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Birth of the Robot, The (1935)

Courtesy of Shell International

Main image of Birth of the Robot, The (1935)
DirectorLen Lye
Production CompanyShell-Mex
ProducerLen Lye
ScriptC.H. David
PhotographyAlex Strasser
Colour Decor & ProductionHumphrey Jennings
Sound RecordingJack Ellitt

A puppet fantasy advertising Shell Lubrication oils. A man motoring in the desert dies and, with the help of Shell Mex oil, is reconstructed as the company's trademark robot.

Show full synopsis

By 1935, Len Lye had already completed two highly innovative advertising films, A Colour Box (1935), for GPO, and Kaleidoscope (1935), for Imperial Tobacco. Lye's friend Humphrey Jennings brought him to the attention of the Shell Film Unit's forward-thinking head, Jack Beddington, who was impressed by Lye's experimental puppet animation Peanut Vendor (1934). The result was one of Lye's best-known works, The Birth of the Robot.

The film begins with Old Father Time rousing from his slumber and cranking the wheel that sets the planet in motion. Down on Earth, a jolly (if slightly sinister) motorist careers around, up and down the pyramids of Egypt, before recklessly heading into open desert, where he is beset by a sandstorm. Lost and without oil (a palatial petrol station is revealed as a mirage), motorist and car perish and decay. From the heavens, however, Venus sends down a shower of oil, and the motorist is reborn in the form of a muscular silver robot (Shell's emblem) whose power allows roads to criss-cross the globe. The puppets were designed by John Banting, while the music - a seven-minute condensing of Holst's The Planets - was provided by Lye's friend and regular collaborator Jack Ellitt.

After two films using the Dufaycolor system, Lye took the opportunity to experiment with a new colour process, Gasparcolor, which promised more vibrant colours than previous technologies. The system involved creating three separate images, each capturing a different region of the colour spectrum, which were recombined during the printing process. However, the special 'beam-splitter' camera arrived late, and Lye and his cameraman, the German emigré Alex Strasser, were forced to improvise during the first days of filming, shooting each frame three times while carefully changing filters.

Lye had been frustrated by what he felt was a somewhat restrictive brief, but he brought to the film his customary wit and energy, and The Birth of the Robot was an extraordinary success for an advertising film, playing in more than 300 cinemas and reportedly reaching an audience of over 3 million. The restless Lye made no further puppet films, nor did he work with Shell again, but his sponsors were well pleased with the fruits of their investment.

Mark Duguid

The BFI gratefully acknowledges the assistance and contribution of Shell International Ltd in providing access to the audiovisual materials appearing on this site

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Video Clips
Complete film (6:24)
Experimental Animation, aka Peanut Vendor (1933)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
Lye, Len (1901-1980)
Shell Film Unit (1934-)
20s-30s Avant-Garde