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‘Community’ stars virtually discuss Gillian Jacobs’ Disney+ doc ‘More Than Robots’

Omar L. Gallaga
Special to the American-Statesman

Virtual South by Southwest panels aren’t easy. There’s so much live-and-in-person programming and other online stuff to view that devoting an hour to what’s essentially a Zoom conversation must be worth the time.

Luckily, a breezy Q&A interview between cult comedy “Community” castmates Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs proved light on its feet, funny and worth the time.

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Gillian, who continues to act in projects like HBO’s new Lakers show “Winning Time” and on DC Comics animated films, is also developing into a documentary filmmaker. She worked on “Marvel’s 616” with Alison Brie and her new documentary on the SXSW schedule is “More Than Robots.” It documents the 2020 FIRST Robotics competition and the kids around the world who participated. It has sports-championship vibes (Jacobs says she was going for an ESPN “30 for 30” approach), and McHale promised the film will make you laugh and cry. Here are five things we learned from the video panel:

1. Jacobs has been obsessed with STEM for about seven years since she directed a short about programmer Grace Hopper, “The Queen of Code.” The short came about from a brief mention of Hopper on the excellent TV show “Halt and Catch Fire.”

The documentary "More Than Robots" is screening at SXSW 2022 before streaming on Disney+ starting March 18.

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2. Some of the documentary involved remote directing. In far flung locations like Mexico City and Chiba, Japan, Jacobs had to direct the filming via Zoom calls. Given the timeline of the film, it shouldn’t be surprising that world events intrude on the 2020 competition (as they did on SXSW 2020) and that the kids quickly must shift to try to do something about the unfolding crisis using their engineering expertise.

3. The documentary is under the Lucasfilm brand; Lucasfilm was a sponsor of that 2020 FIRST Robotics season and has been involved for years. Mark Hamill has been a big supporter and appears in the doc.

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Gillian Jacobs says she was going for an ESPN “30 for 30” approach in directing her new documentary, "More Than Robots."

4. Jacobs says she was not a STEM kid and worked hard to try to understand the competition; she jokes that she thought “style points” might be awarded for particularly cool robots. But, she says, she understands the power of programs like this; a Pennsylvania arts camp for theater kids changed her life.

5. McHale seemed in awe of Jacobs in the Q&A and said that during “Community” filming she was always doing deep book research into obscure topics while Donald Glover made music and McHale tried to make the perfect brewed tea cart.

Here’s the trailer for “More Than Robots.” It is screening at SXSW this week and will stream on Disney+ starting March 18.

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