video, and archival footage, a mixed-media depiction of cycles of oppression and the violence they produce.

Once you know to watch for it, Tavares' architectural eye is all over Robots of Brixton. There's no narration, but there doesn't need to be. The environment says it all. This future Brixton is a slum, full of buildings stacked like Jenga blocks, architectural extensions held up by an endless tangle of scaffolding. None of it looks remotely welcoming; it's a utilitarian setting that makes clear the robots are seen only as a source of labour. As obvious as it is that the robots have inner lives—you see them dancing, drinking, and staring wistfully out a bus window—it's equally apparent that whoever built up this space really didn't care.

The robots' one escape is a drug den of sorts, where the industrial setting melts away, replaced by green trees and bright sunlight. As harsh as the film's ending is, with its explicit echos of the violence of 1981, it's the forest sequence felt most devastating, with its unbridgeable gap between the simple luxuries of the robots' fantasy and the reality of their urban environment.

Robots of Brixton works because of the unique mix of Tavares' architectural interests, his lived experience, and his imaginative storytelling. Its success helped Tavares launch Factory Fifteen, a creative studio combining architecture, storytelling, and VFX, and he's continued to explore uncanny terrain in his follow-up shorts Jonah (featuring an early performance from Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya) and the FX-heavy Robot & Scarecrow. Architecture school may be a roundabout way to become an animator, but it's clearly worked out.

Robots of Brixton

dir: Kibwe Tavares

syn: Brixton has degenerated into a disregarded area inhabited by London's new robot workforce — robots built and designed to carry out all of the tasks which humans are no longer inclined to do. The mechanical population of Brixton has rocketed, resulting in unplanned, cheap and quick additions to the skyline.

The film follows the trials and tribulations of young robots surviving at the sharp end of inner city life, living the predictable existence of a populous hemmed in by poverty, disillusionment and mass unemployment. When the Police invade the one space which the robots can call their own, the fierce and strained relationship between the two sides explodes into an outbreak of violence echoing that of 1981.

2011

Tavares kept a blog on the film's progress, which is still available at kibwetavares.blogspot.com, and his project page at Royal Institute of British Architects has more detail on the thought that went into the film's world.