Marketing beyond the trailer: Inside the making of Alien android short film Meet Walter

Michael Fassbender makes a particularly creepy and very real-seeming android.

Meet Walter, a short film by 20th Century Fox featuring an artificial intelligence-based “companion”, played by Fassbender, is a fitting short to help promote the new Ridley Scott movie Alien: Covenant.

Walter is the name of the android, and he was developed by a team spanning chipset company AMD – the official CPU/GPU partner for the movie, 20th Century Fox, RSA Films (Scott’s company), 48 Communications (strategy and marketing agency for AMD) and entertainment consultancy 3AM. Fox, RSA and 3AM are the same integrated team behind The Martian Prologue, a short film to help promote the Matt Damon movie The Martian.

In Meet Walter, futuristic masked scientists from the Weyland-Yutani corporation set out of make and activate Walter. The scientifically detailed film shows the carcass being molded and shaped, then chip-activated (with an AMD chip in a real-looking mind-meld) and finally brought to life to become an AI companion. The film has a companion website, where you can learn more about the technology behind the project (some fictional, some real) and even “order” your own Walter – which sends you a personalized, and again, creepy email that thanks you for reserving your companion.

The project started prior to the production of the new Alien film. 3AM worked to think about content for the short and how to extend the Alien world and bring in interesting partners.

“The inception of this idea was about introducing a new synthetic in the Alien universe, and what would that look like, and how do we make that real, and how do we find a great technology partner that can add some credibility and authenticity to it?” asked Chris Eyerman, creative director, 3AM.

They had to figure out what the inside of an android would look like in this universe, what the construction would be, how they would make Walter feel different from David in Prometheus and what an assembly process would look like.

“I think that's where Luke [Scott, Meet Walter director] and the crew of Alien really came in and thought about what the technology, what the insides were, how you might 3D print the body, how you might insert a chip,” Eyerman said.

“Chris and the 3AM team presented an incredible treatment and script, which obviously needs to be then translated visually in budget and in time. So, trying to manage expectation and deliver great looking things is a huge challenge, but really what the challenge was, was trying to think what the future might bring in terms of this kind of technology,” added Scott. “How this character comes into being obviously was a great exercise in dreaming.”

Making it real

Much of the technology fell to AMD, which makes chipsets for everything from Xbox and PlayStation consoles to super computers and even the autopilot in Boeing jets. Their technologies are complex and deep learning and they are at the forefront of AI.

“When you start looking at these technologies and things, they really are real, and we are at the infancy of the world, and when you start looking at the big data world, predictive analytics based on all the data and habits of people who have similar habits, decisions can be made and predictions can be made based on how you might react with a high level of accuracy. The more those models are tuned and the better that they get, the more real it is, and the more personal it becomes,” said Raymond Dumbeck, Director, Global Marketing, AMD.

He added that it is not a far leap to believe that artificial intelligence learning – having these synthetic beings that learn, know, and adapt via predictive analysis and other big data techniques – is not a far-fetched idea. That made them a worthy marketing partner for the film.

“AMD is a great partner because they were very game…They got it from the beginning, the idea why this is valuable,” said Zachary Eller, SVP marketing partnerships, 20th Century Fox.

A truly collaborative effort

Everything for Meet Walter was deliberate, especially the collaboration between the parties involved.

“We were looking for partners that would lend authenticity to the story that we were telling. So in that process, we reached out to Zack and we say we want to tell this narrative for the movie. We need a real technology partner. We need somebody who is in the space to lend real world credibility. I think that's why the partnership worked so well, is because they (AMD) were actually doing it,” said Alison Temple, a managing partner at 3AM.

“I reached out to Karl (Stewart) and the AMD team and I said, ‘Okay, we have this crazy idea, but let us send you the treatment because you guys are actually making chips for the AI devices of today; what says you can't be making a chip for an AI device 100 years from now?” added Eller.

He continued that the partnership gave everybody more credibility in terms of what they were trying to create, especially since, unlike most sci-fi movies, the Alien franchise is very much rooted in the reality of today, even though it’s set 100 years in the future.

Stewart, president, 48 Communications, works with AMD and knew that they had technology in the pipeline that would work well for the project. Their product, SenseMI, which is machine intelligence and artificial intelligence, could be easily integrated into a fictional world while seeming real.

“We don't wish to just go in and put our logo on something…we're already a part of the movie. Our technology is already being used to actually make movies and virtual reality experiences,” he said.

Dumbeck added that AMD doesn’t have a big marketing budget, so they have to be selective in their marketing agreements.

“When we were approached with this, it was absolutely hand and glove. It just made complete sense. Everything that these guys had envisioned and were developing, frankly was quite remarkable because a lot of the things that they were doing, we're paving the way for now,” he said.

Dumbeck added that SenseMI and Radeon Instinct are technologies for deep learning and machine intelligence, that are able to crunch large amounts of data and gain insights very quickly. That made it easy to show how artificial intelligence operates in today’s world, and how it might portray itself years from now, which is how it set a foundation for Walter.

It’s all in the details

The technological details are stunning, but so is the script, the acting and the marketing tools that went along with making Meet Walter seem like a real product.

“When we were shooting the Meet Walter film, there was a slight crisis in Michael Fassbender because he didn't quite know where he was because it was outside of the script, it was outside of the world, but yet we were still in the world. Kudos to him,” said Scott.

“It's a very visual piece. It's very uneasy, and all his acting his very nonverbal. You see him process what he's looking at in the piece and it comes across really well. It's an amazing character,” added Eyerman.

The campaign extends beyond the film through the emails to prospective buyers, and through social media, making it feel like the actual launch of a product.

One great touch is the disclaimer within the film. As Walter comes to life and is seen as a companion product hanging with his android friends, the small print on the screen ominously reads: “Matchmaking interview and DNA screening required. Customers with genetic abnormalities may not meet requirements for safety certification. No refunds after consciousness imprint. Default payments will forfeit DNA rights in perpetuity.”

Said Temple: “I think also we have the luxury of working with all the departments at Fox and the marketing department. So we have the digital marketing department, and the promotions department, and us, and media and publicity and we all sit around and we look at this as if it was a campaign launch. It was a true activation. It was a really great collaboration.”

The Walter film and marketing push is a platform to create conversations about whether the technology could exist and how mankind will deal with the potential of an android being a personal assistant.

“From the movie-going perspective, conversations are always a big goal of ours, but also getting people to emotionally connect to these characters before you go into the theater and see the film. Introducing this character in a very unexpected, non-traditional way and having people hopefully connect and go, ‘Wow, that was really, cool’,” concluded Eyerman.

The crew promises that there will be a Walter 2.0, a second phase of the campaign for those who signed up through email, leading up to the launch of the movie on May 19. A teaser of Alien: Covenant was shown to crowds in a screening of the first Alien at SXSW.

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Kyle O'Brien

I am a reporter for The Drum covering a wide array of topics but always trying to tell the best stories possible. I am a former west coaster from California and Portland, Oregon, now living in Pennsylvania — with time spent in NYC each week.

I also play saxophone professionally.

All by Kyle