More Than Robots Wants To Change The World, And It'll Use Disney To Get It Done [SXSW]

"More Than Robots" is the kind of documentary that may change a kid's life. Seriously. Sweet and fascinating and fun and very easy to watch, it's a portrait of four teams participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition, where teams from schools around the world build robots to solve a specific course/problem. But while some folks may have a stodgy view of robotics and electronics, FIRST sets out to make the art and science of building 'bots as thrilling as possible — it's a team sport, with mascots, music, and bonafide competition. FIRST borrows the language of professional sports and Hollywood to make science seem as immediately vital to kids as other pastimes.

Director Gillian Jacobs (yes, of "Community" fame) has a soft but focused touch, gently pulling you into the stories of each kid and each team as they work on their robots and discover a community of likeminded folks excited about the possibilities of science and engineering. It's enough to make a jaded adult like me want to pick up a robotics kit, and I can easily imagine a kid scrolling around Disney+, watching it, and finding a calling.

And yes, that was part of the plan. Shortly before the film's SXSW premiere, I sat down with producer Jason Sterman (whose credits include the Disney+ documentary "A Spark Story" and the Oscar-nominated "13th") and Dean Kamen, the prolific inventor and engineer who founded FIRST and serves as a talking head in the film. Both of them were upfront about the mission of FIRST, and "More Than Robots." If educational institutions aren't going to convince kids that doing science is cool and fun and the key to better life and world, they're going to it. And they're going to harness the power of sports, Hollywood, and Disney's long streaming reach to get the job done.

'That's why God invented Disney'

[To Kamen] Have you seen the movie yet?

Dean Kamen: I have.

How do you think it turned out?

Kamen: I would expect nothing less. They had a great pile of material, the most extraordinary kids in the world, and I've come to know they have incredibly creative, passionate people making the thing, so it came out like it should. Now my question is, how do we make sure every parent that gives a damn about the future and their kids sees it and makes sure that their school has a FIRST team?

I was thinking Disney+ is the perfect place for this because so many kids are going to be on there anyway. It so quickly draws you in and it's such an easy watch. Even somebody who knows nothing about robotics, and I know nothing about robotics, will find it interesting.

Jason Sterman: Yeah, the interesting thing also, from our standpoint even approaching it, was ... Gillian, the director obviously, she has a background in history and a love of STEM going back to her first film, which was about Grace Hopper. I myself was not aware of FIRST, so even as filmmakers coming into it, it was eye opening that this existed and the amount of times that Gillian and I would have to remind ourselves of that, knowing that there's an opportunity for them.

Kamen: My favorite thing in the world each year, as we add more pages to this, is to show what the season of events ... [Kamen opens a FIRST brochure and spreads it across the table; it is massive] this is March Madness. 180 cities holding their events for over 80,000 teams, 3,700 corporate sponsors, a couple of hundred universities that'll be handing out more than $60 million in scholarship, 200,000 volunteer mentors, and with all of that, unless you... Well, I'm a FIRST team, lucky enough to be in a FIRST school, if you're in the same city three miles away, you never heard of us. That's why God invented Disney. They can fix all that.

The thing I found immediately compelling about FIRST was — if we're going to get kids involved in this, if we want to get people's eyeballs on this, we got to make it entertaining. It's not just going to be people building robots. We're going to make a competition out of this, we're going to make it a sport.

Kamen: So I started in year one saying we got to get people to see what we do, but I kept begging as we grew, people, don't take us to the esoteric ivory tower elites, getting coverage on, no offense, I watch it all the time. National Public Radio and PBS. The sports channels, I'm not competing with the science fair, I'm competing for the hearts and minds of these kids with the Super Bowl, the World Series. We want kids, particularly kids that maybe have never met a scientist or a real engineer, kids that really think their future, their success is going to be sports or entertainment. All you have to do is show these kids how many new jobs become available every year in the NBA, in the NFL, and how many superstars are there going to be in the world of entertainment?

But there are a few million, not just jobs, but there are a few million career opportunities created every year for kids that have developed a little bit of capability of that muscle hanging between their ears, but they spend all their time being distracted by, frankly, the delusion that while their sports are fun, our sports... They don't do those sports because it's fun. They really have bought into this idea that if you want to become a success in life, your best avenue out of where you might be now is the world of sports and entertainment because they so dominate our media. And so I said, "Look, sports and entertainment work. Let's just make a sport out of science, technology, engineering."

And once kids play our sport, they'll see, wow, it's no better. It's no different than any other sport. If you put it in the context stuff, it's aspirational, it's after school, it's fun, you don't get quizzes and tests by that judgmental teacher. The teacher, who is required to be judgmental in the classroom, turns his or her hat around at 3:30 and becomes the coach of the football team, the basketball team, the soccer team, so let that same teacher after school become the coach for our team, and all the trappings of the school band and the mascots, and there's no quizzes and tests, no, there's championships and awards and letters. Everything that is so attractive to kids about every other sport has been honed to a high level and it's exciting at the end. Nobody's excited by the end of a quiz, but they're excited by the end of... And then they always justify, "Well, sports are important, Dean. You know why? Because they learn teamwork." Well then why when they do teamwork in the classroom do you call it cheating?

So let's take everything we know kids love, but let's give them a sport that instead of being a distraction from their future will be a direct inspiration for them to go after the skill sets that they need to change the world. So we started FIRST, and look at our name. I didn't want the word education in there. I've never seen kids at a sporting event walking around cheering, "I want to be second." Never saw that. They'll take math pass-fail, they won't take physics at all, but, no, in sports they want to be good. Well, you know what? We want them to be good at math and science, so I said, "We'll call the thing FIRST. That's like sports." And the name is For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. We're not about education. Let the teacher's educate. What do I know about education?

I just want those kids who are inspired enough to go looking for the coach in that particular school for the FIRST team just the way they go to school and they're looking for the coach. Half the kids in, I don't know if it's half, but an enormous number of kids in this country still think our colleges are mostly the Razorbacks, the Cornhuskers. They think our universities, our institutions of higher learning, are farm teams to the professional sports. Well, in a free country where you get the best of what you celebrate, if we don't start celebrating smarts and technical competence and expertise and passion for tech, this country's going to get what we deserve. We will become a second tier or a third tier to part of the global environment, and that's not going to be good.

'You're not even a voice. You're not even a whisper. Get on with it.'

This may sound very silly, you may roll your eyes at this, but my wife and I, one of rituals when it's on, is we watch the TV show "BattleBots."

Kamen: It came out of FIRST.

It did, really?

Kamen: It started that they asked me to go be part of it and I was so torn. Probably people in media would've said, "Dean, you are an idiot. You should listen, preach what you say," but when I saw the first couple of pieces of it, the robots were mostly out there to destroy the other robot. And I kept saying from the day I started FIRST, it's about a cooperation. I want all the kids to win.

And when I saw what they did, I said to them, "It's sort of like there's Olympic-style sports." There's Olympic wrestling and there's WWF. I would support Olympic wrestling. I'm not sure I want to be into this other stuff, and it's sort of like you've taken FIRST and turned it into the WWF of robots. Why don't you do that? But if you could just let people know they'll develop the skills to do that by coming to FIRST. Almost all their winning teams, almost without exception the winning teams that they get, grew out of FIRST, so I'm very proud of that, but I just wish there was a little more gracious professionalism.

I will say that when I first started watching "Battlebots," it was because I want to see robots hit each other,. But now my wife and I will talk about motors and engines and engineering. What you're describing with FIRST does work, even if we came to it from a different show.

Kamen: I might have made a mistake.

I would happily watch FIRST if it was televised or streamed. "More Than Robots" reminded me a lot of a Netflix show called "Formula One: Drive to Survive." It's an incredible documentary series, and I thought if they did this with FIRST, if they followed different teams and turned it into a documentary series that's high quality, I would watch that.

Sterman: Here's the thing, we've been making this for the last now two and a half, almost three years, so having the ability, I think, of us starting to do this in person actually, the world kind of opening back up again, now that this comes out I think we'll be able to see how much people enjoy this, to learn about something that they weren't aware of, puts that directly, I think then, in conversation. You're like, "Great, well if this works, why not film more of it?

And there is that direct Disney connection, as Lucafilm and "Star Wars" are directly involved in the competition seen in the movie. I love that clearly you're luring kids in with something popular and snaring them with science.

Kamen: So I have to tell you, not to take anything away from how brilliant they are, but part of what I loved as soon as I heard it might be being done with Disney was, look, as I said before, the mere fact that it's Disney, the word Disney puts a smile on people's face. If you know it's Disney, it is about kids, it is about entertainment. Whereas if I said, "There's going to be a special, it's a documentary, it's on such and such," it would be a monotone voice dribbling in the background about esoteric stuff, typically singing to the choir of the people that made it. Look, I go to the National Academy of Engineering who say, "We got to join forces with FIRST." And these are the most prestigious, accomplished people in the world of technology in the United States. The great debate was why should we be involved with FIRST? Because if the technical community of the country is willing to stand up and share about technology, who is?

Then stop complaining that we have no pipeline, we don't have enough kids trying to study math and science, particularly underserved communities don't even think it's a possibility. And whose fault is that? It's not the fault of the NBA or the NFL or Hollywood. They are good at what they do. They promote what they want to promote. You're not even a voice. You're not even a whisper. Get on with it. And we did get them to support us and they now are partnering with us and I think they are being slowly pulled into a reality that if the technology community of this country isn't willing to start promoting how exciting the world of technology is, we will continue to get what we deserve.

In America, everybody's free. Kids are free. We have a bill of rights, we don't have a bill of responsibilities, so kids have the right to grow up as dumb as a rock and most of them are taking advantage of that. And I sit there and say, "You can't blame the kids." If all the media they see is telling them, "Here's the role models, here's the superstars, here's the heroes," why would they want to go spend 10 years of their life studying arithmetic and geometry and algebra and calculus and trigonometry? It's hard. And what's the point? There is a point. Who tells them the point?

Sterman: I do think it's interesting though, in an opportunity that we had obviously one week in the film, is that there's a micro and a macro version and getting, I think, to understand who some of these kids are, who some of these mentors are, so you understand that there is people who come from entirely different walks of life, and it is also a global community, so it's not just about this competition that's made for American kids. So being able, I think, for kids to see themselves reflected in the film will hopefully give kids who either weren't aware of this or were but maybe have hesitation of an understanding to find a way into it themselves will realize there is a community and it's not strictly just about playing a position on an organized sports team. There's a place for everyone.

How was the selection process? For lack of a better word, how'd you select these kids, these teams, to highlight?

Sterman: One of the main things that we wanted to do up front was obviously celebrate the idea that it is a global competition. It is not just based entirely in the United States, so we made the conscious effort of, basically, we chose two teams in Los Angeles because that's obviously where we're based, so that became one angle, but then also we chose a team in Japan and chose a team in Mexico with the help of FIRST. Obviously they have the wealth of knowledge of obviously what the makeup of these teams are, also who these mentors are, the people who started these teams, so we had conversations and worked our way down.

Being able to meet some of the teams and then meet some of the kids in LA, then taking that knowledge and we did basically pre-interviews beforehand, so we met the team, the people who were the mentors of the team in Mexico and in Japan. They have an amazing ability of understanding obviously the kids who were on that team, so they shared that with us. By the time we got to any of those locations, we were kind of familiar with who they were, and then in spending a little bit of time narrowed and then, with a few of them, went home with them and got an understanding of what their home life is like as well.

The juxtaposition is sometimes shocking. You see kids working in giant labs, and some kids have to work in their school's hallways.

Kamen: He gave you the polite version of how do they pick teams, I'll tell you a fun story about a media person, but also I will happily tell you, I'm glad they picked because I know all the teams and he could make four teams very happy. I don't want to explain to the other 80,000, not you, I'll just say wasn't my choice. I'm a coward. But probably 15 years ago, we're at Disney, we're still doing our championship at Disney, and they built us a whole arena each year and we get bigger and bigger, and they built us down at Epcot the arena. And ABC News is down there, a bunch of news in there following kids around, and one of the anchors or something comes back to me after going through the pits and he's all excited. There's lots of stuff going on, we're trying to talk him, "Put it on the news, get these stories up," and he looks at me and he's deadly earnest.

He says, "Dean, this is really fantastic because everything says." He said, "But I just met the most extraordinary kid. He was in a gang in Los Angeles. He was a gang kid and he was going the wrong way. He's in one of these alternative schools, and because he was given the opportunity to be on a FIRST team, he joined that team and now he's the captain of that team and he's going off to college. Dean, this is the most extraordinary kid I've ever seen." And I looked right at him, as you can tell I'm genetically incapable of not being sarcastic and obnoxious, I'm a New Yorker, I look at this guy, I said, "Wow, you mean in only a half an hour, you were able to go out into that enormous set of kids, 20,000 kids in those pits, and you were able to find the one kid that's exactly like all the others? That's amazing."

And he looks at me. I said, "Go talk to another 50 kids and what you're going to find is they all have an incredible story because they've all realized they can do this." They realize they can be part of our team. You said this kid was in a gang. Everybody's in a gang. Some gangs are bad gangs. NASA is a gang, it's a gang of people that are putting people... These people have now joined our gang, but it's a gang that they should be proud of, their parents should be proud of. Our industry leaders are desperate for more of these kids, our country needs them, so we just created an alternative gang. That's what we are.

'There is no ending to this film...'

The movie climaxes with the pandemic arriving, and those scenes prove the thesis of it all, which is these kids who've been doing robots for fun immediately start using their skills to help their communities.

Sterman: Gillian and I have said this throughout the process of actually now going and getting through the other side of the movie, which for a long period of time, we didn't have a third act of the movie for the most part. If there's any silver lining, I guess, to COVID, it is in a way this film, because the things that we ultimately learned about FIRST, the principles that are instilled in the kids, are buried to be more effective later in life. They're enamored and they come for the competition component and the science and the engineering and building the robots, but the things that will help them later in life are those things about cooperatition. It's understanding how to work with others, be on a team.

We were able to witness in real life how that manifested itself in a much more accelerated way, because at a certain point the competition went away. Championships were canceled, and these weren't the type of kids that just decided to go, "Well, I guess I'm just going to move on then and not..." They immediately had those elements that had been instilled in them activated and then the robots went away and instead you see in real time almost how those skills are immediately then applied to real life. So I think in this very rare way, from a film standpoint and for our story, we've actually benefited from COVID in some strange way, but it was nice to see that... Because we very much at a certain point were like, "We can't finish this movie." There is no ending to this film, and it was just by watching what the kids were just naturally doing that we decided to turn the cameras back on and keep going.

Kamen: Again, to generalize that, I didn't know this when I started. I intended the name For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology. In my mind, it was, we are going to get world class adults and parents and teachers and mentors to inspire kids to work hard at this stuff. It was us inspiring kids. I realize soon thereafter when you talk to these kids, FIRST is about kids inspiring all the adults that participate by showing those adults they get it, they understand it, they appreciate it, but I think the reason they finished up this film so strongly is because he and Gillian realized these kids are inspiring all of us. They're giving us hope, but I've been telling these kids since year one, besides using that phrase, "it's more than robots," because I wanted people to get involved. "Oh, I'm not a nerd." I'd say to them from year one, "We are not using kids to build robots. We're using robots to build kids."

And what we're trying to show these kids is what's possible and we're just using the robots because they can make an exciting thing, where most of technology isn't quite as exciting as things bashing into each other. But once the kids saw the thing being canceled, and I had to make an announcement to the world after 29 years of consecutive, "Oh my God, we're canceling all these events." I said, "Remember everybody, it never was about the robots. That's why you're in a cooperatition, but now more than ever you need to cooperate." FIRST is about giving you the skill sets to deal with the common problems you all going to have. You are competing, but not with each other. You're all on a little planet. You know what you're all competing with? Global warming, food, water, cybersecurity, pandemics. That's what you're competing with, so you got to develop the skills because if you don't develop the right skills, one of those competitions you're going to lose. Humanity is always on the brink between technical education and catastrophe. I don't want catastrophe to win, and the only way we're going to fix that is trust.

"More Than Robots" hits Disney+ on March 18, 2022.