Good things come to those who wait, and Voltron fans must have been awfully good this year because this summer they’ll be getting a brand-new series in the form of DreamWorks Animation’s Voltron: Legendary Defender on Netflix. We have known relatively little about the reboot of the fan-favorite anime series so far, apart from the title and the identities of the showrunners, Joaquim Dos Santos and Lauren Montgomery, both of which were exclusively revealed by Nerdist. Now, we’re back with another heaping helping of exclusive information about the forthcoming Netflix series, including the release date, the cast list, and an extensive interview with the showrunners.
First things first, let’s answer the biggest question on your mind: who will be starring in the show? As audiences learned at the Friday evening Voltron: Legendary Defender panel at Wondercon, hosted by our own Jessica Chobot, the Paladins that will pilot the legendary mech have been cast and we can now exclusively reveal just whose voices will be gracing your television screens:
- Jeremy Shada (Adventure Time) as Lance
- Bex Taylor-Klaus (Arrow) as Pidge
- Josh Keaton (Green Lantern: The Animated Series) as Shiro
- Tyler Labine (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) as Hunk
- Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) as Keith
- Kimberly Brooks (Mass Effect) as Princess Allura
- Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords) as Coran
Cast members (L-R): Josh Keaton, Steven Yeun, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Jeremy Shada, Tyler Labine
Now I don’t know about you, but that cast list sent a shiver up my spine. Why has it never occurred to me before to put Rhys Darby in an animated series? The man is an international treasure, and he is sure to delight in this series too, especially with such talented colleagues joining him. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that I was given an extended look at the series and I enjoyed it greatly — especially the vocal performances and the sleek animation. But when will you be able to enjoy all of season one for yourself? A lot sooner than you think. Voltron: Legendary Defender makes its debut on Netflix on June 10, 2016, which means I’ll have time to binge all of it before San Diego Comic-Con becomes my every waking thought.
Earlier this month, I was invited to DreamWorks Animation’s campus to screen the an extended look at the series. This was, in fact, so I could sit down with executive producer Joaquim Dos Santos, co-executive producer Lauren Montgomery, and design supervisor Christine Bian and grill them about the new series. What can viewers expect? Why is now the right time for Voltron to make its triumphant return? Why should audiences get excited about giant lion mechas uniting into a mammoth robot who does righteous battle in outer space? (Okay, that last one is kind of self-explanatory.) We answer all of that and more in our wide-ranging discussion.
Rebuilding an Empire
Coming off of the critically acclaimed Nickelodeon series The Legend of Korra, Dos Santos and Montgomery found themselves looking for the next step in their career. The answer, as it turned out, would come in the form of five interlocking lion robots.
“At one point in time, we heard that DreamWorks had acquired Voltron, and so we all started spinning,” said Montgomery. “We were like, ‘We could make that film! We could make it good!”
Their version of Voltron is remarkably similar to the original premise. Here’s the official synopsis:
“Five unsuspecting teenagers, transported from Earth into the middle of a sprawling intergalactic war, become pilots for five robotic lions in the battle to protect the universe from evil. Only through the true power of teamwork can they unite to form the mighty warrior known as Voltron: Legendary Defender.”
They finally got their chance to make it good when Mark Taylor, an old colleague from Nickelodeon who had become the head of television production at DreamWorks Animation. After getting in the room with Taylor and other DreamWorks execs, they pitched their take on it and the rest was history. Well, not quite.
“It wasn’t that easy!” Montgomery added with a laugh. “I wish it was that easy.”
“We went through a few interviews,” Dos Santos told me. “We met with a few people, but luckily for us, we ended up being the people chosen to do it. So we were ecstatic, because we love the show.”
Indeed, their passion for the series is largely what landed them the coveted role as showrunners.
“Yeah, it was kind of a bucket list thing,” said Dos Santos. “There’s a few show of that generation that you wish you could go back and do, and Voltron was one of those shows.”
“We’re both just fans of the old school anime, so obviously we were fans of Voltron when it was out,” said Montgomery. “And so it was just kind of part of our childhood, part of the nostalgia that we were really into.”
But that sense of misremembering the past may well be part of Voltron‘s unique charms. The series, which first hit American airwaves in 1984, was an oddball, low-budget mishmash of different anime series licensed from Japan. Created by John Teichmann and Peter Keefe, the original incarnation of Voltron was Frankenstein-ed together from two Japanese cartoons, Beast King GoLion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV. Without any means of translating the Japanese into English, the duo tried to suss out what they could and simply make up the rest, overdubbing the audio with new dialogue and editing out some of the more violent bits that would have been seen as too much for American audiences. The result was one of the most popular children’s television shows of the 1980s, becoming the number 1 syndicated children’s show for two years running, and earning massive merchandising profits too.
Yet while the striking animation style and explosive action of Voltron helped prepare a generation of viewers for future anime megahits like Dragon Ball Z, the original series doesn’t exactly hold up. The dialogue and the audio are both atrocious, and feel far flimsier upon second glance than they did through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. So how will Dos Santos and Montgomery update the 32-year-old franchise for modern audiences? By chasing that vision of what they remember from their childhood.
“Watching it now, it’s a little bit different than the sort of the show you remember it being when you were a kid,” Dos Santos said.
“That’s kind of what’s exciting about it for us,” Montgomery enthused. “We know we can improve upon it. We love it, and we’re not going to be one of those people who just throws it to the side and doesn’t pay any sort of homage or honor to it. We love the show, and we just want to see the version that we imagined we were watching.”
“Flesh out all the characters, flesh out the world, build more of what was there originally, but keep all the fun,” Dos Santos affirmed. “There’s a level of camp that comes with the show. I mean, it’s five lions that become a giant robot. You can’t take it too seriously, but at the same time, you can set the stakes, and you can make it more than what it was originally.”
With a key understanding of the weaknesses of the source material, Dos Santos and Montgomery felt ready to execute their mission of improving on the past to make a better future. But they didn’t want to make something that felt unrecognizable to fans who still love the original. In fact, quite the opposite; they wanted to create something that felt like the Voltron people knew and loved in their youth, while giving it a more modern makeover.
“For me, everything had to pass this squint test,” said Dos Santos. Like, you had to recognize everybody in everything. Voltron had to be recognized, the colors had to stand out, and so it had to retain that level of fun.”
Not everyone saw things their way, though. As Dos Santos revealed, though they were advocating for that level of childhood fun that drew them to the series in the first place, others involved in the conceptualization process wanted to go a slightly darker route.
“I think some of the ideas that were kicked around, for lack of a better term, [was to] Gears of War or Halo it up a little bit, and put chainsaws and army stuff on everything,” said Dos Santos.
While the image of a massive, hulking robot wielding a chainsaw is undoubtedly cool, it’s also not something that immediately connotes Voltron. It was a stylistic direction that rankled Dos Santos and Montgomery, and was something they fought against vehemently.
“It was a big kind of battle on our part to keep it simple and fun and reminiscent to the old thing,” Montgomery confessed. “Because there are certain people who look at that and go, ‘That looks old,’ because they’re going to think it looks old, they’re not going to want that. We were like, ‘No, we can make it cool and fun!'”
Building a Better ‘Bot
So how did Montgomery and Dos Santos make Voltron cool and fun again? They enlisted a talented design team to help them create the best possible version of their vision. Part of the challenge in doing so was unshackling themselves from their childhood vision of Voltron, cherry-picking what worked and ditching what didn’t to make a better ‘bot.
According to design supervisor Christine Bian, one of the biggest challenges was “reimagining this iconic kind of figure from everybody’s childhood.”
“When they hear ‘Voltron,’ it’s like, that image instantly–you see the toy with the wings, and it’s this dude made out of five lions, and they’re mecha, and there’s all this stuff going on,” Bian explained. “We wanted people to be able to look at our version of Voltron and be reminded of all those great feelings they had from childhood, but again, we wanted it to be more updated and modern, and basically cooler.”
“Basically cooler,” Dos Santos repeated with chuckle. “That’s kind of it.”
“Obviously, we couldn’t just repackage the old Voltron,” Bian said matter-of-factly. “He had to look unique to our show, but we wanted to keep as much of what we loved about the original Voltron as we possibly could. Just, you know, slightly less luscious lips.”
With images of Michael Bay’s Transformers flashing before me, I couldn’t help but agree. But those lips are creepy in an Uncanny Valley sort of way. The lips to which Bian referred were the cybernetic collagen nightmares of the original animated series:
Metallic mouth nightmares aside, Dos Santos revealed that one of the biggest challenges in making the new series was that the transition from traditional animation to CG means its far more difficult to smooth over rough patches and hide mistakes.
“There’s a little bit of fudging that goes on with the Voltron model and the lions,” Dos Santos said. “They’re not one-to-one, they don’t totally work, but they have to be a lot more figured out, just for the transformation sequence alone. Whereas before it was traditional, now it’s all CG, so those elements have to look like they really do go together. If you look closely, even from scene to scene in the original series, sometimes the lions change, just based on what the need of the scene was. So the ability to do that was kind of gone.”
In making a new version of Voltron, the team looked beyond the original series for inspiration, turning to a whole plethora of other mecha anime, including Gundam.
“We looked at Gundam just for how to think of the shapes [of Voltron], because all of those Gundam model kits and stuff, they’re awesome-looking, and they’re super strong, fun shapes,” explained Montgomery. “They’re cool to look at, and they’re simple and they’re readable.”
Though it may sound ridiculous to the lay viewer, having a gigantic robot that makes some semblance of sense, both physically and aesthetically, was important to the team.
“Voltron’s legs in the original were literally like sort of square pillars,” Dos Santos mused. “If you at look anime and mecha design now, there is anatomy to all those shapes. Even when they were animated, a lot of times when they took really strong stances, they had sort of an anatomical structure there. So I think keeping that stuff in the CG model is something we brought to it.”
One of the other most scrutinized decisions was whether or not this version of Voltron would be comprised of lion robots or vehicle robots. Posing that question to fandom is like asking them to pick Batman or Superman, Captain America or Iron Man, chocolate or peanut butter — it’s damn near impossible. Ultimately, they decided to use the classic lion design, but I could not stifle my curiosity: how many design iterations did the robots go through before reaching their final form?
While Dos Santos couldn’t recall exactly how many versions of the mighty mech they went through, he did remember one particularly infamous design.
“There was one version Christine had done where the black lion looked like a zebra, and we all went to her desk, and we were staring at her,” Dos Santos said with a laugh. “And then slowly it squeaked out: ‘Doesn’t that look a little bit like a zebra?’ She was like, ‘Oh my god! It’s a zebra!'”
“They did such a good job being nice about it, that it took a full fifteen minutes for me to be like, ‘Oh my gosh. Yeah,'” Bian revealed. “A little less lion, a little more zebra than I wanted.”
“It was like a weird Madagascar cartoon,” Dos Santos said. “But it’s fun to look at them and see how they’ve evolved over the course of time. We’re hoping at some point we can put together an ‘art of’ sort of book or something like that.”
From L-R: Shiro, Keith, Lance, Pidge, Hunk
Meet the Pilots
Now that we know who will be playing the characters and a little more about the series, but what about the characters themselves? Dos Santos and Montgomery broke down exactly what we can expect from the core cast, which, according to Dos Santos, is “basically the entire lineup from the original series.”
Shiro (Josh Keaton)
The pilot of the Black Lion. The de facto leader of the group. Mentor. Has what looks like a cybernetic arm, like a more handsome Cable. In the original Voltron animated series, he was a Norwegian pilot named Sven — so where did “Shiro” come from?
“In the original GoLion [anime], he was named Shirogane Takashi, and so we were trying to make a slightly more diverse line up,” said Montgomery. “We were like, ‘Five white guys! And one of them’s Norwegian with a weird accent!’ So, you know, we went back and looked at the Sven character, and he had the kung-fu outfit on, and he just looked the most Japanese, so we were like let’s just make him that way. They were all Japanese in the original”
“In GoLion, he was very much a way harder character than Sven was,” Dos Santos continued. “He had the leadership personality, so I think bringing that element to his character–he’s slightly older than all the other guys…”
“He’s cooler,” Montgomery shot back.
“He’s cooler than all the other guys!” Dos Santos repeated with a laugh. “But he is for sure their mentor.”
Keith (Steven Yeun)
The pilot of the Red Lion. Mysterious and stand-offish, but ultimately a good friend. Not the leader, but an ace pilot nonetheless.
“Obviously in the original he was the leader guy, and we just wanted to start him in a different place,” said Montgomery. “He looks up to Shiro, but he’s definitely not the leader that Shiro is at all. And so he’s got a lot to learn, he’s still very impulsive, very rash, and he’s got a hot temper.”
“It gives him a good place to grow, too,” said Dos Santos. “He latches onto Shiro at times because Shiro’s sort of the only thing that can really calm him down and keep him in check.”
Lance (Jeremy Shada)
The pilot of the Blue Lion. Goofy, overconfident, and desperate for approval. Has the worst pick-up lines in recorded history.
“Lance, to me, feels pretty similar to the original guy,” Montgomery said.
“Yeah, he’s like the ladies man,” Dos Santos added.
“He’s kind of cool, but he’s kind of a goof,” continued Montgomery. “I like Lance because he feels the most human. He’s got those insecurities, but he tries so hard to cover them up. That’s what’s kind of fun about him. He wants to be the cool guy. He wants it so bad, but not exactly…”
“The fact that he’s just not really aware of that fact makes him super endearing,” Dos Santos explained. “He’s actually my favorite character, and going back to the casting, I had never watched an episode of Adventure Time. So for me, Jeremy just sounded cool. Then everybody was all, ‘Oh, he was on Adventure Time, he’s Finn.’ I was like, ‘Cool! Great! Awesome!’ So for me, whenever I hear a promo for Adventure Time, I’m like, ‘That guy’s got Lance’s voice.’ This is weird!”
As you’ll learn throughout the series, Lance will hit on nearly anything that moves, but the game he spits is pretty groan-worthy.
“Believe me–[his pick-up lines] get taken to a whole different level, as he meets different aliens and different races around the universe,” Dos Santos said. “But also, he does evolve. There’s aspects to his character that will start coming more into the forefront as the series goes on. You’ll see him take steps to real leadership material.”
Pidge (Bex Taylor-Klaus)
The pilot of the Green Lion. Short, thoughtful, and whipsmart. Tech-savvy. Desperate to find answers about his missing family.
“Pidge was the weirdest thing, because in GoLion, it was a little boy,” Montgomery explained. “In Voltron, I think it was supposed to be a little boy, but he had a man voice. It was weird to me. I didn’t like him in Voltron, because he creeped me out, because I didn’t know what he was. When we were going to make this, I was like how can I get behind Pidge. So we just made him much cuter and more appealing. An actually young guy, and he’s got a purpose–he’s looking for his family. There’s so much more to his story that we’ll find out in the coming episodes.”
“I think a character like Pidge, that could easily just get shoved into kind of ‘Oh, it’s the tech one,’ it’s the tech-nerdy one, has a whole story arc with their family still being out there that has a huge payoff, and allows the character to shine in a way that I think some other iterations of this cartoon would have just pigeon holed him into being kind of a nerdy guy,” Dos Santos added.
Hunk (Tyler Labine)
The pilot of the Yellow Lion. Large and in charge. Well not exactly in charge. He has a heart of gold and a stomach of whatever the opposite of iron is. Also surprisingly tech savvy.
So why is Hunk also a tech genius if Pidge is the go-to gearhead?
“They were all in the Galaxy Garrison, so they all took the classes, they all took the engineering classes,” Dos Santos explained. “Some were better at it than the others. I think there was that very grounded place that they came from. And in the original, they were just space explorers, and they were just already out in space doing their thing.”
“They were sent to find Voltron. That was their mission, finding Voltron,” Montgomery chimed in.
“That was their mission,” said Dos Santos. “I don’t know. It was a hot mess. But Hunk, yeah, kind of being–he does have the brains, but he’s maybe not necessarily as technical.
“He lacks the courage,” joked Montgomery.
“But it does pay off,” Dos Santos insisted. “The different planets that they go to, he does go and get different ingredients, he starts cooking for the crew. It’s good fun.”
“It was always kind of like Pidge and Hunk were kind of going to be two sides of the same coin,” said Montgomery. “Pidge is the creating, engineering figuring-out side, and Hunk is like the build it and make it work side. So they kind of team up in that aspect.”
Princess Allura (Kimberly Brooks)
Her Royal Highness and the last surviving member of the royal family of planet Arus. A fierce leader coping with tremendous loss. Unfortunate target of Lance’s “affections.”
According to Dos Santos, Allura “is way more than just the princess character, who’s just ‘I’m a fancy princess!’ And she was in the original series too. She absolutely took up the mantle of one of the pilots. I think she’s just got a lot more weighing on her and riding on her in this iteration. And all that stuff, all that back story stuff, will absolutely come to light, and play out, and we’ll get to know exactly what the origins were.
“She’s definitely got a bone to pick with Zarkon, [the villainous leader of the evil empire hunting down Voltron and conquering the universe],” explained Montgomery. “So we get to kind of see her personal journey. She’s holding on to a lot of anger, and you can’t really be a good leader when you’re so angry about something. So she’s got a lot of growing to do. She’s got all of her own personal arcs and stories that she’s going to go through. We just really want to make her cool.”
But, most importantly, will we see her don her iconic pink jumpsuit again and pilot a Lion Robot too?
“I mean, we all hope that that happens,” said Montgomery.
“Yeah, I think we all would,” Dos Santos agreed. “I think with the back story that we’ve created here with her, she has a super, super important job. She pilots the castle, she powers the castle, she’s able to create these wormholes and stuff. And those wormholes actually pay off in a much bigger way as the season progresses.”
Coran (Rhys Darby)
The adviser to the royal family of Arus. Easily the best character on the show. Pompous, silly, but cares deeply for the Princess and the fate of the galaxy.
“He was just like this super serious dude in the original,” Montgomery explained. “He was the strategist.”
“So the throwback that we have in his first reveal is when he comes out fighting and swinging, that happens in the original,” Dos Santos explained. “He leads them into the castle, and he turns around and tries to chop their heads off, and he’s like, ‘Just testing you to see if you guys are prepared.’ We all thought it was so wacky in the original, and we were like, ‘We’ve got to throw that in!'”
“He was very much the brain child of Tim [Hedrick] and our writers,” Montgomery elaborated. “Like from Korra, the Varrick character, we kind of look at him like he’s kind of our Varrick. He’s that could be guy who’s always good for a laugh. But he’s also got a ton of heart. He’s not just there for the yuk-yuks.”
“He plays such a huge part in Allura’s back story,” Dos Santos added. “You’ll see his evolution, you’ll see why he’s sort of the guy he is, and you’ll see him rise to the occasion and do some pretty amazing things as the series goes on as well. And he’s got a rockin’ mustache.”
You Won’t See Voltron Every Episode (But That’s Okay)
I know, I know — even though the show is named for a colossal intergalactic robot, it won’t feature prominently in every episode. That isn’t to say there won’t be plenty of sprawling space battles and robot-versus-robeast action — there will be, in spades. However, for Dos Santos and Montgomery, it was just as important to focus on the men and women outside of the massive lion mechas, as well as the ‘bot itself. After all, Voltron itself would be nothing without those who pilot it.
“There are almost equal amounts of action outside the lions as there is inside the lions, which is cool,” said Dos Santos. “I mean, it’s sort of like a three-process thing. You’ve got action with the guys in their suits, you’ve got lion action, and then you’ve got Voltron action. We pay equal justice to each one of those.”
“It was important to us to not follow exactly the formula of the first one, where it’s like lion–that didn’t work. Voltron–that didn’t work. Blazing sword!” Montgomery noted. “We wanted Voltron to be much more of a payoff when he comes out, so he might not come out every episode. There are some things they can only defeat as the lions, as like a group of five instead of one big dude. So it was important to us to really differentiate the threats. How do they solve this problem? Not everything is solved by Voltron.”
“It makes me really happy that you said that you were happy that the reveal of Voltron didn’t happen [right away],” Dos Santos told me after I told him I greatly enjoyed the delayed reveal of the titular mechanical titan. “Because it was something we had to fight for–for obvious reasons, there were people who were like, ‘We’ve got to see Voltron. The show is called Voltron.’ But making it that moment that builds up was really important.”
Just as I mentioned at the top of the piece, good things come to those who wait. In the case of Voltron: Legendary Defender, what comes to those who wait is a thoughtful, dynamic, wildly charismatic reinvigoration of a childhood classic that both evokes the past and carves out a future all its own. After seeing an extended preview of the series and spending more than an hour talking about it with Montgomery, Dos Santos, and Bian, all I can say is that June 10, 2016 cannot come fast enough.
What do you think of Voltron: Legendary Defender thus far? Will you be tuning in? Let us know in the comments below!
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Images: DreamWorks Animation/Netflix