More Than Robots Director Gillian Jacobs Wants To Share Her Passion For Learning [Interview]

On NBC's "Community," Gillian Jacobs played the good-hearted but dim-witted Britta Perry, whose passion for making the world a better place often earned her the ire of her study group. Jacobs herself has that same passion, though it's tempered by a good deal of common sense, as Jacobs is significantly smarter than her Greendale counterpart. For her feature directorial debut, Jacobs chose to create a documentary about FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a robotics competition that inspires kids worldwide to collaborate and create their own complex machines. "More than Robots" follows four teams from around the globe as they work together to create their own unique robots for the competition and learn that being a part of FIRST is, well, more than robots. 

I had the chance to sit down with Jacobs via Zoom to talk all about the film, which is a heartwarming and eye-opening look at how extracurricular activities in STEM can really change lives for the better. We talked about FIRST, the challenges of creating a documentary, the magic of robots, and her tips for avoiding the pitfalls of the "Community" documentary episode. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

'This was all new to me.'

Most actors who make the move to directing usually kind of stick with the types of movies that they've been in. What made you decide to jump all the way to documentaries?

You know, it wasn't a conscious decision, but looking back, I guess it makes sense to me that I've always liked to learn about new things, have a curiosity about something that I know nothing about and try and learn as much as I can about it. And friends have told me I ask too many questions, so I guess it all makes sense now that I look back on it, but yeah, it surprised me as well. It was not a plan that I had.

What are some of the differences working on documentary shorts? Like the ones you did for "Signals" or "Marvel's 616" compared to something like "More Than Robots"?

Well, yeah, doing a feature length is a different challenge. And also this documentary in particular was a different style of documentary than I had done previously. So this was a much more vérité-based documentary where I was going and filming with the subjects as the events were unfolding, as opposed to the other ones that I'd done, where it was a lot of sit-down interviews and then archival footage. So this was a totally different experience for me, planning the shoots and how we were going to film it and you know, how to shoot a vérité scene as it unfolded. This was all new to me. Thankfully, I had a really great team around me, a very experienced documentary people. And so I feel like I gained a lot of new skills working on this project.

'It became about so much more.'

You definitely seemed to have a much better time making a documentary than Abed did on "Community." So, do you have any advice for would-be documentarians?

[Laughs] Let's see. I think I had much more supportive people working with me than Abed did at Greendale. So I'd say I had a different crew. Don't rely on the study group and you'll probably be ahead of the game.

What drew you towards a story about robotics specifically?

So I first heard about FIRST Robotics several years ago. I interviewed a team for a print publication, so I didn't get to meet them in person or see the robot really, but I heard about, it sounded really cool and it was really impressive to me. And I'd been learning more and more about STEM in the last couple of years. I thought it would be really fun to watch really smart high school students build robots, but then it became about so much more, as the title alludes to, that it's more than robots. It was clearly a program that really got kids excited, anything that makes high school students want to get up on Saturday and go to their school and spend all day there and basically get kicked out. That's something special. I think I related to it in that way where, I remember of going to my acting class on Saturday and I would've spent all day there if I could. I kind of lived for that time when I was with the kids in my acting class and being in rehearsals. So I think I had a sense of what felt like, but it's clearly an amazing program.

'It's the most fun way to learn.'

Why do you think robots capture our imagination so much?

Such a good question. I don't know, but I think... I don't know overall, but I do think now have having watched kids get to actually build them, it's the most fun way to learn. You can come up with a bold new idea and then try and put it into practice. It requires so many different components. I think going from seeing the video of what it has to do, how many different skills it has to have and this idea that collectively you can do that. I just think that it's really exciting and the sense of accomplishment that the teams have that they in, six to eight weeks, can build a robot that can do any of these tasks. I mean, I feel like that's pretty exciting.

Would you ever want to build your own robot?

I think I'd have to go to the Lego League that they have for like the little kids, I could start there. But I think that if I had known about FIRST Robotics when I was in high school, I could have seen myself getting involved. It's really the energy and the excitement of being at those competitions. It's truly unlike anything I had experienced. I mean, I also, I never went to a single sporting event at my high school, so it may have felt that way to go to a basketball game, I wouldn't know. But there was just something about the excitement and the energy and the competition of all of it that was really cool to be a part of.

'These kids are learning so much from that experience.'

There's a really great moment in the documentary where one of the kids talks about, "I don't understand how Microsoft Windows exists," and then he realized it's because of teamwork. And how do you think engaging in a program like FIRST helps these kids become better adults?

In so many ways, in so many ways. That sense of teamwork. I mean, I always have to relate it back to acting because that's my basis. But I learned so much being in plays, being part of a group, having to come together to do something, I think they learn an incredible amount being part of a team working together because no one student can do all of it. Learning from each other's ways of coming up with ideas of problem solving, or whatever it is.

And then I also think that this company specifically, with these ideas that they're supposed to cooperate and compete at the same time. That they're supposed to be gracious professionals that I also feel that sets a different type of tone for this, as opposed to any of other kind of competition. You might be learning about teamwork in a different sort of way being a part of another competition, but you're not expected to go then help the team that you're competing against in anything but FIRST. And so I feel like that is something very special, very unique. And you really do see that these kids are learning so much from that experience.

If there's one thing that audiences take away from "More Than Robots," what would you like it to be?

Just how special and inspirational these students are. That they're really amazing people and they're not just really smart and skilled in the world of STEM, but they're amazing human beings as well.

'I really feel lucky that I have this career.'

Who are some of your favorite fictional robots and why?

Oh, what a great question. One that I've never thought about. So now let me try and quickly think of my favorite fictional robot. Do you have one and maybe it'll spark something for me?

There's all the ones in "Star Wars." You've got like R2D2 and C3PO, you've got the maid on "The Jetsons," that's a really big one. 

Okay. I guess. I mean the Star Wars droids, I would have to say of that list. And I was trying to think if there was one on "Community" that could be... We had a sort of like Star Wars episode. I can't remember what the robots were called on that. But I'll say whatever the robots on The Community Star Wars episode, I'll say that those were my favorite droids.

Wait, oh wait! I thought of it. Britta Bot. Britta was a robot on a Christmas episode! There you go.

There you go! Perfect. You have been super busy lately, directing "More than Robots," acting opposite Chris Pine in "The Contractor"... what's next for you and what would you like to do next?

So I'm currently shooting a limited series for Netflix that just got announced today. So that's a very exciting thing, called "Transatlantic," that I'm working on right now. So very excited about that. And then in the future, I don't know, I'm sort of open to new things. I really feel lucky that I have this career where I get to direct a documentary, act on a television show, host a STEM podcast... I've gotten to interview people for magazines. It's kind of all taken me by surprise, but it's been an amazing way that it's all unfolded that I could have never expected. So I don't know, and that's kind of cool too. 

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