Behind The Scenes

Animation | Voltron: Legendary Defender

Episode Summary

Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, the team that brought you Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, join us on the podcast to talk about their reboot of the 1980s franchise, Voltron. We’ll talk to them about growing up with the original run of the show, how animated series influenced them as kids, and how that influence inspired them when they were tasked with creating their own rendition of this animated classic.

Episode Notes

Lauren Montgomery and Joaquim Dos Santos, the team that brought you Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, join us on the podcast to talk about their reboot of the 1980s franchise, Voltron. We’ll talk to them about growing up with the original run of the show, how animated series influenced them as kids, and how that influence inspired them when they were tasked with creating their own rendition of this animated classic.

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1: Ready to form Voltron, mega thrusters are a go! Go, Voltron force! 

Brandon Jenkins: Does hearing that make you think back to a time when you sat cross-legged in front of the television with a bowl of cereal? Or to a moment when you were envious of a classmate who brought a Voltron toy to school? If so, you’re probably a kid of the ‘80s.

Joaquim Dos Santos: I mean, it was huge, like on the playground for me with all my friends. Everybody could choose a different pilot and everybody could play along. 

Brandon Jenkins: That’s Joaquim Dos Santos, one of the showrunners of Netflix’s reboot, Voltron: Legendary Defender. He was a big fan of the original series back in the day. Lauren Montgomery, the show’s other showrunner, also has childhood memories of the original series—but not all of them were fond ones.

Lauren Montgomery: One episode that traumatized me, which was this episode where Hagar's cat comes with a knife and just stabs the princess. And then, as a kid, I was like, “Oh my God.”

[Music Begins] 

Brandon Jenkins: For those who missed the original series, the show follows five pilots -- Keith, Hunk, Lance, Pidge, and Sven. They command robot lions, which when combined, form a mega robot, called Voltron. Their mission is to protect the Planet Arus and its ruler Princess Allura from the evil Warlord King Zarkon and a witch called Hagar. The series only lasted a little over a year, from September 1984 until November 1985, but its impact on the children who watched has lived on.

 

Brandon Jenkins: And the franchise has kept going, not only in the minds of these ‘80s kids, but through three follow-up series, a bunch of comic books, and a whole lot of toys.

In 2016, Joaquim and Lauren’s reboot of the franchise, Voltron: Legendary Defender, premiered on Netflix, and blasted through eight seasons before coming to an end in 2018. 

The showrunners paid homage to the source material, while putting a new spin on it for a modern, more inclusive audience, by using a blend of CGI and anime-influenced traditional animation that Lauren and Joaquim perfected on their previous shows Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. In the premiere episode, Shiro, the new leader of the five Voltron space pilots, gives one of those pilots, Pidge, some advice.

[CLIP] 

Shiro: If you get too worried about what could go wrong, you might miss a chance to do something great.

Brandon Jenkins: That line could have also worked as a mantra for Joaquim and Lauren as they faced the pressures of adapting such a classic. Sure, things could have gone wrong, but, as they found out while working on the show for eight seasons, it was better to forget about all those concerns and just aim for the kind of greatness they felt while watching the original when they were kids. 

[Music Changes]

Brandon Jenkins: I’m your host Brandon Jenkins and this is Behind the Scenes: Animation. This season, we’re focusing on animated shows, and today, we’re diving into Voltron: Legendary Defender.

Brandon Jenkins: Before this new Voltron project came into their lives, Lauren and Joaquim learned the ropes of animation and honed their craft on other shows that might ring a bell for people who were young in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’ll let Lauren and Joaquim tell you the rest.

Joaquim Dos Santos: My first entry job was at Sony TV animation at the time. I worked on Men in Black. Do you remember the Men in Black animated series?

Brandon Jenkins: Yes, dude. Yes. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Worked on that for a little bit. There was a Starship Troopers CG series that like time has forgotten and a lot of people think it's probably better that way. And Lauren, I think I want to say, did you start on Masters of the Universe? 

Lauren Montgomery: Yeah. So I was drawing all these burly men and had drawn nothing but Disney princesses up until that point. And so I was like, “Oh, God, I have to draw all these muscles.” And it was kind of a running joke because all of my masters of the universe had very lady-like legs for a while until I figured out how do you draw boy hips like, “Oh yeah, boys don't really have hips.” But they just had very little luscious lady legs for a bit there. 

Brandon Jenkins: I'm totally not in control of this but if we have an option, I want to name this episode Boy Hips.

Joaquim Dos Santos: There you go. Let’s go.

Brandon Jenkins: What I thought was interesting is that a lot of your properties, they are very American properties, you know, minus if you like our Legends of Korra, just in the animation style. So I'm curious, what was your relationship with anime like before you all took on this project? 

Lauren Montgomery: I think we were both pretty big fans of it for like a decent chunk of our lives. Even when I was young, and I didn't realize I was watching it, I was still watching Voltron, the original Voltron as a kid. And I had no idea that that wasn't an American cartoon. I was just like, this is for me, you know? And then you grow up and you get a little savvier and you realize, “Oh, hey, this was something that was not made in America, but then was kind of recut and dubbed.” And I realized that for a lot of cartoons that I grew up with, and then other cartoons where they were still American cartoons like Ducktails. But, the animation was done by a Japanese studio. And you'd start to kind of get savvy to like, “Oh, all the good animation comes from Japan.” But like, true anime didn't start really becoming easily available, I think, until I was considerably older. I want to say I started being able to watch things like on Toonami with Cartoon Network. Before that, you had to catch some sort of weird three a.m., two a.m. broadcast on the Sci Fi channel or something. And that was your exposure. And there was a storytelling that was a little more sophisticated, like a lot of the cartoons when I was a kid, I call it the ultimate reset, where every episode just starts with the same characters and you know that that problem's going to get solved at the end and there's not gonna be any lasting consequences because all those characters are gonna be in the next episode. So no one's gonna die and die for real. But anime wasn't that at all. They would have like one story going all the way through. And so when I saw Robotech for the first time...

Joaquim Dos Santos: Transformative.

Lauren Montgomery: My mind was blown as like, oh, my God, the story's still going? How do we not just, reset? The only way I could describe it at the time was it was an animated soap opera to me because, like, the soap opera stories keep going. And so does this. It became something that I didn't find until my teens. But once I found it, I was locked in. And so through the entirety of our career, I'd say we were huge fans of anime. We’d look to it a lot for inspiration, even to the point where sometimes on Justice League I would do shots and Bruce Tim would say, “That’s too anime.” He would slap our hands like you can't do that. We can't be that anime. We can go a little bit, but we can't go that far. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Being a couple years older, I got into this situation with my friends, we would go to the Shrine Auditorium for these comic book conventions. And you'd get basically bootleg copy tapes of Dragonball Z or Gun Buster, M.D. Geist or Mega Zohn. Those were videos you would get. It was like being at a casino. You didn't know what it was. You just knew it was anime. You got home, you put it in, and you were like, “This is the most amazing thing I've ever seen, or I'm totally confounded by this. It's not translated at all. I don't know what's happening, but it looks gorgeous.” It was a huge influence and when we were kids, like Lauren said, we didn't even know we were watching it. If you watch the intro to the GI Joe movie from the 80s, I mean, it's just anime effects, anime explosions all over the place with this super American property. And so, you didn't even know you were taking it in. 

Brandon Jenkins: You sort of hinted at it earlier. But I'm curious, did you have a relationship with the original Voltron series before working on this revival? 

Lauren Montgomery: Yeah, we both did for sure. I think Joaquim probably has a better memory of it from his childhood. I just have these really hazy memories, like I remember watching it, but I didn't remember a ton of it. I did love their outfits. And I remember there was a lady pilot. I was super stoked on that. But beyond I didn't remember a ton of the actual stories. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: I mean, it was huge, like on the playground for me with all my friends. Everybody could choose a different pilot and everybody could play along. 

It was a big group, sort of play thing. The toys were bananas, they were cast iron. Insane. Like they felt like, you know, if you threw them at a kid, it could cause bodily harm. They were great. But, I think Voltron sort of on the whole, it's something we talked about, I think early on when we were talking about the series, when it was like in development, is that you have a memory of the robot. You have a memory of the robot fighting the robeast. You have a memory of the different pilots. But beyond that, it sort of falls into this fog of “I don't really know what the story was.” But I know it was awesome. That's what you held on to. But I think it's those. It was those things. It was the pure nostalgia that like fun that you remember sitting in front of the TV that a lot of people locked into. 

Brandon Jenkins: How did you end up deciding that, you know, you're going to reboot the series that you wanted to do it? Was it already in the works and someone approached you, too? Or was this like a passion project that you all had spoken about after years of working together? 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Yeah. I mean, we were still wrapping up Korra when they started talking about doing the show, that Voltron was even on the table. And then I’d had a preliminary discussion. And, you know, Voltron was something that legitimately, like Lauren and I would go to lunch and we would just geek out on, like memories of having watched the show or like, “Oh, wouldn't it be cool if we could do this or we could do that?” So when the opportunity presented itself, Lauren was the first person that I talked to when we both went to DreamWorks to sort of interview for it, I think they just picked up on the fact that we were genuinely excited. There wasn't like an agenda to do other, you know, something other than just have fun and make it something sort of like our child's mind's eye remembered seeing. They could feel how excited we were about the property from just a purely nostalgic point of view. 

Lauren Montgomery: Yeah. And we'd been working in American animation for a while and being huge fans of anime, we were also just huge fans of giant mecha robots. And this  Voltron was like, “Oh, this is our chance to do like a giant mecha robot.” And we know we don't live in Japan. We don't work on actual anime. This is our American chance to basically do a dope sci fi robot mech show. And like, we can make it so cool and we get to use a property that we genuinely enjoy. I remember Joaquim saying DreamWorks got Voltron. I was like, “Dude, we could make that so good.” And then, of course I immediately was just bitter like, “Oh, they'll just pick some random asshole to do it.”  Because that's generally how animation works. And I didn't for a second think that, you know, in a few months we would be those random assholes. And we were!

Brandon Jenkins: You guys are dealing with nostalgia. And like you said, it's sort of in the zeitgeist, where everyone has personal feelings surrounding this property. So I'm curious if you could talk us through the process of balancing, trying to stay true to the source material, but also, you know, modernizing it, putting your own spin on this classic. 

Lauren Montgomery: We both worked on a lot of adaptations. And I think the thing that we've learned is you can't be too beholden to the original, but you also can't just throw everything aside and be like, “I'm doing mine.” You can't betray it. You have to really walk that fine line. For us, it's always just been a gut feeling. And a lot of that, honestly, in my opinion, is you kind of have to allow a little bit of that time to kind of forget the source material, because once you do that, you kind of can clue into what it is that you remember. And then that's how you know, that's the stuff that stands out to everyone. That's the stuff that most people are going to remember themselves. And as long as you can remain true to the spirit and the essence of that thing, then you'll get the same idea across in your version. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Visually, we sort of said from the get go Voltron needs to be recognizable instantly. There were definitely meetings we had where people would suggest, like, “Oh, can the robot talk?” Or they'd show art that looked way more sort of militarized or sort of Halo-esque at times. And we were like, “That's not the appeal of the robot.” The spirit of the robot is this colorful thing. It needs to pass the quote unquote squint test for people who remember the original. And then beyond that, you have the latitude to go where, where you want to go. 

Brandon Jenkins: I'm also wondering, are there any other specifics whether it's like storylines or elements that either you remembered or that you sort of mined in the source material that you were saying, “OK. We really like this, we want to keep it, or we want to try to find a way to bring this back.” 

Lauren Montgomery: One thing that I remember very specifically from the original was that weird, creepy fascination Lotor had with Allura. 

[CLIP] 

Lotor: Soon the princess will be my slave. She shall dance for my pleasure and serve me when I call. Her kingdom will be my slave dungeon. Ha ha ha!

Lauren Montgomery: And we knew, like, okay, we can't do the perv out version of it, but we can pay homage to it by doing like a more respectable version that makes sense for the version of these characters that we're creating in this show. 

[CLIP]

Lotor: We accomplished something amazing today. And it would have never happened had it not been for you. 

Allura: It is a moment that I truly will never forget. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Another one was this element that you couldn't quite place your finger on. But there was kind of this Aruthurian element to Voltron, the Altean backstory that was all very Arthurian, and Allura’s father and the way that all played out, that all felt sort of like a high fantasy stuff. And that was something that I think the original show blended really, really elegantly. 

Lauren Montgomery: Yeah. You've got the sci fi element, which is like, “Oh, they're in space and there's alien invasions.” But you've got like this fantasy, like there’re swords and there's armor and there's a castle and there's a princess. And yeah, it was a lot of fun and it wasn't something we didn't want to just throw that away and just. Okay, well, now it's all just laser guns and ships. You know, we loved that aspect of it. 

[CLIP]

 Coran: Remember, Princess, 70 percent of diplomacy is appearance. Then 29 percent is manners, decorum, formalities and chit chat. It's really only one percent--

   Allura: Serious business about fighting for the freedom of the universe. 

Coran: Yes, that. 

Brandon Jenkins: Are there any new elements that you've added to Voltron that, you know, maybe a fan that didn't know the original you think they'd be really excited about that and that you're really proud that you were able to fit into this new property? 

Lauren Montgomery: One of the first things that I wanted to do, I wanted to make Pidge a girl. 

[CLIP]

Pidge: I can't man up. I'm a girl. 

Lauren Montgomery: I was so scared that we wouldn't be able to do it. Because when you work in American animation and you know that you're gonna work on a show that is meant to be for boys like six to 11, there was never a doubt– 

Joaquim Dos Santos: You're like the perfect example of like how a girl can grow up in the 80s and be influenced by cartoons that were that I wear I swear to you, and this is not to be like offensive to the era-- like we've evolved since then-- but like these shows were specifically either made for little boys or little girls. And they were marketed that way. 

Brandon Jenkins: Yeah, totally. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: And so, you know, Lauren has this, amazing story of saying, “Hey, I would have totally been into Thundercats had I been taken into the toy aisle that had CHITARRA and I'd seen that stuff. But literally there was a separation of the genders. 

Lauren Montgomery: I literally had no idea that Thundercat toys existed because all I knew was the pink aisle. I didn't get to wander around Toys R US alone. I went with my parents and they took me to the girl aisle. And then I picked out a toy from the girl aisle. And then I would get She-ra action figures and then I would go to my cousin's house and he would have Heman. And I was like, “Where are you getting these? They're not at the store I go to.” I just didn't understand. And it was just one of those things where if you don't cut kids off from it, if you put a show in a place and let any kid look at it, you'll get crossover. Yeah, you'll get girls that like it, too. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: It's thankfully becoming a thing of the past now. But I think definitely when we were starting and even when we were first sort of pitching out Voltron, there's sort of this like, hey, this is a boys toys action adventure show. And that was sort of like the box that it was being put in.

Lauren Montgomery: All of our meetings when we would talk about, like marketing strategy would always be like for the boys and their dads. And then I would be like, “And girls might watch too.” But they'd be like, “Okay, yeah, that's great, Lauren.” But, knowing that I grew up with the stuff and knowing that I may be rare, but I'm not the only girl in the world that likes this stuff I wanted to try to get a little more female rep in the show. And so DreamWorks ended up being really cool and on board. They're like, “Yeah, we'll make Pidge a girl, toy companies a little bit less so. But DreamWorks, onboard. And I swear to you, I thought I had achieved the impossible. I was like, “Oh, my God.” I have two girls in a boy show. Like, I am the effing savior of the world. And it's like, well, we have seven main characters and two are girls, it's not exactly equality. But it’s still like I had achieved something that was very, very difficult to achieve. And so I was pretty stoked that we got to have Pidge be a girl and that we got to have her be a girl that represented being female, but not necessarily needing to be extremely feminine. And she gets to just be herself, but still be a girl and still be valuable. 

[CLIP]

Speaker 2: Oh, you got a cute little bayard. 

 Pidge: Oh, yeah, it is pretty cute. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: I think also, you know, when we worked on Avatar, it opened up our eyes a lot when you'd go to fan events or Comic-Con. Oftentimes it was families coming up and saying, “Hey, we all watch your show together.” And it was babies on down to the grandparents all watching together and they all found something that they could really appreciate about the show and characters that they could relate to and associate with.

[Music Begins]

Lauren Montgomery: Having worked on Avatar and on Korra, those shows are some of the shows that had some of the most well crafted female characters in them, at least for standard American animation action adventure fare. And so, I was thrilled to just be able to work with a team that wanted to continue that tradition. I hope that the representation quotient is going to be a little more welcoming to females on the screen and just the female viewer in general, because I think women as an audience have been kind of not really catered to in a lot of animation. Like I've been told many times, girls don't watch animation, girls don't like action. Girls won't buy toys like those are kind of the three things that I've had people tell me. And I am the girl that did all those things. So I'm like, “I don't know if I believe you.” And I know for a fact there are so many girls in the generations under me that are into all of this stuff. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Oh, for sure. I mean, it's changing, like, amazingly rapidly and in the best possible way. The face of Comic-Con changed, I mean, within a five-year span. I remember the first Comic-Con that I went to and I was like 17, it was just dudes. It's just opened up in such a beautiful way and hopefully it continues to. 

[Music Ends]

Brandon Jenkins: Looking back, what is this project meant to you both? 

Lauren Montgomery: It was a huge learning experience for me. Like Joaquim and I had both run things before, but smaller scale things. And this was kind of our first big, like on- our-own studio. It was a 78 episode order, which was unheard of. And at the time, we thought it was like the most awesome thing because, a) it was 78 episodes and b) it was for Netflix, which Netflix embraces serialization. And that was everything we'd ever wanted. Up until that point, American animation was not down with serialization. It was mostly television networks. And they didn't like things that you couldn't rerun in any order if you had to rerun it in serialization like those reruns for some reason did not perform very well for them. And so therefore, they couldn't get the ad revenue. But Netflix loves it. They love serialization. This was our dream come true. It was a dream that we never really thought we'd even get. We thought we were just gonna be kind of stuck in, like the mild serialization but one off show world for the rest of our careers. We eventually came to realize that 78 episodes is an enormous task. And it almost killed us. And at a certain point, we're just like, “What? What do we do with these episodes? Like, we have 78 of them.” Luckily, we had like a story that kind of kept us moving and kept the story fresh. I think if we had been doing just kind of like one-off episodes, we probably would have run out of ideas at some point. I don't know if we would do that again. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: I totally agree. It was sort of like this double edged sword. And I think the other thing that we should mention is that we naively went into it without any breaks in between the 78 episodes. I mean, we were stoked. It was like four years worth of work in animation, which you, like, never, ever get. And it takes a toll. 

Lauren Montgomery: Even something as simple as a three day weekend can mess you up a little bit because you're like, yeah, get Monday off. And then you come in on Tuesday, like, “Oh, God, I've got a I've got to make up a day's worth of work.” 

Joaquim Dos Santos: There's fifteen fires to put out. It was a huge learning experience for us, and I think just on multiple levels, even stuff that's like, you know, outside of actually creating the animation, like how you craft story, how you sort of think about keeping morale up on a crew. Stuff that people who are watching the show don't usually take into consideration when you're taking it in. It's about managing humans. You know, you're dealing with people. And that was hugely--it was a big learning experience for us. 

Lauren Montgomery: Yeah, there was a lot of like, misunderstanding, I would say, between the fans and the show as to how long it takes to make an episode. And so an episode would come out. And they would be like, “Oh, you know, they got that from like this fanfiction.”  And I’d be like, “No, no. That episode was done a year before that fanfiction ever appeared on the Internet.” But, it's a hard thing to understand how much work, how many human beings, how many hours of pencil mileage go into these things. 

Joaquim Dos Santos: And navigating things like consumer products, stuff that you just don't think about, like being in meetings, where you had to think of story stuff that was going to affect things outside of story I think was a really unique experience for us. Like, how can we get a missile pack in season, whatever, onto this guy's back? OK. 

Lauren Montgomery: Yeah, for sure. There was an entire sequence of upgrades that the lines needed. And then we're like, “OK, you got to work these upgrades in the show.” But we've also got a story we're trying to tell. And I'm like, “I'm not sure if there's like a good frickin bazooka moment in here when we're telling this gripping story.” 

[Music Begins]

Joaquim Dos Santos: But I do think that that's the balance, though, right, is that we ended up telling– making a show that had this story that almost had no business having a story, because at the end of the day, it was based on a property that was a giant robot that was hacking through Robeast every episode, and sort of fell into this like, very toy-etic sort of space. And so that that was the balance. And I think there were these weird learning experiences that we can't necessarily attribute to being better drawers or better colorers, like we just got better at these other tools, or learned about these other aspects of animation and entertainment. 

Brandon Jenkins: I think what's cool on my end is someone that's got to live through both iterations, like I do remember very much the early iteration. I remember the first feeling of jealousy was seeing a kid bring the full robot to school for Friday, show and tell-- 

Joaquim Dos Santos: Oh yeah. 

Brandon Jenkins: And having a very big problem with that. But also very much like you all we're talking about like the toy aisles, right. You know, I have an older sister. Those aisles were split up and they were pink and one was like gunmetal and blue. And to see you all do this work and had all these like common and nuanced touches to it and very much considering the non animation pieces of animation, I'm thinking about whoever that's in the toy store today and they get to maybe have that Voltron experience in the same aisle. Or get to have different characters and buy characters that look a little bit different or represent them or storylines that everyone can sit around. And like you say, Comic-Con is like that family environment. It's tight to think about, you know.

[Music Fades, Changes]

Joaquim Dos Santos: It's awesome to hear you say that. But it's something that I think we were sort of touched upon with Avatar. But, you know, as we were sort of being able to craft Voltron, it's something that was definitely on the forefront of our minds for sure. 

Lauren Montgomery: Like we knew what our directive was like. Okay, you're being hired to make this show and this show, it's gonna have a toy line. And those toys are probably going to be marketed to young boys. But in our minds at all times was, “We will give you that, but we will give you more. We will give you the show that hopefully will invite everyone to watch it. We want to go farther.” 

Brandon: That’s all for this week’s Behind the Scenes. Next week, we’ll be visiting the kingdom of Dreamland, and the series Disenchantment. We’re talking with voice actors Abbi Jacobson, Nat Faxon, and Eric Andre in a wild interview all about animation and comedy. 

Nat Faxon: Abbi, Eric, let me in!

[laughter]

Nat Faxon: I want to hang out!

Eric Andre: Beautiful.

Behind The Scenes: Animation is a Netflix and Pineapple Street Studios production. I'm your host, Brandon Jenkins. If you liked what you heard, please subscribe, rate, and review this podcast. Thanks for listening.