Number 5 is part of a series of prototype U.S. military S.A.I.N.T. (Strategic Artificially Intelligent Nuclear Transport) robots built for the Cold War by NOVA Laboratories. The series’ inventors, Newton Graham Crosby and Ben Jabituya, are more interested in peaceful applications including music and social aid. After a demonstration of the robots’ capabilities, Number 5 is hit by a lightning-induced power surge, scrambling its programming and giving it a sense of free will. Several incidents allow the robot to escape the facility accidentally, barely able to communicate and uncertain of its directive.
According to io9‘s article, “16 Things You Probably Never Knew About The Short Circuit Movies“:
Right now, we’re falling in love with BB-8 from Star Wars—and yet, there’s still a special place in our hearts for Johnny Five, the robot from the Short Circuit films. But how much do you actually know about these films? Check out this video, featuring 16 electrifying facts about the making of this duology.
1) Director John Badham wanted Johnny Five to look like he was from 50 to 100 years in the future
And designers Syd Mead and Eric Allard worked hard to make the robot look nothing like R2D2, C-3PO or other famous robots from films like Silent Runningor Saturn 3. Talking to the Oregonian, Badham said, “We may have seen those films and lots of others, but we were never worried about copying some other film by accident. We have no fear that anyone will recognize Johnny 5 from some other film—or anything else!”
The biggest inspiration for Syd Mead’s design of the robot was an organ-playing robot that he saw at a robotics exhibition at the Tsukuba Expo in Japan, which had two camera “eyes” to scan music, so it could play.
Mead also insisted that Johnny Five was feasible for military combat, with his back-mounted laser. Said Mead in one interview, “The laser was mounted on the back to resemble the way soldiers carry guns on their backs when they aren’t using them. They are back out of the way but can be instantly brought into position when needed. And it comes into position right by the head so it’s in line with the robot’s scanning system — a very logical position for the weapon to be in. Another design element that we hoped would make the robot believable as a military weapon was its ability to crouch down into a lower silhouette as if in combat. Also, the treads denoted military use and were covered with shrouds.”
2) It took a dozen people to operate Johnny Five at one time.
But when they were shooting the Three Stooges scene, with the reprogrammed assassin droids, that went up to 18 per robot. Badham said, “That was an absolute nightmare! The Three Stooges sequence was just horrendous, horrible. We were training people right and left. If you had been on the set, I might have grabbed you, put some controls in your hand, and said, ‘Here, you do this part.’”
3) When Badham screened a rough cut of the first movie for audiences, he got annoyed at Johnny Five’s constant chattering
Said Badham, “I found myself saying to Number Five, ‘Shut up! Stop chattering so much!’ So, now simply like weeding a garden, I’ll go pull out some of that, and it’ll be fine.”
4) John Badham included callbacks to his earlier films, including Saturday Night Fever
The dance sequence was a shout-out to John Travolta’s disco classic. And the “proving ground” scene at the beginning was a reference to his previous movie, Blue Thunder. Meanwhile, writer Steven Wilson had already made a short film about a cute robot—it was called “Library Report,” and the talking robot, made from recycled scraps, taught the viewer how to use the library.
5) Wilson and his co-writer Brent Maddock couldn’t figure out how Johnny-Five comes to life
Wilson said, “My ﬁrst thought was that it could be a person who had been mechanized until only his brain remained intact, but (co-writer) Brent (Maddock) threw a ﬁt about that because it was so grisly. So we started with the problem of how a robot could be alive and then actually die if it got disassembled. We thought of aliens coming down and zapping the robot alive. We thought of aliens coming down and they are machines and they are alive. Finally, we went back to the old lightning bolt gag, even though we didn’t want to. We never could come up with anything else that was as clean. We didn’t want the story to get bogged down with how Number 5 comes alive. The point is, he comes to life: and we hoped the audience would buy that so we could get on with the story.”
6) Johnny Five was originally going to be stop-motion
Said Wilson, “We’d written a number of scenes speciﬁcally to exploit the capabilities of stop-motion — like one where Number 5 did some fancy shuffling and dealing with a deck of cards. But, understandably, Badham didn’t want to turn over the central character of his ﬁlm to postproduction. He didn’t want to be on the set thinking, ‘Gee, I hope they do a good job with my main character in this scene.”’
Badham wanted his actors to have something physically present to interact with. There is one scene where Johnny Five flips a gangster like a coin, which looks like stop-motion—but this was actually achieved using two pieces of piano wire, and then the film was sped up.
7) Johnny Five has a third arm
You don’t see it much in the film, but it’s there when he makes breakfast for Stephanie.
8) Johnny Five was going to be painted jungle camouflage and arctic white, at various points
But this was abandoned—although the camouflage look was brought back, in pink, for the second movie.
9) Horror director Wes Craven recycled Johnny Five’s chassis for his killer robot movie, Deadly Friend.
10) They built five different heads for Johnny Five
One head, which had flashbulb eyes, was used for the scene where Stephanie thinks Johnny is an alien. Another head had eyes that popped out, for the part where Johnny Five sees Stephanie naked, and chases a grasshopper.
The script called for Johnny 5’s design to adjust in height from a squatting position of feet to a maximum height of seven feet. Said Mead, “Geometrically that just wasn’t practical. We had to settle for forty-seven inches as its maximum low and six-and-a-half feet as its maximum height.” The scene where Johnny 5 pulls the tablecloth out from under the table was achieved with insert arms controlled by pull rings to manipulate the finger movements.
11) They built 15 versions of Johnny Five—and the fifth version actually short-circuted.
It was actually spooky that the fifth version of Johnny-Five was the one that had a short circuit. Said Allard, “We had robots one through fifteen, and, believe it or not, the first one that short-circuited was number five. It was almost spooky. It went up in a puff of smoke and we used that one to solve the electronic difficulties. After we rebuilt it, it became the best, most reliable robot we had for the duration of the shoot. He seemed to actually exceed his battery life!”
Two Johnny robots were fired from a bridge, fell 180 feet, and “disintegrated” at the bottom to film just one sequence of the parachute scene.
12) Ally Sheedy thought of Johnny Five as a real co-star
She treated him as an equal during production—but she also told Den of Geek in 2008, “I was out there on my own. Without reciprocal energy, it’s exhausting. Mentally. And strangely lonely.” Also, Stephanie’s dance sequence with Johnny Five took two weeks to rehearse and choreograph, but only two days to film.
13) Early audiences booed their relationship
Test audiences weren’t up for watching Ally Sheedy kiss and hug a robot, and there were lots of hisses and boos during the romantic scenes. So many of these scenes were cut from the final movie. Said Badham, “The audience was obviously not happy seeing Ally Sheedy kiss and hug a robot.”
14) Ben, the Indian scientist, started out as a WASP
But director John Badham decided to make Ben Indian. To accomodate this change, actor Fisher Stevens was fired, and replaced with Bronson Pinchot, who played Balki on Perfect Strangers. Then Pinchot was fired, and Stevens was put back into the role.
Stevens actually did a lot of research to play this character: “I went to India and I studied Hindi. I got into Yoga. And this is in 1985. I lived with Indian people. I really immersed myself. I used to be a total method actor, so I was really deep in the deep end. And I had a great time. And the malapropisms, they worked. I thought they were great. So I really loved it.”
To those who were offended by the Indian stereotypes in the character, Badham said people were “overly sensitive,” and “It has gotten to the point where you can’t make fun of anyone.”
15) Indian audiences thought Ben really was from India
There was a widespread rumor that Fisher Stevens was Bollywood actor Javed Jaffrey—and it got to the point that Jaffrey had to issue a statement denying he was in this movie.
16) Ally Sheedy was deemed too expensive for the sequel
So the film-makers just had her record 10 seconds of audio which Johnny 5 plays for Ben when they are reunited. Meanwhile, Steve Guttenberg refused to return for the sequel because they had no script to show him—a decision that Guttenberg regrets to this day.
Talking about Short Circuit 2 to Starlog, director Kenneth Johnson said, “This film has a Frank Capra quality. It’s about the process of growing up and discovering people aren’t always what they seem.”
According to Roger Ebert:
There is a robot in “Short Circuit” that is really cute, if “cute” can apply to a robot. Its name is No. 5, and it moves and talks and even seems to think like something that is alive, even though we can see, clear as day, that it’s made of tubes and wires and photoelectric cells. No. 5 is a prototype battlefield weapon that can maneuver, seek out enemy targets and blast them with a laser ray. “Short Circuit” opens with a demonstration of the machine – which is struck by a bolt of lightning that fries its circuits and gives it the impression that it can think for itself.
The robot has been designed by Steve Guttenberg, a brilliant young scientist who likes to stay out of the limelight. But when the robot escapes from its top-secret laboratory, it’s up to Guttenberg to get it back before the manufacturer loses his contract, the Army loses its cool and half the countryside is fried by a wayward laser.
There is a third major character in the movie, a young woman played by Ally Sheedy, who loves animals. She has cats and birds and rabbits running all over her house, and she’s a pushover for anything that seems like a homeless endangered species. So when No. 5 turns up at her door, of course she adopts it, and of course she wants to protect it from those mean scientists, and of course she thinks that No. 5 isn’t a robot at all, but can actually think.
If all of this is beginning to sound just slightly too cute for its own good, does it help if I mention that Sheedy drives an ice cream truck for a living and that she falls in love with Guttenberg? No? I didn’t think it would. “Short Circuit” is the sort of movie Disney used to make, when they weren’t starring million dollar geese and absentminded professors. It’s basically a kid’s movie, and quite possibly the kids will like it. But they’ll have to be fairly young kids – this movie is totally eclipsed by such vaguely similar films as “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and “WarGames” (which also starred Sheedy, playing a teenager who was a lot smarter than her adult this time).
Credit should be given where due. The robot was designed by two guys named Syd Mead and Eric Allard, and they have created a milestone, in its own way. Following E.T. and C3PO and R2D2, this artificial creature has a mind and personality of its own and it’s a very likable little mechanical being that is a lot better than the movie it’s in.
Too bad that robots, unlike humans, cannot be discovered in one movie and go on to star in another. I’d like to see No. 5 in a film more suitable to its talents.