Interview With Gemma Chan, And Meeting Gemmabot!
If you happened to catch the documentary How To Build A Human presented by Human’s star Gemma Chan on Channel 4 earlier this evening, you may have spotted someone you recognise if you’re a resident of Geektown… Me!
In the show, Gemma take’s a look at A.I. and robot technologies to see how far we’ve come, and how close we are to creating synths like Anita/Mia, the character Gemma plays in Channel 4’s hugely popular drama. As part of this process, they decided to build a synthetic version of Gemma, which was lovely nicknamed the ‘Gemmabot’. My involvement in the show started when they decided they needed to test it out, and see if it could actually fool people into thinking it was the real Gemma…
This started with a phone call from Channel 4’s PR people asking if I wanted to come and interview Gemma, Will Tudor (Odi), and Emily Berrington (Niska). “Of course!” I replied. I love Humans, and there’s no way I’m turning down the offer of interviewing the cast! The next day, I head to a nice hotel in London and wait to be called upstairs to the interview. The Channel 4 rep comes down and informs me Gemma has had to leave to finish off some work, but will felt terrible about be called away early, so they had set up a Skype call so we could do the interview that way. “Aww, that’s nice of her!” I thought…
So I interview Will & Emily, who are lovely, (you can find that interview here), and then get ushered into another room where they have ‘Skype’ set up. The picture is a bit blurry, but Skype is sometimes like that, and it does seem to be Gemma at the other end. Then I say it’s lovely to meet her… and, well… I’ll let you watch the show to see the rest…
Eventually, after a few minutes, human Gemma enters the room, followed by a film crew. I’m then taken next door, and introduced to her incredible synthetic double, the ‘Gemmabot’. After a bit a chatting with the ‘synth’ (she really is quite obsessed with cheese!), I got to sit down for a proper chat with the real Gemma Chan.
GT: Well firstly, it’s nice to meet the actually ‘you’ having met Gemmabot! Although I did twig reasonably early it wasn’t you, I actually thought it was a computer simulation. I didn’t think you’d actually built a working robot!
Gemma: Oh really! That’s interesting!
GT: So what was the process for creating ‘Gemmabot’?
Gemma: Well, multi-layered! We started several months ago, and I was ‘life cast’, so had all the moulds done, which is what you’d do if you were having special effects make up done. Then I started recording the ‘text to speech’ synthesizer bits. So I spent hours in a recording studio, just speaking sentences. From what I learned about that process, it’s less interested in the actual words, and more in the way you say vowels and certain sounds. So theoretically, it can say any word, even if I haven’t recorded that word, it will have a go at saying a word, in my tone of voice, with my vowel sounds. We also had a team which built the internal software, that’s the ‘chatbot’, which is essentially is the thing that will come up with responses to your questions. Then we had all the animatronics that go inside the shell, that then has to mimic my facial expressions and movement, and match it to the speech… There are so many different layers to it, and so many ways it could go wrong… Which it has gone wrong, and glitched [laughs]. I went down to see the build at various points, and it’s just been so interesting, and I’ve learnt so much. I’ve so much admiration for people working in this field, because it’s just amazing what they’ve achieved.
GT: I’m assuming ‘Gemmabot’ was built as a promotional thing for the show, which seems an incredible thing to try and do!
Gemma: Yes! They came to me with the idea, and asked if I’d be interested in presenting a documentary about A.I. to tie into the launch of Humans Series 2. And I thought well, I’m not a scientist… I did A Level science, but I’m not an expert [laughs]. And, I’m not a presenter, so I thought ‘god, this could be awful!’. But actually, the subject matter is so interesting, and I have a genuine interest in it, so it’s been a wonderful journey… That sounds really cheesy… [laughs] but it has!
GT: Where do you see it going from here?… I mean, they’ve now got your voice on file, and they’ve got the top half of you, so…
Gemma: [Laughs] Yes they do! I might be out of a job! I did tell them not to make her too good, or I would be out of a job! I don’t know though. There are people that say probably the most interesting developments in A.I. are probably not going to be in the humanoid/robotic form. I think we’re talking about algorithms that might be about to solve problems that involve lots of data. Things were humans can’t spot the patterns, I think that’s the field which development seems to be happening very rapidly.
GT: Of course, now they have your voice, I does save you time doing ADR [i.e. Dialog Replacement/Voice Dubbing, which any actor will tell you is a pain to do]!
Gemma: She could definitely do my ADR for me [laughs]! You can just give her the lines couldn’t you! Especially my ‘Anita’ lines, she’d be perfect for that!
GT: So, as this is being done as part of the promotion for season 2, what can you say about the new series of Humans?
Gemma: Season 2 picks up a few months after where we left the characters in series 1. You get to see more of the world. There are interesting new characters that get thrown into the mix, and each of the characters are trying to find their own way forward. I think it’s quite surprising this season. I was surprised when I read the scripts, and found it interesting how they’re exploring issues and themes in ways I wouldn’t have thought of doing with synths. So, yes, I think there are definitely some curve balls in there. The show still has a ‘thriller’ element to it, but there’s also the domestic side, so those elements are still in there.
GT: Yes, I notice the family are back, and from the trailer, it seems like you might be back with the family?…
Gemma: …I cross paths with the Hawkins again… later on in the series… But initially, I am trying to find my own way. I’m with Leo and Max, and we’re hiding out in a seaside town, and I’m working in a cafe… as you do [laughs]. I think for the first time in her life, Mia is getting the chance to discover who she might be, and it’s interesting. I would say she discovers more about herself, about the world, and about people… and it’s not always what she would hope!
GT: So my last couple of questions. Firstly what TV shows are you watching at the moment?
Gemma: I’ve just finished watching Stranger Things, which I watching in one sitting! It’s just so brilliant! Absolutely love it, that was amazing! I want to watch The Night Of… which is next on my list. Have you been watching that?
GT: Just finished it, and it’s brilliant. Not really a spoiler as it’s not really plot related, but the very final shot made me cheer!
Gemma: Interesting! Well, that’s on my list next.
GT: And lastly, if you could be on any show, past, present or future, which one would it be?
Gemma: I’d love to be on House Of Cards! I really enjoyed that too!
And with that, our time was done, and I came to the end of a very strange day! If you missed How To Build A Human, you can find it here on All4, Channel 4’s catch up service.
Humans Season 2 airs Sunday nights at 9pm from 30th October on Channel 4.
Dave has over 20 years experience in the digital industry, and is founder and editor of Geektown. Obviously a huge geek himself, he can often be found in front of the latest tv show or movie, on various video games, or with his head in a comic book.