‘Voltron: Legendary Defender’

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By now you’ve probably seen the official trailer for Voltron: Legendary Defender, DreamWorks Animation’s upcoming reboot of the cartoon series (dropping June 10 on Netflix), but just in case, here it is again:

In early May, I got to attend a blogger day at DreamWorks Animation to get a sneak peek at Voltron and talk to some of the people involved in the show.

But first, we got to watch some of the show. The season kicks off with an hour-long premiere, and then there are 10 more episodes at about 20 minutes each. (This being Netflix, the entire season will be released at once on June 10.) We got to see the premiere, and it was terrific to watch it on the big screen.

The premiere is basically the origin story—how a couple of kids wind up piloting the most powerful weapon in the universe. In case you’ve somehow never heard of Voltron, it’s about five robot lions that transform and fit together to form one giant robot, fighting off bad guys and giant “robeasts” sent by the evil Zarkon. In the first episode, a couple of cadets find themselves drawn into an adventure when they discover one of the giant robot lions, and then are tasked with tracking down the rest of them before Zarkon gets his hands on the lions. (Spoiler alert: they do find all five lions and form Voltron.)

The show uses 2D animation that’s reminiscent of the original, complete with exaggerated anime expressions. The characters’ mouths move pretty simply—they’re not off-sync from the audio, but they don’t have all of the detail, either. The lions are 3D models, but rendered in a way that helps them blend with the drawings—I could tell they were models, but they looked great. Watching that first episode made me feel the way I felt watching Voltron as a kid.

Note that I didn’t say that it’s like watching the original Voltron series—because I’ve watched some of that as an adult, and I have to say that it no longer seems quite as awesome as it did when I was younger. Having seen a lot of really well-done animation since then, I notice a lot more flaws. Sure, it’s fun for nostalgic reasons, but you notice things like all of the recycled animation, stilted dialogue, and a fairly flimsy storyline. As it turns out, the showrunners had pretty much exactly the same feeling.

Kelly Kulchak, Head of Current Programming at DreamWorks Animation Television led a brief Q&A with Joaquim Dos Santos, Executive Producer of Voltron, and Lauren Montgomery, Co-Executive Producer. Kulchak noted that Voltron is a little different from the other shows they’ve done so far at DWA Television: it’s sci-fi, and has a mostly male cast. But she was confident that, in the hands of Dos Santos and Montgomery, it would be as binge-worthy as their other shows.

Voltron showrunners
Kelly Kulchak, Lauren Montgomery, and Joaquim Dos Santos. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

Dos Santos and Montgomery are both long-time Voltron fans, and it showed. But they also lamented the fact that watching it as adults just isn’t the same as what we remembered. What they’re trying to do with this new show is to re-create that feeling of “awesome!” that they got as kids. They didn’t want to lose the fun of it—Voltron was always a weird mix of magic and sci-fi, and they didn’t want to lose that. They also didn’t want to turn it into a super-gritty, dark, serious version.

When asked who the series is for, they said it’s really for anyone. Of course, that’s the sort of answer you expect from the producers, right? But they clarified: they really did want the show to be for whole families. It’s for the long-time fans, but also kids who’ve never heard of Voltron (they exist, you know!) and their parents. I can confirm that there were several bloggers in attendance who had never seen the original series, and just about everyone I talked to really enjoyed the episode. Dos Santos said that because there are several different characters, each with their own motivations and story arcs, he hoped that each viewer would be able to find at least one character they could identify with, one that they wanted to follow throughout the series.

One of the inspirations they drew from was The Goonies: they liked the way that the story started off in what seemed like a pretty small world, but then the characters would discover one secret that led to another place, that led to more places, and the world just opens up as you go through the story. That’s a little bit of what happens in the premiere… though I won’t say much more than that.

Voltron Recording Studio
Each of us got a turn in the recording studio, dubbing over some of Shiro’s lines.

As part of the tour, we got to see the recording studio (which, we were informed later, had last been used by Anna Kendrick). They showed us how automated dialogue replacement (ADR) is done, and we all got a chance to record our own take on a couple of Shiro’s lines. Normally, for the show, the dialogue is all recorded first, and then the animation is created to match the dialogue. But sometimes things get changed—a line gets swapped out, or the audio just didn’t sound right, or whatever. In those cases, the actor is called back and records new audio, this time trying to match their words to the existing animation. We got a very brief clip, an exchange between Shiro, Hunk, and Lance; we could hear the existing audio, but before each of Shiro’s lines, we could hear a series of beeps counting down to his entrance so we knew when to start talking. It was a fun experience, even if it was only a few seconds long.

The place-settings at lunch were Voltron-themed, too— you may have seen my photo of the color-coded napkins and coloring-page placemats in my earlier post. Well, if you want your own Voltron coloring pages, here they are! The PDF includes one image for each lion, each pilot, Princess Allura, and the assembled Voltron.

Voltron voice cast
A few of the cast members: Kimberly Brooks, Rhys Darby, Tyler Labine, and Josh Keaton. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

We got to meet a few of the cast members after that: Kimberly Brooks (Princess Allura), Rhys Darby (Coran), Tyler Labine (Hunk), and Josh Keaton (Shiro).

One of the interesting things I learned about Voltron was that the cast actually recorded their lines together in the studio as much as possible—quite often in animated shows, the actors record individually, and I’ve heard of shows in which actors in the same movie never even interacted with each other. For Voltron, it was important to the showrunners for the cast to get to know each other, and so the first recording sessions were done with the entire cast. The actors were able to respond to each other and adjust the delivery of their lines. That way, when solo recording sessions were necessary later on for scheduling reasons, the actors had a sense of how the others would sound and how to react. Josh Keaton, the voice of Shiro, noted that his real voice sounds similar to Jeremy Shada, the voice of Lance. Since Shiro is an older character, the director had Keaton pitch his voice a little lower and Shada a little higher just to help the voices be more distinct.

Fun fact: Keaton said he was a fan of Voltron when he was a kid, but the only toy he had was the black lion, not the rest. Now, he gets to voice the pilot of the black lion, which is pretty awesome.

The other advantage of having the actors record together, of course, was the camaraderie. It was obvious that the actors were comfortable with each other and were excited to be working on the project together—and with a show like Voltron, all about being a team, it makes perfect sense.

I can’t wait until June 10, when everyone finally gets to see what a fun and amazing show the new Voltron cartoon is. (And when I finally get to see what happens after that first episode!) I was given early access to the premiere to watch it with my family at home, and they all really enjoyed it, too. We’re so excited for the rest!

“Form VOLTRON!”

Disclosure: I was invited to attend this blogger day as a member of the Netflix Stream Team.

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